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Experts Call For Shift In Focus At UAE Obesity Conference

Many areas of common ground between the government, medical and academic communities surfaced as they joined forces at this year’s UAE Obesity Conference, including the desire for greater collaboration between stakeholders, as well as focusing on prevention rather than management of obesity, and giving the problem of childhood obesity greater attention. 

The conference, themed ‘It’s Time to Act on Obesity’, was held as a combined effort between Mubadala Healthcare providers Healthpoint, Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) and Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, and other stakeholders including Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, Al Ain Hospital, and Mohammed Bin Rashid University, this weekend.

Speaking during the closing session of the two-day conference, Nouf Khamis Al Ali, Deputy Director of Health Education and Promotion Department at the Ministry of Health and Prevention (Mohap), stated that a key goal for her department is to reduce the rate of childhood obesity from 14.45% to 12%, and to stop the rise in adult obesity rates. 

She pointed out that environmental factors had a strong influence on obesity and that research showed that for people aged 13 to 27, significant issues affecting weight were a high intake of carbonated drinks and fast foods, spending long periods sitting, and devoting little time to exercising. She pointed out all of the measures the government has taken to address these issues, including taxation on sweetened beverages, food labelling policies, and school canteen guidelines. She also explained that MOHAP had launched the Ma'kom initiative to encourage residents to be more physically active and adopt simple healthy lifestyle habits.

The chairman of the Conference organizing committee, Healthpoint consultant bariatric surgeon and head of its Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery Centre, Dr Mohammed Al Hadad, said the conference had been very successful. 

Dr Al Hadad said: “The many health complications of obesity cannot be ignored as they impact not just individuals, but the wellbeing of society and even the economy. At this conference, we managed to get all the stakeholders together in one place, to ascertain how we can all collaborate more closely to tackle the burden of obesity on the country.

“Obesity was examined from every angle, reflecting the multidisciplinary approach that we need to curtail the obesity epidemic. We stressed that the focus should be on prevention, rather than management of obesity.” 

Healthpoint’s Bariatric & Metabolic Surgery Centre is an accredited Center of Excellence by the international Surgical Review Corporation (SRC), which awards medical facilities based on safety standards and quality of care. The centre delivers world-class services to obese patients with diabetes who need a life-changing solution.

Speakers review latest research and analyze obesity from every angle

At the conference, the causes and effects of obesity, as well as preventative strategies were thoroughly analyzed and discussed, but with the focus placed on finding solutions. 

Healthpoint clinical psychologist Mario Aoun spoke about the psychology of obesity, including problems patients often experience with obesity. He has found these issues are most commonly feelings of shame, being rejected, bullied, and being unloved. In his role as a bariatric psychologist he also has to help patients manage their expectations as surgery can only treat the physical problem, not the emotions that could be underlying the disease.

ICLDC consultant endocrinologist and diabetologist Dr Sara Suliman spoke about the relationship between obesity and type 2 diabetes. She pointed out that not all fat is equal and that distribution of body fat makes a big difference to a person’s risk and that individuals with increased central (visceral) fat are at a substantially higher risk for diabetes. Dr Suliman discussed research showing adipose tissue dysfunction results in insulin resistance and diabetes, and that dietary fats, especially trans fats, can increase the risk, while polyunsaturated fats are protective.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi physician Dr Mourad Kirollos spoke about recent evidence behind healthy weight management and its relation to gut health. He explained the many strategies that have been found to help balance gut bacteria. These include intermittent fasting, exercise, increasing intake of vegetables and fiber, which are prebiotics that foster multiplication of good bacteria, as well as eating fermented food, yeast, and good fats.

ICLDC consultant endocrinologist and diabetologist Dr Mohgah El Sheikh spoke about the underlying physiological causes of diabetes. She told the audience: “Over the past decade, our understanding of the physiological systems that regulate food intake and body weight has increased immensely. These systems are designed to maintain a stable body weight despite huge variations in day-to-day energy intake and expenditure. Although finely balanced, it is possible that these systems may primarily act to protect us against starvation.” 

She pointed to research that suggests there is a more robust physiological response to weight loss than weight gain, thus predisposing us to obesity. This, together with the influence of genetic and environmental factors, could explain why obesity is so prevalent. She pointed to the need for further understanding of appetite and body weight control to provide therapies through which the obesity epidemic could potentially be controlled. 

At the conference, Dr El Sheikh also gave a review of medication as a treatment for obesity, but pointed out that medication should not be used in isolation, but should rather be an adjunct to lifestyle modifications. She reported that there are newer medications that show promising results in reducing both weight and metabolic comorbidities in selected patients, but added that medications work differently in different patients, and a ‘trial and error’ approach is needed, but added that there is broad variability in the weight loss response to all therapies for obesity.