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In Cairo, a war against weight is underway

Egyptian women are among the most overweight in the world, but some in the capital are fighting back with diet, exercise and drugs.

October 31, 2011|By Clare Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Fast food and lack of exercise are key factors in Egypt's obesity problem. Low-income nations such as Egypt face a double burden as hunger and obesity coexist within the same communities and even families.
Fast food and lack of exercise are key factors in Egypt's obesity problem.… (Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Cairo — After the revolution swept through Egypt last winter, Sherine Ezzat was ready for a change of her own. The 33-year-old equities trader, who had wrestled with her weight since childhood, enrolled at a center that offered a custom diet and high-tech weight-reduction machines.

While hooked up to a knot of electrodes, she explained that business travel and her 6-year-old son give her little time for exercise. But her new regimen has peeled away 22 pounds and put her back into her designer jeans.

When it comes to excess weight, Ezzat has plenty of company on the streets of this city of 20 million. One doesn't need to hear the staggering 2010 World Health Organization statistics — nearly 76% of women in Egypt are overweight and 48% obese — to know that the country has a big problem.

Egyptian women are among the most overweight in the world, alongside their wealthy Arab neighbors, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which boast rich food and pampered lifestyles. But in Egypt, as many as 40% of the people live on less than $2 a day. Low-income nations now face a double burden as hunger and obesity coexist within the same communities and even families.

"Fried foods and sweets are very cheap and available to everyone, not just the ones who can afford McDonald's," said Gulsen Saleh of the National Nutrition Institute in Egypt.

Obesity leads to serious and costly diseases: Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and many cancers. Six Arab countries make the top 10 list in diabetes prevalence in the world: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Almost every country is affected by the weight-gain trend. In acknowledgment, the United Nations General Assembly convened its first meeting in New York in September to address the global rise in obesity, as well as other noncommunicable diseases.

Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, warned at the gathering: "Processed foods, very high in salt, trans fats and sugar, have become the new staple food in nearly every corner of the world. They are readily available and heavily marketed. For a growing number of people, they are the cheapest way to fill a hungry stomach."

A strip of fast-food outlets in one Cairo suburb is not encouraging: Auntie Anne's Pretzels, Crumbs cupcakes, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and as many European and Egyptian equivalents line a short, dusty road. In a nod to the Middle East, the Auntie Anne's menu offers a Kofta Pretzel Combo, a spicy mini-meatloaf sheathed in a soft pretzel, paired with soda and fried potato wedges.

The flip side of the junk food problem, Saleh said, is lack of exercise.

"Women, because they work both inside and outside the home, have no time for exercise," she said. "There is no place to exercise because gym membership is for the elite."

Anyone who has been to Cairo knows that the streets offer a miasma of cars, donkeys and rutted sidewalks, hardly a venue for jogging or even healthful walking.

But in pockets of Cairo, a war against weight is emerging.

Fifty yards from Auntie Anne's is Curves, a global workout franchise for women. A stone's throw from the Crumbs cupcake emporium, a pharmacy sells weight-loss drugs. Laila Mishriki has operated her eponymous pharmacy for more than three decades. She says the drug Orlistat is popular now that many of the amphetamines have been removed from the market, but she thinks the problem of obesity in Egypt may have a simpler answer: "Egyptian women need the will — they love sugar."

Sugar is one of the staples, along with bread, rice, oil, beans and tea, that the government offers at low cost to three-fourths of the population, as indicated in the 2005 United Nations Common Country Assessment. Just as developed countries confront rampant obesity and look for solutions through soda taxes and healthy-food subsidies, Egypt will also need to address its programs, say experts.

"Widespread obesity in a population is not a marker of failure of individual willpower, but of failure in policies at the highest level," Chan said in her United Nations address. "The world certainly needs to feed its population of nearly 7 billion people. But it does not need to feed them junk food."

Fleishman is a special correspondent.

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