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Khalid Al Ameri: How the junk food industry is taking over the Middle East
April 12, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

What’s not to love about a burger? A meat patty grilled to perfection, placed on a soft sesame seed bun, garnished with fresh, crunchy vegetables, and topped off with a spread of ‘special’ sauce. You can add in a side of fries and a drink (go large of course), and the fairytale meal is complete.

Growing up in the UAE we thought we were spoilt for choice with Burger King, McDonalds, and the local refreshment store that made the classic grilled 5-dirham burger where the meat tasted like chicken, and the chicken tasted like fish. We felt like kings. Fast forward 15 years and it seems like a new burger joint from somewhere in the West is opening up its doors to Khaleeji burger fanatics every week.  Each new outlet has something new to bring to the game, claiming to be the “original”, the “classic”, or the “authentic” experience.  We are spoilt for choice, and from a business perspective it makes sense for these fast food companies, grill or fry some meat, put it in a bun, and we’ll eat it up.

Has it ever occurred to you why so many fast food joints are so set on opening up and growing in the Middle East? I feel it is something important to think about how we as citizens of the Middle East are a big reason for that growth.

Here are three quick observations, from living in the United States, I have had for the junk food invasion of the Middle East.

1. Healthy food outlets like salad bars and organic outlets are starting to grow in the West, so fast food outlets needed to explore new markets to increase profits.

2. Awareness around fast food in the West, as well as the ingredients and transparency regarding calorie intake is increasing. This is forcing parents to second guess where they want to take their kids for a treat.

3. From a cultural perspective fast food is becoming much less mainstream than it used to be.

After visiting several burger joints in the UAE I could never seem to find information on the calorie intake of their burgers and meals, although it is available on some of their websites if you are interested. However I don’t think we have set a culture in the Middle East for inquiring much about the nutritional content of our food.

At one outlet of a famous burger joint I asked, “How many calories are you in your regular burger?”  After looking at me puzzled, they laughed and responded, “Sir, you are the first to ask us that question”. Another simply said, “The chicken burger has less calories than the beef burger,” I am not sure about the accuracy of that statement, but I felt enlightened nonetheless.

Not many will deny how good ‘premium’ fast food tastes. However we are eating it, and feeding it to our kids with no knowledge about the produce or its impact on our health. Furthermore from the responses of many workers in those restaurants nobody seems to care. We are what I like to think the perfect customer for these restaurants, don’t ask, just pay.

This is not an article to bash burger joints or other junk food restaurants, although some restaurants could use it. I am discussing this as an issue to help us realise that we are playing the biggest part in their growth. Think about it, of the ten most obese countries in the world the top 5 are in the Middle East and North Africa region (5. UAE, 4. Jordan, 3 Egypt, 2. Saudi Arabia, 1. Kuwait) where over 1 in 3 people are obese.

Back in 2010 when Burger King launched their 2,500-calorie pizza burger they had to actually train staff to inform customers that the burger was to be shared out of fear that a customer would eat it alone. Fast food restaurants are aware of our eating habits, otherwise they wouldn’t be growing, but ultimately we are responsible for our nutrition and health, not them.

One thing I have realised from living abroad is that the culture and lifestyles that surround you have a strong impact on how you live your life. Unfortunately we don’t have a culture of living or eating healthy. Think about it, how many times have you seen someone in the region post a salad on Instagram?

What I mean by a healthy culture is when you wake up in the morning and see people jogging outside that gives you the urge to lace up your sports shoes and run. When everyone around you is eating a salad it doesn’t feel right munching on a slice of pizza. When you see most of your colleagues walking into the office with their gym bags it adds a little bit of pressure to bring yours. Every little bit makes a difference.

Therefore it is on us, the citizens and residents of the UAE, to build a culture of healthy living from the ground up. Our governments have invested heavily in programmes and healthcare institutions to battle the growing health problems related to nutrition. However none of those investments make a difference if we don’t do our part, it merely delays the inevitable.

The good news is that the diseases that come with living unhealthy lifestyles are completely avoidable; the bad news is that once we have been diagnosed with those diseases, for example diabetes (Type 1) there is no cure, you have it for life and must undergo various treatments.

The choice is on us, to eat healthy, live active, spread awareness, and support others trying to live healthier. As the saying goes, “We only get one chance at life, but if we live it the right way one chance is enough.”

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The author is a columnist on education and youth development.

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