Nutrition clinics help tackle obesity in Bahrain

September 2014

WHO/A. Alawadhi

Nawaf al-Thawadi has always struggled to lose weight. He tried diets, anti-obesity drugs and supplements, but when he is sad or stressed, he always ended up turning to food for comfort.

When he was diagnosed with high cholesterol, Nawaf’s doctor offered him an appointment at a newly opened, free nutrition clinic in his local health centre. After 10 months of regularly attending the clinic, Nawaf had lost 27kg.

Bahrain Ministry of Health urges citizen to change lifestyle

Nutrition clinics have become central to tackling obesity in Bahrain. In 2007, the country had one of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region (after Kuwait and Saudi Arabia), with 33% of adults aged over 20 classified as overweight, of whom 36% are obese. This was significantly higher than the global average for obesity, which in 2008 stood at 12%.

People are overweight when their body mass index (BMI) (kg/m2) is more than 25 and obese when it exceeds 30. Obese people are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, as well as various types of cancer.

Some 28% of adults in Bahrain registered high blood pressure in 2008, slightly above the global average of 27%. The prevalence of overweight and high blood pressure among Bahrainis was evidently driving growth in cardiovascular disease, which accounted for 4 in every 10 deaths in the country.

“The programme in Bahrain is an example of how to successfully promote healthy lifestyle behaviours.”

Dr Ayoub Al Jawaldeh, WHO’s Regional Advisor on Nutrition in the Eastern Mediterranean Region

These statistics prompted the Ministry of Health to take action. In 2008, a national task force was established, made up of specialists from the Ministry’s Nutrition and Primary & Secondary Health Care departments. They produced a series of national Obesity Clinical Guidelines—based on WHO guidelines for classifying BMI and other technical advice—emphasising that if people are to lose weight and sustain that weight loss, they must change their lifestyles.

Since 2008, a growing number of nutrition clinics have been helping to motivate people to make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of becoming overweight or obese. Following the nutritional advice he was given, Nawaf started eating regular meals rather than snacking. He cut out all junk food and exercised 3 times a week. Although he found it tough at first, training in a group spurred him on, he says.

The clinics have delivered impressive results. Nearly 3 quarters of patients involved in the 5-year programme have lost weight. Locating the clinics in local health centres made them easily accessible.

Participants have also praised the programme for being practical and realistic. “I still eat chocolate, carbs and all the stuff I love,” says Nawaf. “I just have it in moderation and put in that bit of extra effort at the gym afterwards.”

Dr Nadia Gharib, Chief of Nutrition at the national Ministry of Health, attributes participants’ successful weight loss to a combination of their own commitment and support from the clinics’ one-to-one consultations, focus groups and awareness presentations.

Preventing obesity among children and adolescents

There are currently 5 nutrition clinics covering Bahrain’s largest cities, with plans to establish them in all 5 governorates within the next 5 years. The next step is to extend the programme so that by 2016 it also reaches school children.

A mobile clinic is currently touring schools to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits from a younger age, but in view of the high rates of child overweight and obesity in Bahrain, affecting 30% of boys and 33% of girls aged 6-12 in 2012, for instance, the Bahrain Ministry of Health wants to make sure children and adolescents who need to lose weight can join the programme too.

“The programme in Bahrain is an example of how to successfully promote healthy lifestyle behaviours such as sticking to a healthy diet, increasing exercise, and limiting screen time and other sedentary behaviours,” says Dr Ayoub Al Jawaldeh, WHO’s Regional Advisor on Nutrition in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. For him, it is crucial to make sure the benefits are extended throughout the population. “By starting young, the influences then extend to other age groups. With the right interventions and activities, nutrition clinics can play an important role in preventing and treating obesity among children and adolescents, and they stand to benefit from these healthy behaviours throughout their lives.”

Nawaf’s weight loss has improved not just his health, but his self-esteem. “As my figure changed, so did my perception of my body and how I treated it.” He is much happier and more active, he says. “People are always asking me for advice and I feel great about it.”