Swapping kabsa for kale: Saudis are embracing healthy eating


Long partial to heavy lunch plates of meat and rice, Asim al-Shammari has recently switched to lighter fare from a self-described diet restaurant influenced by Saudi Arabia’s anti-obesity push.

About one in five Saudi adults is obese, according to an in-depth study published by the World Bank last year that described the problem as “alarming.”

The Global Obesity Observatory ranks the kingdom at number 17 in its international obesity prevalence ranking, three slots below the United States and close to Qatar and Kuwait.

But the Vision 2030 reform agenda led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman includes goals to reduce both obesity and diabetes by the end of the decade.

The effort is aided by a slew of new restaurants offering healthier alternatives to some traditional Saudi dishes, including the place where al-Shammari, a financial analyst, ate a plate of chicken, rice and carrots one recent afternoon.

“I used to eat burgers, shawarma or kabsa while working,” said the 28-year-old, referring to a rice dish usually served on large shared plates.

“This increased obesity, especially with eight hours of office work and lack of exercise.”

Lifestyle changes

For decades, Saudis have spent much of their free time in restaurants and shopping malls, and eating has been a major source of entertainment in the kingdom, where high temperatures limit outdoor activities for much of the year.

In 2019, the Department of Health began requiring restaurants to include calorie information on menus to encourage healthy eating.

Fast food options – from international favorites like McDonald’s to local chains like Al Baik – remain ubiquitous in the kingdom’s main cities, but face more varied competition.

Saad al-Hader, a 25-year-old doctor, said he used to bring meals from home so he could eat something else besides junk food, but the proliferation of new health-conscious eateries has made his life easier.

“The popularity of these restaurants and the fact that they are close to workplaces makes it easier to stick to healthy eating,” he told AFP as he dined on salmon and grilled potatoes.

A growing number of restaurants are offering meal plans that deliver salads and other healthy meals to customers’ homes and workplaces.

One such plan provides one meal a day for a month for 450 Saudi Riyals ($120).

Basil Chehayeb, a Lebanese national who runs the Reshape restaurant in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, said he had opened two new branches in the past 18 months to meet demand.

The restaurant provides meals to about 500 subscribers every day, most of whom are Saudis.

“Saudis have changed their lifestyle and are now going to sports clubs and eating healthy food,” he said.

Aimed at youth

Efforts by restaurants and other private sector companies to promote healthy eating have been complemented by other health-focused interventions.

The Saudi Sports for All Federation now regularly hosts events such as the Riyadh Marathon, which drew thousands of runners to the streets of Riyadh this year.

Officials have also begun construction of a 135-kilometer sports boulevard in the capital with walking, cycling and equestrian trails.

As of this school year, the Saudi Ministry of Health has banned the sale of soft drinks in schools.

The message seems to be getting through, at least among young people, says public health adviser Lamia al-Brahim.

“Obesity is a serious health problem,” but “it’s very noticeable as health awareness among the young generation is on the rise,” she said.

“Social behavior changes take a long time, and these efforts start at home, then school, then government agencies.”

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