Workshop on Determinants of Obesity & Diabetes in the Middle East: Systems Thinking and Systems Change

Determinants of Obesity & Diabetes

Obesity and diabetes is one of the major focus areas of the Harvard Medical School Center for Global Health Delivery–Dubai. Diabetes is on the rise both globally and regionally: 40% of the UAE population is obese, where diabetes care is projected to increase over 300%, with low adherence to treatment (20%). As part of the Middle East Obesity & Diabetes Systems Research Study, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health organized a workshop on identifying and mapping the causal factors and proximal determinants for obesity & diabetes with a focus on the Middle East and particularly the Gulf region. The workshop provided an overview of obesity as a complex system, illustrating the system dynamics and group model building approaches, and how they can potentially help address obesity in specific contexts. Risk factors of obesity are known to be interdependent and non-linear, ranging from societal influences to individual psychology, individual activity, environment, biology, food consumption and food production.

The workshop on determinants of obesity and diabetes in the Middle East explored current challenges in addressing obesity and diabetes in the Middle East and ways that systems thinking and systems science approaches can be applied to meet these challenges. The workshop also provided a venue to identify and discuss key contextual factors and proximal determinants affecting nutrition and physical activity related behavior in the region, and map out how these drivers temporally interact with each other to create an obesogenic environment. Participants identified and discussed a list of context specific risk factors and forces that are unique to the region and may be at play to create an obesogenic environment in the Middle East, using Dubai as a case study. The workshop ended with an interactive session to discuss how to frame and organize an action-research agenda to address obesity in the Middle East. Participants agreed to eventually synthesize information from the workshop into a more formal systems map and framework of sociocultural constructs and tailored interventions.

The workshop concluded with a call for data collection of identified risk factors in the region. Participants also concluded that current or existing obesity intervention strategies that may be effective for developed countries are likely to fail in the Middle East due to unique exposures and price-insensitivity of food, opening new areas of future research. Another recommendation from the meeting was to foster future collaborations with the Harvard Dubai Center to develop new knowledge and capabilities to address the rise of chronic diseases in the region using systems modeling approaches. 

Countries Represented: United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Turkey, and the United States