Sarah Burnett-Moore

Walk like an Egyptian to tackle obesity

I have just come back from Egypt, and even a brief foray off our luxury cruise ship was enough to see that many Egyptians are living in abject poverty. In a country economically dependent on tourism, money is increasingly scarce as the Arab Spring has scared 85% of the tourists away.

In fact, living conditions were somewhat worse than those we saw in Namibia last year. An uncharacteristically charitable and political blog you may be thinking…

Well, here’s the thing, looking at these Egyptians, you wouldn’t think they were poor. Why not? Not a single one of them was fat, let alone obese. Presumably no-one has bothered to inform them that poor people can’t afford to eat decent, healthy, freshly cooked meals. Don’t get me wrong, there are fast food outlets on the streets, and I don’t mean the largely empty Golden Arches on the Cornish de Nil in Aswan. There are shawarma and kebab sellers, shops seemingly devoted to the sales of non-diet fizzy drinks, and literally dozens of different types of pastry made from filo and sugar syrup. Yet the locals remain as lithe as the depictions inside the Temple of Karnak.

Our government (in the few minutes free between taking calls from the Murdochs and saddling up Rebekah Brooks – sorry – I mean her horse) is seriously considering imposing a fat tax. Now a logical fat tax, imposed as a percentage of BMI might make some sense, but additional taxation on Asda’s pizza and Fry’s Chocolate Delight makes none at all. How would they decide precisely which products would attract this new F.A.T. – Flab Added Tax? Sausages or salami? Camembert or Comté? I wouldn’t want to be the arbiter of that.

Don’t get me wrong, in the eight days we were there I did see fat people, but they were all tourists. Of the 88 temporary residents on the Royal Viking, I would say at least 25 were clinically obese, four morbidly so. Like the dinosaur’s approach in Jurassic Park, the floor of the restaurant deck would vibrate under the stampede of the human Tyrannosauri after the dinner bell was rung.  They would return from the buffet with plates piled as high as the Great Pyramid of Cheops. After meals, including breakfast, they would bask like sunburnt albino crocodiles on the banks of the plunge pool, emerging only to sink another bottle of Sakara beer.

To be fair, these Brits weren’t poor, just greedy. Andrew Lansley please take note: no new taxes on food. As Joan Collins once said about her weight maintenance strategy: “It’s simple, eat a little less, move around a bit more, and walk like an Egyptian.”

I added the last bit – poetic license.

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6 Responses to “Walk like an Egyptian to tackle obesity”

  1. Sam says:

    Well, this Egyptian here put on a stone during her stay in Egypt recently for six months! And, you haven’t seen the buffalo range in Cairo, have you doc? Cos, as there isn’t much else to do since the ‘spring’, all middle and above classes do to busy themselves is go out and eat, eat eat, with a vengeance!

    The poor are lucky in this regard because their diet does not include all the potatoes and the fry ups, but is mainly made of delicious whole meal bread [recipe since the pharoahs], plenty of lettuce, water cress and spring onions and the like, and a bit of Felafel or similar as meat is so expensive for those now, it has become a luxury! As you know, two Felafel sandwiches are only 15 pence or so, but that’s even a bit expensive for some so they buy the ingredients seperate or cook what needs cooking themselves. Maybe we should all, Cairens included, ditch our meat, and our greed and as you suggest, do a ‘poor’ instead of fat cat Egyptian instead. including ditching junk takaways and fancy restaurant stuff piled up on a plate as if it is intended for a dog and do more cooking and eating together instead too. Despite their poverty, modest Egyptians, I believe have a good quality of life crowned by their amazing contentment at the hand they were dealt and their blind acceptance of same – those do not show on normally along the tourist trail, but there must be a lesson there too.

    Hope you had a brilliant holiday, wish I was there at the Karnak myself, and that Nile cruise, isn’t it amazing? 🙂

  2. Dr Sarah says:

    Hi Sam,

    Funnily enough I didn’t eat any meat on the boat and felt a lot better for it. Unfortunately there was almost no traditional food available, except one day when they made fresh felafel. I was really hoping for some moloheya like my grandmother used to make. Her family, although Greek, came from Asuyt, and she could trace her heritage in egypt back some 2000 odd years.

    It was fantastic and I am encouraging everyone to go and help support the economy.

  3. Sam says:

    There was loads of Greeks in Egypt when I was younger, not as many now but the culture is very similar, all the Bastermas and stuff, deelicious! …. Next time you go to Egypt visit ‘Cafe Riche’ near Tahrir Square, nothing flash, just a very relaxed Egyptian Greek feel to it, and brilliant food from both countries. And, you can buy Molokhya here, mostly frozen but sometimes fresh in the summer season too, frozen is fine though. Ask at any Middle Eastern food shop, or even Selfrideges and Harrods if you want to pay more than £1, and I’ll give you the recipe when you get it, it’s sooo easy!

  4. Dr Sarah says:

    Next time I’m in Fulham I’ll have a look out for it. Thanks!

  5. Lauren says:

    Hi Dr. Sarah,

    I came across your blog while researching the high prevalence of obesity, inactivity, and hyperglycemia in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states, and their effect on the events of the ‘Arab Spring.’ According the WHO numbers, some of the countries’ risk factors are comparable to the United States! (A quick visual here:

    Do you have any thoughts on the differences between the Egyptians you interacted with and reports of the general population? I am an American university student (studying global health and statistics), and I am always interested in new potential predictors!


  6. Dr Sarah says:

    Hi Lauren,

    The people we met were mostly street sellers and very poor, reflecting the general population, rather than the more affluent few. I’m not sure we had enough interaction to make any useful comment further. Sorry, good luck with your studies!


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