Obesity in Egypt is a growing crisis which has long been ignored. According to data published by the CIA Factbook in 2016, Egypt was among the top 20 countries with the highest adult obesity prevalence rate. Another study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 found that Egypt, in fact, had the highest adult obesity rate as it estimated that 35 percent of Egyptian adults are obese. Needless to say that the epidemic has created a large weight loss industry in the country, just by browsing through the country’s countless satellite channels you’ll find many talk shows who have invited weight loss trainers, nutritionists, and doctors who present various ways to shed off the kilos promising that their clients got a new body in a matter of weeks to months of their regiment. Moreover, there are many ads on TV which try to sell products which will either help quickly burn fat or build up muscle. While what is presented on TV might yield the results promised, there are questions regarding the health benefits of quick weight loss methods and supplements. There is also reason to believe that public ignorance regarding the difference between body image and health only helps the rapid weight loss industry grow.
BODY IMAGE VS. HEALTH
Over the past decade, Egypt has developed a gym culture which has seen many young Egyptians of various social classes become more conscious of exercise. That is not to say that older Egyptians do not join gyms, but people of different ages tend to work out for different reasons. Middle age and older Egyptians, often go to the gym to slim down to healthier body weights or maintain body sugar levels. Most young Egyptians, on the other hand, go to the gym to gain what they perceive to be ideal bodies, young men aim for muscular bodies complete with a six-pack while young women set their sights for slimmer bodies. These young people will often start working on these “perfect” bodies before the summer season so they can be ready to show off their efforts at the beach, as such the term “form’et el sahel” has become popular in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. The phrase literally means “the Sahel body form” referring to the North Coast which is one of, if not the most, popular summer destinations for Egyptians.
This popular desire for the perfect summer body has been exploited by many advertisers, for instance, one ad for “Dr. Ming’s Chinese Tea” promised that the product can help give people the kind of bodies they seek. In addition to that, the ad stated that the tea can increase focus, tackle body fat, reduce stress and boost sex drive in men. Late Egyptian professional wrestler, Mamdouh Farag, was known for appearing in weight loss TV adverts; he once advertised a special kind of tea which could burn fat. He also advertised a special helpline which can help give male callers advice on how to get muscular bodies, while female callers can ask for the best ways for slimming down.
While speaking to Majalla, Dr. Essam Abd El Samed, an Egyptian anesthesiologist living in the UK, has said that this confusion between body image and health is spread all across the Arab world, not just Egypt. He further criticized Egyptian cosmetic and nutritionist medical practitioners for doing what their patients ask for disregarding both their physical and psychological wellbeing. He stated that when someone in the UK goes to a plastic surgeon for a certain procedure, the physician will often tell the client to go for psychological screening to make sure that he or she isn’t suffering from body image issues. Dr. Essam emphasized the importance of such screenings, especially if the client is asking for invasive cosmetic procedures that can pose further health risks. According to Dr. Essam, these preliminary practices don’t exist in Egypt, as cosmetic doctors will perform these procedures for monetary gain without thinking of the potential harm on the patients’ psychology and body.
While most of the ads target adults who have the mental capacity to decide what supplements are best for them, there was one commercial for a whey protein called “lotif” showcased two different types of their product. The “lotif” inside the black container was meant for those who are performing intense exercises and bodybuilding routines, but the one in the white container was for regular aerobic exercises and could be used by both children under 13 and adults over 65. Adverts such as these are especially dangerous since uninformed parents of overweight children could buy them in the belief that it could be the magical product that will help them slim down. Dr. Essam was critical of such ads since it doesn’t make medical sense that a supplement can be effective for both young children and the elderly.
“Lotif” whey protein ad showcasing a young girl with the white version of the product, which can supposedly be used by both young children and the elderly.
EFFICACY OF ADVERTISED PRODUCTS
Most of the weight loss products advertised on Egyptian TV claim to be approved from the country’s health ministry, this supposed seal of approval makes the products seem legitimate to the public eye. When asked on the credibility of such approvals, Dr. Essam said that most sellers and ads are actually lying. Furthermore, the doctor said that a lot of these supplements are imported from abroad and are sold in the black market; one area in Cairo that the doctor says is popular for black market medicine trading is the Al Moski district.
Dr. Essam would go on to describe the process by which medicines and supplements are tested before they hit the market. Firstly, new medicines need to be lab tested to see how they affect the human’s physiology, anatomy and body enzymes…etc. The product will then move on to animal testing before being human tested.
When asked about supplements and whey proteins, which have become mainstream in both Western countries and Egypt, Dr. Essam stated that many Egyptians are not taking the supplements correctly as some up to rely on them without eating proper meals. Nevertheless, he isn’t too keen on supplement usage in the first place as he believes that humans can naturally gain the nutrition they need from food rather than food supplements. His philosophy is that one should stay away from pills unless one needs it. On the question of whether or not whey proteins are a healthier alternative to steroids, he said that he preferred that people gain proteins from food such as food, fish, lentils, and beans.
In addition to the risks these supplements pose, Dr. Essam expressed concerns regarding the way medicines (not just fitness supplements) are stored in Egypt. He claims there is a lack of supervision on medicine storage in the country and as a result, some medicines might be rendered ineffective or dangerous due to being stored in non-ideal conditions.
RAPID WEIGHT LOSS OBSESSION
According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), losing weight too quickly has negative side effects. First and foremost you are likely to regain the weight you rapidly lost, “The most effective way to lose weight and keep it off is to lose it gradually” the NHS website states. Additionally, losing weight too quickly can be just as dangerous as being obese, since you become at risk of other health problems such as malnutrition and gallstones. A safe weekly rate of weight loss, according to Britain’s health service, is one between 0.5 kilos and 1 kilos.
Dr. Essam is equally as critical of this trend of rapid weight loss since he believes that quick slimming should only be used in the cases of extreme medical conditions. For example, he described a cabbage soup diet that Mayo Clinic developed back in 1988, which could help a person lose 5 to 6 kilos a month; however, the purpose of this diet was for morbidly obese people who had to undergo a specific heart surgery that needed them to be leaner by any means necessary.
He also said that rapid weight loss diets that are marketed on talk shows by television doctors are a waste of money since slower weight loss methods are better for maintaining a desired slimmer figure. Moreover, Dr. Essam described bodies that lose weight quickly as “sponges” that will collect all the water, fat and calories it finds available and will thus eventually become obese again.
Dr. Essam ended the interview by saying that doctors who appear on TV to advertise their rapid weight loss methods aren’t “good” physicians since they don’t speak of the risks associated with their plans.
Egyptian advertisement showcasing “Dr. Ming’s Chinese Tea”, which supposedly helps users slim down.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
It is evident that there is a lack of awareness among the Egyptian public regarding healthy weight loss and as previously stated many Egyptians look for quick ways to get the bodies they want. The current Egyptian government has started prioritizing public health and this can be seen through many campaigns such as the “100 Million Healthy Lives” initiative. It is nevertheless necessary that the health ministry and other health officials campaign in favor of proper and healthy methods of weight loss. There should also be more regulation on the kinds of ads allowed on Egyptian television channels, and more importantly on the drugs and supplements that are floating around shops and the black market. All in all, if society continues to conflate health with body image, then many Egyptians will keep searching for easy and rapid ways to lose weight.