Cultural eating habits and the food industry: Are they to blame?

Today, I recieved for what must be the umpteenth time, a text message advertising a new amazing bakery in Jeddah. It truly has become a phenomenon; women start baking at home, become good at it and soon enough they have enough customers and made enough money to open a bakery.
The thing is, we don’t need yet more encouragement to eat unhealthy food. Even cafes are conspiring against us with all these fancy types of coffee mixed and topped with creams and syrups that add tons of calories. Until a few decades ago, Arabic coffee and plain tea with mint — low in calories — were the beverages of our choice.
Go to any doctor and they will tell you to change your eating habits. Eat that, not this, no fat, no carbs and no sugar. Magazines, newspapers, Twitter accounts and websites all inundate us with information about good eating habits vs. unhealthy munching, warning us about all sorts of illnesses related to our food intake. Obesity is widespread, and we are blamed for gluttony and a total disregard for our health.
We all know this, honestly we do. Then why is it so difficult for many of us to control our eating habits, mainly the type of foods we eat?
Well, it is easy to blame the over-indulgent individual and berate them for being so weak. But then most of us are confronted with delicious goodies wherever we go.
In Saudi Arabia, the whole culture makes it practically impossible not to put on weight, unless you have willpower of steal or great metabolism.
To begin with for most families, lunch is the main meal of the day, any time between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., usually consisting of some kind of vegetable and meat cooked the Saudi or Middle Eastern way, mostly with rich sauces. Rice, the most important side dish — and sometimes a main dish with meat or chicken cooked in wonderfully aromatic spices — must be on every Saudi dinning table. But, of course, not forgetting a healthy salad drenched in olive oil, a side dish of plain yogurt, and Arabic bread to soak up the sauces.
Even people who eat lunch at work; a lot of them either order unhealthy takeaways or munch on snacks all day until they go home, where they proceed to eat a big meal with their families.
Now, also consider that 90 percent of people’s entertainment here, consists of going out to restaurants. That’s nice, but how many restaurants really offer healthily cooked meals? Especially if you have kids, are on a budget and cannot afford but to go to fast-food restaurants or famous family-oriented restaurant chains. There they serve heavy meals and sugary deserts with sky–high fat and carb content, but affordable and so much loved by the kids. Of course this is not unique to Saudis, but we have become part of the global fast food culture.
That said, I wonder how many cultures serve dinner around midnight if not much later, especially when invited to someone’s house in the evenings, or when attending special occasions like we do in Saudi Arabia.
Doctors and dietitians tell us not to eat after 8 p.m., but what can you do when your host has gone to great lengths and expense to lay out a dinner table with the richest food, and they take offense if you do not tuck in.
As for wedding parties, especially those for lady guests, who arrive around 10 or 11 p.m. and fed an elaborate dinner no earlier than 2 a.m. Not to mention the various treats are setup on tables or are taken round in trays before dinner, consisting of several types of sweets, chocolates and traditional savories. Although people are slowly trying to change the custom of late-night weddings that last till dawn, still, they are very much the minority.
As I have also pointed out in a previous article, we even serve heavy meals during wakes; when many people if not all, coming to give their condolences to the bereaved, end up staying for dinner held at the deceased’s house. In fact, if you are a close relative to the deceased’s family, it is considered rude not to stay for dinner, which also usually consists of some type of rice and meat drenched in fat.
As for the printed media, if only you saw the countless glossy A3 leaflets, inserted in daily newspapers advertising fast food and deserts from fried chicken, burgers, pizza to doughnuts and rich Kunafa (Arabic dessert). All depicting mouth-watering food items that in reality don’t look half as appetizing, and of course enticing people with special offers, such as buy one get two free.
Therefore, isn’t it unfair to blame the individual for unhealthy eating habits, when the whole society’s food culture, is based on eating rich food, plenty of carbs and eating at the most unhealthy hours? So, perhaps in order for health practitioners and diet gurus to get their message across, is not to keep targeting only the individual, but to also initiate a country-wide campaign to target Saudi society’s eating habits: cooking and serving traditional fatty food and people’s, especially the young generation’s chronic indulgence in fast food.


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