Kuwait lifestyle could lead to obesity Local culture involves food at every social occasion

IT WILL be difficult not to change the way you eat, how you eat and what you eat, after having met Noura Marafi. Early in life, Noura – a Clinical Dietitian by profession, had given in to food addiction and was plagued by weight issues. But soon she regained control with the help of an organic lifestyle. Now she is a passionate crusader of healthy living and actively participates in helping the community maintain a healthy lifestyle through nutritional research and workshops. Read on and be inspired.

Q: Kuwait has one of the highest rates of obesity. What could be the reason?
A: There are many reasons for the high obesity rates in Kuwait. Some of them are:
1. The introduction of fast foods and Western restaurant chains and the rise in their numbers in Kuwait. People in Kuwait are eating out often, and that includes children. They are being exposed to fatty restaurant foods at a very young age. These restaurants use lots of fat, sugar, and sodium in their meals mainly to make the food taste good. The type of fat used in usually the harmful type – saturated and trans fats. These fats clog up the arteries and contribute to heart disease. We find saturated fats in animals and animal products, such as red meat, butter, full cream milk, and other dairy products. Trans fats are also known as hydrogenated fats, and are usually solidified vegetable oils. These are even more harmful than saturated fats and should be completely avoided. They are found in many of the pastries and ready-baked goods that we buy in the market and bakeries, margarine, biscuits, ghee, etc.
2. The culture in Kuwait involves food at every social occasion. Going out to eat is considered an activity, and many people do not exercise regularly, mostly because of bad weather conditions. However, recently there have been more opportunities to get physically active in Kuwait, since there are places like the Avenues Mall where you can go walking in an air-conditioned area. Also, it is considered offensive if you visit someone and refuse to eat at their house, so you become forced to eat when visiting others.
3. There is a serious lack of education with regards to healthy eating habits. Many people don’t even realize that they are eating unhealthy food. I have seen some mothers who feed their 9-month-old babies fast food in the blender for breakfast! They think it’s healthy because it will make the baby more chubby.
4. In general, the lifestyle in Kuwait could lead to obesity – people sleep late, and are more likely to eat and order foods at night, many people wake up late, therefore they skip breakfast and indulge during lunch time. A lot of snacking goes on during the day – potato chips, chocolate, ice cream – you name it!
5. Many of the dishes prepared at home are also cooked in an unhealthy manner – the famous dish “Makbous Dajaj” – chicken with rice, is cooked using unhealthy methods. The chicken is first boiled in water, then deep fried. The rice is cooked in the chicken water, absorbing all the saturated fat that was released from the chicken.
6. Portion sizes are very big in Kuwait, and some families eat from one big dish – together. So, many people will be eating much more than they should be!

Q: Were you always conscious of what you and your family ate? What prompted you to go for a complete change in lifestyle?
A: I wasn’t a very conscious eater when I was young. During my college days I ate fast food almost on a daily basis, but the difference was that I used to be very active so I never felt the impact. When I came back to Kuwait, the lack of physical activity began to take its toll on me. When I had children I always wanted them to eat healthy, but I was not setting a good example, and they followed my bad habits. After having a third baby, my weight issue went out of control. I turned into a compulsive eater. I was addicted to fast foods and sweet foods. I gained 30 kilos, and I was stuck. I didn’t know how I reached this point, and it was very difficult to get out because I had to deal with my food addiction. It was when I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, in June 2009, it hit me that I needed to make a change. I was hurting myself and was leading my kids in the same direction just by being their mother!
During this period, I met a very sweet girl named Jumana Al-Awadhi, who is a health crusader and believes in organic living. I decided to try organic foods and see if they would affect my health. I started very slowly and gradually, and I realized that these foods are infact so much tastier than their non-organic counterparts. I began to eat fresh foods instead of canned, or pre-prepared foods that are very high in sodium and harmful for the kidneys. I began to eat boiled, baked, grilled and roasted foods instead of fast food and fried food.  I ate fresh fruits, vegetables, grains like quinoa, instead of chocolate, chips, and ice cream. I made an effort to by physically active at least 3 times a week. In 8 months’ time, I had lost all that weight, and I was myself again. In this whole process, my children and husband were observing me. I never forced upon them a change in their lifestyle. I was busy focusing on changing myself, because I can’t change others if I can’t be the example! My family actually began to make their own changes themselves. My children started talking about organic foods, they wanted to try them, and my husband, who loves gardening, took an interest in organic gardening. It started when I couldn’t find many organic fruits and vegetables here in Kuwait that I wanted to try. He decided to order the seeds online and grow them himself! Last year we enjoyed many organic fruits and veggies from our garden. The children learnt so much from the gardening process, and they enjoy helping me cook and prepare the foods that they helped grow themselves.

Q: In your articles you have mentioned you are an ‘emotional eater’! Are most of us emotional eaters and if so what are the dangers?
A: Yes, I do believe many of us are emotional eaters. Some people binge eat when they are depressed, some when they are happy. And some eat when feeding any emotion whatsoever! Emotional eating becomes very dangerous when it gets out of control, like it did with me. Eventually food becomes an addiction, just like smoking, and you feel the urge to eat even when you’re not hungry – you just have to have something in your mouth at all times! To get rid of a food addiction requires lots of discrimination and will power. Of course, this may lead to obesity, and some people even end up in morbid obesity which can cause serious health risks – such as the development of diabetes and heart disease.

Q: What is your advice to people who are struggling with weight tissue?
A: 1. Don’t seek quick fixes. It is true they will make you lose weight fast, but eventually you will get bored and go back to your old habits and gain even more weight back.
2. Set realistic goals for yourself, and take it step by step. It took a few years for your body to build up that weight, don’t expect it to come off fast!
3. Don’t deprive yourself. Gradually “let go” of the foods that are harming you.
4. Only YOU can make yourself lose weight. Without your determination and strong will power, no program will work.
5. Seek a healthy lifestyle, not a “diet.” I never liked the word “diet” – it’s so temporary! “Change in lifestyle” is a much better description. Remember you are making this change for life, so make sure you are comfortable with it!
6. Seek professional help. Talk to someone. Keep a food diary, it always helps! You will find things that you are eating that you didn’t even know about!

Q: How wrong is it to opt for quick fixes while losing weight?
A: It’s very wrong! Quick fixes are temporary, unrealistic, and will make you bored very easily. You need to find something that you can stick to for the rest of your life. Also quick fixes usually lack in certain nutrients, which can affect your health.

Q: How important is it to include exercise in your daily regimen?
A: Exercise is very important, and without it you will not lose much weight. It is the only way your body can burn fat, it helps increase metabolism, improves blood flow to the heart and body and is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

Q: Would it be wrong to say that weight and self-confidence is closely related?
A: No, it’s wrong. Being overweight or obese can cause low self-esteem, and you can also gain weight by having low self-esteem – some people eat their way out of worries and troubles. Of course, maintaining a healthy lifestyle will improve your body image which will give higher self-esteem.

Q: How wrong is it to associate food with reward or love?
A: Food should never be associate with reward, and that’s a classic mistake some teachers do at school. If a child does well in school, they give candy. Parents do it at home as well. This associates a positive feeling with a harmful food. Rewarding should be with stickers, or a trip to the park, or something useful. Also, forcing a child to eat something they don’t want to eat can cause a negative attitude towards the food, and make the child dislike and this may impact the child for the rest of their life. They may never touch that food again. So, with regards to kids, it’s important to expose them to healthy foods on a regular basis, even if they don’t try it, exposure will increase the likelihood of them trying that food eventually.

Q: During your conversation you mentioned the ill effects of using the wrong cooking oil or trans fat. Can you tell us more about it?
A: Using saturated fat, from animal sources, such as butter, milk, cheese, contributes to heart disease. Trans fats are hydrogenated fats, and are even more harmful than saturated fats – they should be avoided completely. They are found in solid vegetable oils as margarine, readymade pastries and biscuits, ghee. It is best  to use vegetable oils for cooking, and of course the best oil out there is olive oil, however if should not be used for high temperature cooking because it burns fast and changes chemical composition. You can use it for stir-frying or with salads. Also, healthy fat sources are avocados, nuts and fish.

Q: What are the benefits of an organic lifestyle?
A: I really believe in the organic lifestyle. Some people may wonder what’s the difference between organic and non-organic? Well, organic products are pesticide free, produced naturally, hormone and antibiotic free. Many of use don’t think about where our food comes from. For me, after reading the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollen, my view of supermarket products has changed completely. In his book, Michael talks about visiting a potato farm where he learned that potatoes are sprayed with pesticides mechanically through a computerized system. There is only one man sitting in the computer base to monitor. The pesticide use can cause serious brain damage so there are no workers on the field and if anything goes wrong, the entire crop is just thrown away because they don’t want to risk handling the pesticide. Before the potatoes are taken to the market, they are left to dry out for a few months. Also, cows and chickens are injected with hormones and antibiotics to make them grow faster, they are kept in tiny cages or lots with hundreds of other cows and chickens. The cows sit knee-deep in their own waste and when slaughtered, they are not even cleaned! Chickens die because their bodies grow at a rate much faster than their internal organs thanks to the hormones, so their organs can’t keep up with their weight and they die suffocating to death. Is this really the food that we are eating? What happened to happy farm animals? What happened to local produce, as opposed to mass production? True the world is modernizing, but perhaps we should not forget our natural roots, we should keep in touch with nature and treat it well. After all, nature is a cycle, and you are what you eat?

Q: To what extent should the homemaker be conscious of what is going into the pot?
A: I believe it’s the homemaker’s responsibility to make sure that the family is eating healthy, whole, nutritious food. We want to raise a healthy future generation, one that is disease free. One that is happy and kind to animals and nature. That all starts in the home. When you teach your children to love healthy food, to love and respect nature and animals, you will help the future and give hope.

Q: What are the things one should be aware of while shopping for food?
A: 1. Always go for fresh foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains should be leaders in your trolley.
2. Food labels can be deceptive, not everything that says “Fats-free” or “Sugar free” means that it’s healthy. Know how to read food labels and read the ingredients list.
3. Cereals are mostly made of sugar, going for real grains is much healthier, such as rolled oats, barley, or millet.

Q: How harmful are food items such as crisps, cornflakes, chocolates easily available in the market?
A: Where you see crisps, I see unhealthy fats, where you see cornflakes and chocolates, I see lots and lots of sugar, also known as the white poison. These foods are very high in calories, and very low in nutritional value. When in doubt, always go natural!

Q: What is the correct way to read product labels?

A: The first thing you should do when reading a food label is to check the serving size. It may say that the serving size is 1 cup, but the actual container will contain 2 cups, in which case you will have to double the amounts mentioned. A demonstration is always better when teaching how to read books labels!

Q: What are the things that should not be found in refrigerator and why?
A: Juices, soda drinks, salad dressings, mayonnaise, cheese spread which are in fact not really cheese they are considered as fats, the list can go on. Basically, you need to avoid high sugar foods, fatty foods and high sodium foods, and your fridge should look more like the fruit and vegetable section of the grocery store.

Q: If you have small kids, what are the things that should be included in their lunch box and what are the things that are to be avoided?
A: 1. Go brown: get rid of that useless white bread/toast. White bread and toast are processed, and during the processing, the bran/grain, which is the most important and nutritious part, is removed!! To make a long story short, eating white bread/toast/flour is just the same as eating sugar! Calories without much nutrition and our children are at a very crucial stage where they need maximum nutrition!
2. Go lean with the protein, choose legumes: beans, such as chickpeas, peas, red kidney beans, etc are called power foods because they contain protein (important for growth) and complex carbohydrates! These high fiber foods are sure to keep your child full till they’re home for lunch? Let’s not forget their nutrient content! You can serve hummus with whole wheat bread, instead of a highly processed, high sodium content luncheon meat (mortadella, hot dog, etc).
3. Skip the sugar-packed juice, go for the fruit:unless you make the juice fresh at home, with no added sugar, it is best to serve your child the fruit itself. Ready juices that are sold in the market are really just sugar with water! Unless it says 100 percent juice, which will also have added sugar to it. Eating the fruit itself will add the benefit of fiber.
4. Take plenty of water: what’s wrong with drinking plain water? It’s the best drink you can ever have! Teach them while they’re young to love water, and to drink an average of 1.5-2 liters a day!
5. Veggies, veggies, more veggies please!! Teach you child to love veggies by putting a variety of colorful veggies in their lunchbox, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower… dare I say radish?


1. Don’t send croissant to school with your child. Many people think that croissants are a healthy option. Croissants are loaded with butter (a saturated fat), and are not a healthy choice.
2. Don’t send soda or soft drinks, like we mentioned before, these drinks are just pure sugar and water. These drinks will not help your child get the nutrients they need to concentrate in class and are known to make children hyperactive.
3. Don’t send potato chips or chocolate or sweets. These are processed, high in fat, and low in nutrient content.
4. Don’t send chicken nuggets, processed meats such as hot dogs, or fried foods.
Let your child be the example of healthy! Trust me, the others will follow.
And finally, always try to send a ‘waste free’ lunch box. This means try to reduce or completely remove anything that gets thrown in the garbage, such as plastic bags, tissue paper, juice cartons, etc. It is our responsibility to teach our children to care for OUR environment.

Q: You have a garden in which you grow organic products. But how easily available is it in the market?
A: Organic is becoming more and more available in Kuwait, which makes me very happy. Although I do feel more awareness needs to be spread about the benefits of organic food. Some people will criticize the high prices, but if you manage your budget smartly you will be able to fit them in. If there is a growing market for organic foods, prices may go down in the future. I know people who travel to Dubai for the weekend to do their organic shopping since there is a wider selection at better rates there. I hope Kuwaiti will follow!

Q: You had mentioned that you prefer vegetarian food. What are the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle?
A: The American Dietetic Association now recommends that diabetics people should follow a vegan diet. The reason is, diabetics are at a higher risk for heart disease, so avoiding animal sources of fat has shown to improve their lifestyle. Vegetarian eating can be healthy, but it’s important to also know that not all vegetarians are healthy, many of them eat high sugar foods and end up being overweight because of that. Here in Kuwait, it’s part of our culture to eat lots of animal protein. Children start eating it at a very young age, by starting with 3 or 4 eggs for breakfast a day, followed by a chicken or meat lunch and nuggets with fries for dinner. That way too much protein for a small child can cause an overload on the kidneys. Eggs should be eaten twice a week, with a focus on beans for protein source such as chickpeas, peas, lentils and the entire bean family.

Q: Could you give us the recipe of that wonderful pink hummus I had during my visit.
A: This recipe was given to me by my lovely friend Jumana Al-Awadhi, my kids love it and have it in their lunchbox often. It’s very simple:
2 cups chickpeas
2 beetroots, cooked in oven and chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup parsley or coriander
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup onions chopped
2 tablespoons tahina paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Dash of salt, pepper, and cumin
Mix it all in the blender, and voila! You can also substitute the beetroots with avocados to make green hummus.

By: Chaitali B. Roy

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