Bigger not Better: Obesity in Libya (part 1)

I remember a time back in the 80’s when the Mediterranean diet was hailed for being super healthy and Americans were encouraged to adopt some elements of it.  Soon after, a craze for olive oil began but what some people failed to recognize was that even if olive oil is good fat it’s still fat and must be eaten in moderation. They just missed the point that healthy eating is not only about the ingredients that go into your food, it’s also about the lifestyle that goes with it. Now two decades later it seems that a reverse trend is happening, and as developing countries in the Mediterranean basin begin to prosper, diets are becoming more affected by Western processed food culture.

North Africa and the Middle East are going through a nutrition transition.  As the global economy has slumped for the past few years, many Arab states including Libya seem to be going through an economic boom of sorts.  The large influx of expats to the region is a major marker of this trend.  Countries such as Libya, have recently opened up their markets to foreign import and investment, and are now consuming diets high in sugar and saturated fat as people perceive fast, frozen and processed foods of the West as symbols of luxury and progression.

Obesity is becoming a worldwide epidemic and of the developing regions going through this transition, North Africa is the biggest offender. The problem of obesity has escalated with rapid urbanization as more people leave manual work for office work yet continue to consume high levels of energy without expending it with physical activity.  Urbanization also means that a higher level of processed foods and fast foods are more readily available and likely to be consumed.

Libya is one of the countries most affected by over-eating. Forbes currently ranks Libya as 78 out of 194 countries in the world’s fattest countries list, with 53.2% of adults aged 15 or over being overweight or obese. This dilemma  is most likely to have risen here much sooner than in other Maghreb states as the oil-boom of the late sixties and early seventies provided an abundance of imported food not previously available under strict foreign regimes of the pre-independence era. Libyan cartoonist Zwawi depicted this trend in his satirical cartoons of that time. The reaction to years of poverty and hunger was to eat and hoard large quantities of food, and although post-embargo food security has been stable for nearly a decade, this mentality continues to persist.

A recent article about obesity in the Arab region published in the Emirati newspaper The National states that “chronic diseases associated with eating habits have become one of the leading morbidity and mortality causes in the Arab world, with obesity topping the list of diseases, as the rates of obesity among children and adults have doubled in the last two decades.” Libya has one of the highest rates of late-onset type 2 diabetes in the Arab region, and very high rates of coronary and skeletal ailments.  Every single Libyan either has, is related to or knows someone with one of these diseases.

Libyan women suffer more than men from obesity as they tend to lead more sedentary lifestyles and are not encouraged to participate in sports or exercise. Also more time spent in the kitchen means more nibbling, and any social gathering has to be furnished with an abundance of food. According to Earth Trends, the average required intake of an adult Libyan is 2,144 kilocalories per day but the USDA has found that at least 2,800 are actually consumed per day, with an available dietary energy supply of  3,327 kCal per capita daily.  This means that the average Libyan consumes up to 700+ kCals per day, translating into 1 kg of weight gain every ten days, or 36 kg per year.  The numbers are staggering when added up.

Ironically, over-eating also brings about cases of malnutrition similar to that found in hunger-stricken areas. Libyan women especially have been found to have low intake of vitamins A, B1, B2 and Calcium. We will look at the nutritional makeup of the Libyan diet in part two of this series on obesity in Libya.


23 Comments Add yours

  1. Yacine Majid says:

    I just read the title i will read the whole article later on but allow me to comment on title bases, Karsha is a disaster for all libyan males less exercise, car dependency ( they must park in front of the place)…..

    anyway will read it all later and share my thoughts..


    1. Nice to hear from you again Yacine. Can’t wait to hear your opinion!

  2. Desert Rose says:

    Well done !

    I truly enjoyed reading your post -thank you ..

    1. Thanks Desert Rose 😉

  3. Well done.. I agree with all you have said.


  4. Emma Parker says:

    You do us proud! Great article.

    1. Thanks Em, for the millionth time 😉

  5. Yacine Majid says:

    Loved it a lot, I agree with you and its all about moderation and holding the stick from the middle.

    as for what i saw on the streets and its getting trendy, ppl going to the gym and other ppl walking (as an exercise) in some parks and gardens around Tripoli area which is really showing how the society changed (its either a trend or they want to be in shape LOL)

    anyway i dont want to make this any longer than what is it now 😀

    great article waiting for part 2


    1. Yeah I’ve noticed that people are getting more active but I have a feeling that most of them are expats! Hopefully everyone else will catch on to the trend too!

  6. evilcyber says:

    Yes, every year another diet is hailed as the “one and only”. May that be Mediterranean, Caveman, Low-Carb etc., while the principle to lose weight is in reality so breathtakingly simple: eat less of whatever, lose weight.

    1. Precisely, that and moving around just a bit more! Thanks for reading the blog 🙂

  7. Sally says:

    Welcome back and thanks for a well-researched intelligent piece. Living in the UAE I witness this first hand – the change of diet from rice, vegetables, fish and occasional meat to empty carbs, fast food and a sedentary lifestyle has seen diabetes rocket and obesity soar especially in young people. It’s so sad that newly found riches are literally killing people.

    1. I know it’s horrible! And the problem with the Arab region, especially the big oil producers, is that people are much very impressionable andconsequentlywe are losing our local food heritage in the rush to “move forward”.

  8. Petra Peach says:

    This is sad news that the relentless march of fast food continues to blight the lives of people the world over. Where will it end? Can’t wait to read more.

    1. Thank you Petra, look forward to hearing more from you 🙂

  9. Haitam Alageli says:

    Libyans should develop a healthy version of their food. For the narrow minded who think that Libyan food should be kept untouched, I would say, either develop it now or lose it altogether.

    1. Precisely! Though we should keep files of the traditional methods just in case 🙂

    2. Morad says:

      I’d rather lose it

  10. H ghanim says:

    i really want to thank you for this interesting article, but i still a bit disagree with about 53 % are over weight, yes the problem started in the begining of seventies when almost libyan people changed their lifestyle, and abanded their farms, life stocks, and villeges and move to cities looking for work. also during eightees when the shortage of men lead to the encourage of women to leave their houses and go to work. but almost of libyan still eat at home and we need to do more exercise. thanks

    1. Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you found the article interesting.

  11. Ebtehal says:

    A rly good article there should be an awarness event based on this and libyan should stop thinking that foreing packed food is a sign of luxury lifestyle

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