• Lebanese-Australian boxer Huss decides to undergo bariatric surgery in documentary series, 'The Obesity Myth'. (SBS)Source: SBS
Adolescent Arab-Australians are among the most likely groups in the country to be classified as overweight or obese. Ruby Hamad asks if culture and genetics are to blame or whether something else is at play.
By
Ruby Hamad

15 Sep 2017 - 2:03 PM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2017 - 3:47 PM

The topic of obesity and health is one of the most polarising. With many opinions being circulated, from the media to the medical profession, it’s clear the links between weight and health are not as clear cut as many would like to think, and the scorn poured on those society deems to be “overweight” only makes them more likely to remain that way.

But lost in this loud debate are some voices rarely heard from: those of Australia’s obese population whose culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds make their circumstances unique.

Huss, an amateur Lebanese-Australian boxer in Melbourne, is but one person living with obesity in Australia. As revealed in SBS’s new documentary series, The Obesity Myth, Huss decides to undergo bariatric surgery, a radical and irreversible operation to remove 80 percent of his stomach. 

Food from the Levantine region, encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, can be so time consuming, those who labour over it all day get their reward from watching their family and guests help themselves to plate after plate.

Huss, who agrees with his doctors that obesity is “not a lifestyle choice but a disease,” believes genetics and cultural factors play a role in his struggle with his weight: both of his parents have already undergone the same procedure.

“Food in the Lebanese culture is very important,” he explains in the program. “That time you’re eating together beats any other time. If you say ‘no’ [to someone who offers you food], you’ve offended them.”

This is certainly true from my perspective. Food from the Levantine region, encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, can be so time consuming, those who might labour over it all day get their reward from watching their family and guests help themselves to plate after plate. Forgoing a second helping can be interpreted as silent criticism.

It took some time for my non-Arab ex partner – already a big eater who never willingly left a morsel behind – to catch on that cleaning his plate was a sign to my mother to fill it yet again. It became a sort of mime; my mother would pile his plate sky-high thinking he was still hungry, and he, not wanting to be rude, would eat it all. Impressed, but by now bewildered at how such a thin man could eat so much, she would fill it again.

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Eventually, I had to take him aside to explain the only way to make her stop was to leave some food on the plate.

My mother is in her 70s and, other than having traded ghee for olive oil following a stroke almost 20 years ago, is a staunch traditionalist when it comes to cooking. So Huss showing off a “traditional Lebanese feast,” with meat as the centrepiece (“No one touches the salad. It’s just there for show”), is something I recognise from my own experience.

Combined with the social nature of feasts, and the lack of drinking and athletic culture in Arab society, this does seem a recipe for health related issues such as obesity and diabetes (something some of my own family members struggle with).

However, high rates of obesity and diabetes are relatively new in the Arab world. According to a US journal paper, from 1990 to 2011, the number of overweight to obese adults in the Middle East ranged from 25 percent to 81 percent.

Combined with the social nature of feasts, and the lack of drinking and athletic culture in Arab society, this does seem a recipe for health related issues such as obesity and diabetes. 

Historically, the traditional eastern Mediterranean diet consisted primarily of legumes, nuts, bulghar (cracked wheat), and vegetables.

Meat was a staple in my family when I was growing up - it was also something I rebelled against from a young age. But my mother, who was raised in Syria and moved to Lebanon at 18, says our family rarely ate meat more than once a week before coming to Australia.

The increasing tendency to western-style high-fat and energy diets that Huss demonstrates is a recent phenomenon. Adolescents in Australia from Arab backgrounds are four to five times more likely to be obese than their peers – even though this statistic is not replicated in older Arab-Australians.

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Post-operation, Huss looks over a table of food, clearly “ready to dig in,” only to feel full after a couple of bites. He looks on glumly as his friends help themselves to the fatty, meaty fare in a Lebanese restaurant.

“I feel frustrated being from an Arab background,” he admits, “Everyone eats lots.”

Being unable to enjoy a key aspect of your culture seems a high price to pay for losing weight. As someone who has witnessed close family members experience the same highs and lows after similar surgery, I feel more than weight is being lost  – and it is something that never really had to happen.

“I feel frustrated being from an Arab background,” he admits, “Everyone eats lots.”

However easy it is for Arabs to overeat given the cultural importance of food, the traditional Lebanese diet was one in which meat was used far more sparingly, and the tabouli and fatoush salads were not merely “for show” but star attractions.

As such it is one that is more forgiving of the odd over-indulgence, but, in a so-called advanced world, meaty food high in saturated fats is now regarded both as an “essential” component to any meal and a sign of status; my mother would be horrified at the thought of serving guests a purely vegetarian meal.

Sadly, it's this myth of meat as a traditional staple that might be marginalising some Arabs like Huss from this aspect of their own culture, and - like Huss and my own family members - driving them to the drastic action of cutting themselves off from food almost entirely.

Love the story? You can follow Ruby Hamad on Twitter

Watch The Obesity Myth on SBS on Monday 18 September at 7:30pm on SBS and streaming on SBS On Demand.

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