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Saudi Balances The Scales With New Calorie Law

Sunil Thacker
Saudi Balances The Scales With New Calorie LawImage source: Shutterstock

How do you combat diabetes and obesity, particularly among schoolchildren? This question has plagued the medical community, teachers, parents and world governments for years.  Of course, there is no simple answer.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.9 billion adults and 381 million children around the world are reported to be either overweight or obese, and 422 million people around the world have diabetes.

In the US the number of people affected by obesity or diabetes has tripled since the late 1970s, while the Pacific Islands regularly top the rankings due to a general lack of education and awareness of the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.

For the Middle East, a new law recently implemented in Saudi Arabia is being hailed as an important milestone in improving the health and wellbeing of the expansive country’s population.

With approximately 3.8 million residents in the Kingdom currently living with diabetes (almost 20% of the population in 2018), the country also has one of the highest obesity rates in the world – around 11 million individuals representing 35% of the population.

Saudi Arabia’s new “calorie law” requires restaurants, cafes and eateries to display the ingredients and calorie count of all dishes available for consumption on the menu.

In the first half of 2018, it was an optional inclusion on menus in the country before coming into full effect in the final quarter of the year.  Establishments were given until the end of 2018 to apply the information to their menus or face potential fines and punishments.

The challenges in implementing the changes before the mandatory cut-off date were relatively minimal across the country, with the main issue faced by smaller entities which had to cover the costs of producing new, up to date menus and accurate calorie counts.

And the move is being seen as a major stepping stone for future programmes and legislation relating to fitness and health.

While the country imposed a “sin tax” on harmful yet legal goods, such as soft drinks and cigarettes, there has been nothing else implemented on the scale of the new calorie law.

The arrival of the calorie law is a welcome step and decisions makers will feel vindicated as other global legislators introduce similar laws for F&B establishments. Notably, a US law was passed around the same time which dictates mandatory calorie labelling.

The law is largely designed to take the country forward as a thriving economic force, with the good health of its people a vital part of any growing economy. Other GCC countries are expected to take notice and follow the example set by Saudi Arabia. 

For example, it has started the discussion in the UAE and there are certain companies, such as McDonald's in the Middle East, which have decided that calorie and ingredient labelling will become a common practice.

UAE schools are also being encouraged to inform and educate children regarding healthy diets, and Physical Education classes are to be increased to 150 minutes per week. 

The Saudi 2030 Vision will see the introduction of multiple laws and regulations to improve population health and the calorie law is one of numerous regulations to be introduced.

Further legislation that may be considered includes the introduction of subsidised organic meals into schools, universities and office canteens. Incentives could be identified to reward schools, universities, hospitals and businesses that offer and encourage healthy eating plans. 

Although there has been considerable improvement in the health of residents in recent years, there is still a long way to go for Middle East nations to raise their health standards to compete on a global level.

While there may not be many statistics to show progress, there have been substantial moves to combat obesity in many MENA countries.  People of all ages have been targeted by healthy living awareness campaigns, however, the results are yet to be proven.  Given that many of the initiatives have only been implemented in recent years, it is still too early to have any defining results.

The GCC wants to encourage residents to maintain healthy weight levels, stay active and balance their intake of food to the amount of activity they undertake on a daily basis. 

Sunil Thacker is a Partner at STA Law Firm.

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