Saturday, January 24, 2015

Obesity Rates in Qatar

My previous post about weight loss shows was a bit prophetic, there's been a recent report that suggests the Government look into a tax on junk food to help combat soaring obesity.

Many people think that the United States has the highest rate of obese and overweight people but while it has the highest rate out of the OECD countries there's still a few countries in the world that beat it, a number of Polynesian islands, then Qatar and the other GCC countries. If you Google “obesity in Qatar” you'll see all sorts of articles from the last few years, such as this one from the New York Times.

Estimates appear to vary, but upwards of 60% of Qataris are either overweight or obese. This does not surprise me at all and it is common to see overweight or obese children now. I recall that the rate of diabetes was 17% of the Qatari population, in the US I think it's roughly around 8-9%.

Bariatric surgery appears to be a popular option but I was surprised to see in the Dohanews article that over 900 such operations were done at the main hospital this year. While I don't think all of the patients were Qatari I'm sure a fair number were. I'm not sure this even touches on just how many people are opting for surgery, in 2014 I knew two Qataris who went for bariatric surgery and neither of them had it done in Qatar so it would not be in the above statistics.

So is a junk food tax the answer? Well I don't think it will do much to reduce obesity rates, Qataris have reasonable levels of wealth so increasing the price of junk food and sodas by a few riyal isn't really going to do anything to encourage people to eat less junk food. It might encourage the poorer people in Qatar to not spend money on junk but because the poorest people are low-paid laborers I’m willing to bet obesity is not a widespread problem there. To help the poor people such taxes should also be combined with subsidies on nutritious food like fresh fruit and vegetables. Laborers and other low-income workers will gladly buy nutritious food if it's cheap.

The benefits of the tax will be more on the Government revenue side. Obesity creates all sorts of health issues, and because the Government provides free health care for its citizens, obesity is likely costing the Government hundreds of millions of dollars every year in extra health care costs. A tax on junk food could at least help offset those additional costs. If the Government is also subsidizing unhealthy foods, such as sugar, it should consider reducing or eliminating the subsidy.

As for how to reduce the overall obesity rates in its citizens? I have no answer for that. I know the government has been trying with various programs and promotions to encourage people to exercise but in the end the will has to come from the people themselves to change their lifestyles and eating habits.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of Some Weight Loss Shows

As many of you know I've been trying to slowly lose weight. Nothing drastic, just eating less, eating better and exercising more. Over the last six months it has worked out well and I believe I've lost around 7 or 8 kg. Many people have noticed that I lost weight, which is always encouraging. I'm sure thanks to two weeks convalescing at home that I had gained some weight but I hope it's not too much.

For some inspiration (and to pass the time) I went to YouTube and started watching episodes of weight-loss reality shows. Not the American stuff, I'm familiar with those already, instead I was watching British shows that I had never seen before. I actually find them more interesting than the American ones and learnt a few things along the way.

Supersize versus Superskinny

I found this show amusing. Fairly simple concept, the doctor pairs up a supersized person with an underweight person and over the course of a few days the two swap meals. The show hopes to use shock tactics to make the overweight person realize that they can get by on less, and to make them realize just how out of whack their portion sizes and food choices are by seeing the skinny person struggle with their meals. On the flip side the skinny person will hopefully get a wake-up call when they see just how little they eat and learn to eat larger portions and eat a variety of foods.

The struggles can be amusing. Obviously the skinny person can rarely believe the amount of food that they have to eat and most of them soon realize, once they come to terms with the overweight person starving because of the little food they get, that they need to change their ways. Similar revelations occur with the overweight person.

Surprisingly I tended to be more appalled by the skinny person's diet. So many of them were not only undereating but what they were eating was typically junk food. Many of them were using coffee/tea/energy drinks as meal replacements, or just eating a lot of sugary foods just to give them the energy to get through the day. Occasionally the overweight person wouldn't even be able to finish the meals because of how messed up they were (something like breakfast – coffee, lunch – coffee, dinner - fries and two chocolate bars). One lady was a vegetarian yet her diet didn’t contain any vegetables. Some of the skinny people would soon get really apologetic about the lack of food they were giving to the overweight person.

While the program did have some long-term successes I'm not sure if shock tactics are really going to help if there's a more fundamental problem. If the skinny person has a bona fide eating disorder then they need therapy, swapping meals with an overweight person for a few days isn't going to cure them. Likewise if there are emotional issues or food addiction involved with the overweight person then I'm not sure this show will be able to get them to change their lives for good.

Secret Eaters

Either you've said it or you know people who've said it, “I eat a healthy and well-balanced diet and yet I am still putting on weight. I just don't understand why I can’t lose weight.”

Well some of those people have volunteered for the show Secret Eaters. They provide the show with food diaries (which show that they typically undereat or are eating the right amount of calories), have interviews to discuss their eating habits – then allow the show to set up cameras throughout their home to try to get to the bottom of what exactly is going on.

What the subjects didn't know was that the show also hired private investigators to track their movements when they are out of the house.

In the end it's discovered that the people are eating way more calories than they think and of course are eating more calories than they should be and so are gaining weight. It seems to come down to a number of factors:

Denial -- some of the people in the interview swear they eat healthy then surveillance shows them get take-out burgers or Chinese food dinners 1-2 times a day. I know that most people watching the show figure that's exactly what is happening with every contestant but in truth it was not always the case.

Simplistic assumptions – “For lunch I only eat a sandwich”, “Some meals I only eat salad.” We appear to make quick assumptions about the healthiness of a meal based on its title. It's a salad so it's healthy, right? It's just one sandwich! But not all sandwiches and salads are created equal. One person did just have a chicken and vegetable sandwich for lunch, but the chicken was fried and had barbecue sauce, there was a lot of cheese, and it was on a high-calorie flatbread. The one sandwich had just over 1000 calories. Another person's “one sandwich” was essentially a huge donair kebab (kebab meat, fries and cheese rolled in a pita), and well over 1000 calories. One person’s salad had so much tahini sauce it looked like coleslaw -- and had over 600 calories. And they went back for seconds. It’s just salad, right?

Not noticing the little snacks -- that biscuit with a cup of tea, that couple mouthfuls trying out other people's food, the nuts or chips that were sitting in a bowl that you reached for once, it was all adding up. When the people found out just how many calories they been consuming through these invisible snacks it was probably one of the biggest shocks. You just don't notice these things. Cutting these out could probably be one of the biggest changes a person could make towards losing weight but I think the only way to really do it, because you tend to not notice when you're eating them, is to just make sure you never buy them and bring them into the house. Don't keep things like biscuits and chips hanging around.

Not counting the drinks -- people really, really, underestimate the amount of calories they get from alcohol and sodas. Not only do they underestimate how many calories are in those drinks they underestimate just how much they are drinking. One lady's food diary noted she had four drinks over the course of the week, and on the first night of surveillance had at least that many or more. Another guy figured he had a couple of beers a night, which turned out to be more like 3-4, and on a weekend night out with friends he would have more than a dozen. Another guy turned out to be eating just the right amount of calories he needed, but it was topped up with over 1500 calories a week of soda. If you're trying to lose weight you need to seriously cut back on the drinking. Go with diet soda if you can't kick the soda habit (I'm trying to kick it myself but still have the case of diet soda), but in the end you’ll be better off cutting soda out altogether and drinking water.

But for people who are morbidly overweight there is another option, surgery. Which leads us to the third show . . .

Fat Doctor

More like a documentary than a reality show, a morbidly overweight person is scheduled for gastric bypass surgery and the show follows the journey. They have lengthy interviews with the person before and after while the surgeon also explains some of the underlying issues and problems with this type of procedure. The show doesn't pull punches and always shows scenes of the doctor doing the surgery.

A lot of people see surgery has a magical way to simply lose weight but it is a major surgery and has a lot of risks. One of the people didn't recover and died in hospital a few days later (that episode really surprised me). Occasionally a person's heart, already overburdened by the obesity, just can't handle the stress of a major surgery.

I really liked the doctor on this show, he seems to really care about his patients and does not believe this is simply an issue of how fat people should just eat less to lose weight. He talks a lot about the problems surrounding food addiction, yo-yo dieting, and why it is that psychologically so many people struggle with losing weight. He doesn’t think shaming fat people helps at all, in fact it tends to drive them further into comfort eating. He and his fellow doctors at the clinic also host a garden party every year and invite all of their former patients so they can catch up with them and see how they're doing (and so can the viewer, the show has run for multiple seasons so you get to see how people from previous episodes have been doing). Everyone discusses how the surgery was truly life-changing for them and allowed them to get their lives back together.

So if you're thinking of losing weight maybe take some time to go on YouTube and look these shows up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Arabic Calendar

A while ago I was given an Arabic desk calendar. Take a look at it and see if you can find any differences.

Did you notice that the days of the week are right-to-left rather than left-to-right? It definitely took me a while to notice that. In some ways I'm not surprised since the Arabic language is read right-to-left this is the first time ever seen that on a calendar. Numbers in Arabic are still read left-to-right, like you would in English, so I think most calendars use left-to-right to be in sync with the numbers.

Speaking of numbers, another difference is that the Arabic numbers are counting the lunar calendar, so the Arabic numbers are not the same as the Latin ones, for example the Arabic number in January 3rd is 12, not 3. The lunar month changes at January 21st.

That’s all I wanted to point out. I’m still lying at home convalescing when I noticed the calendar. Took me three weeks to notice the differences.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


A few weeks ago I was talking with a Qatari friend of mine who owns a farm. He was mentioning that he was expecting a delivery of goats that he was looking forward to. I asked him what was so interesting about the goats and he told me that they were “Heidi goats”.

“Wait a sec”, I said, “you mean Heidi, the old children’s story of the Swiss girl in the mountains?”

He nodded.

“So, you're familiar with the story of Heidi??”

“Oh yes”, he told me, “it was a popular story when I was a child.”

Needless to say I was not expecting that. Heidi was popular in the Arab world??

Well it turns out that Heidi is known throughout the world, not just Europe and North America. In the 70s there was a Japanese anime of Heidi which was very popular, and to this day many Japanese tourists visit the area of Switzerland depicted in the book.

The Japanese appear to like Western tales of childhood innocence, a similar phenomenon occurs in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island due to the Anne of Green Gables books.

The Japanese anime was then exported to the Arab world where it became popular with children in many countries. I asked a couple other of my Qatari friends and they too remembered the show.

So for your "what the heck?" of the day, here's the classic Swiss tale of Heidi, as animated by the Japanese -- dubbed into Arabic. Enjoy.

Friday, January 16, 2015

In Defense of the Word "Selfie"

My friend Kamahl has recently started his own blog (you can find it here) where he discusses journalism as well as words and their use in writing. In his most recent post he notes an article from The Independent newspaper in the UK discussing a project at an American university to bring back old words that have fallen out of use. A noble pursuit I'm sure, but I doubt the English-speaking world really needs “flapdoodle” back.

One needs to have an idea as to why words fall out of use in the first place. Some are really just slang so a product of their time (“groovy”, “daddy-o”, “flapdoodle”), others perhaps because they are long or clumsy to say (c’mon now, “opsimath”? seriously?), and others because there might be a simpler and more efficient word/phrase to say it. I'll go out on a limb and assume that most people would just rather say “walkabout” than “obambulate”. Just because a word is old does not mean it is somehow great and should be brought back.

Case in point, I recall many years ago watching a show and my two housemates asked if it was the finale and I said, “no, it's the penultimate show.” Neither of them knew what the word “penultimate” meant so when I explained it their response was to ask why I didn't just say it was the second-last show. I didn't think that the word penultimate was all that obscure, and I believe in the UK it's still fairly common, but I can see how the word could be falling out of disuse because “second-last” is an easier way to say it.

Which brings me to a word that has come into common use, but which many people malign, selfie.

Actually I think it's a great word. It doesn't really meet any of the conditions I noted above for a word that could become obscure and out of use. It's not really slang as it is describing something that only recently has become a common thing. It's a short word, easy to say, and it's straightforward for anyone to understand what it is referring to since it contains “self” in it. Easy to remember, I'm sure after hearing the word once and knowing what it meant you had no trouble remembering it after that. It's also a simpler replacement for how we would have normally described it, a self-portrait. Say these two phrases to yourself and see which sounds better to you:

“I’m going to take a selfie.”
“I'm going to take a self-portrait.”

Selfie seems to better fit the more immediate and whimsical nature of taking a quick photo with your phone. To me “self-portrait” seems far more serious and involved, something that you would do with professional photography or painting.

I agree that not all new words are necessarily great and most of them are just trendy slang that will appear again in 20 to 30 years in sitcoms and movies depicting our time. “Selfie” though I think is here to stay.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Things That Are Happening in Doha (That I'll Be Missing Out On)

Unfortunately I'm still convalescing so I'll be missing some of the activities that are happening around town. You should consider going if you can.

1) Men's Handball World Championships

I was going to attend the opening ceremony tonight with a bunch of friends but of course I can't go now. I hope my friend managed to find someone else to take the ticket. I should be fine to see some of the later matches though. You can get tickets here:

2) The Mal Lawal Heritage Exhibition

This exhibition of traditional Arabic culture and vintage items is still ongoing at the Doha Exhibition Centre and well worth a visit.

3) The Doha International Book Fair

Also being held at the Doha Exhibition Centre until January 17. Dozens of vendors and publishers selling a wide variety of books. Most of the books will be in Arabic but there are some English-language books available.

Enjoy. Wish I could go this weekend too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Unfortunately I had to go to the hospital a few days ago for a minor procedure. A quick operation under general anesthesia, couple of nights resting in the hospital, and now I'm chilling out at home. General anesthesia really is strange stuff. It's not like you're sleeping and dreaming, it's more like someone clipped out a section of a film and tied the two ends together. You remember the anesthesia going into you and next thing you know you wake up in the recovery area. Really strange.

Anyway, everything went well and I suppose I should be grateful that it was nothing really serious. I also really appreciate music players and smart phones, which help to get through the tedious days sitting in a hospital bed. I had a book as well but there are times where you just don't feel like reading. Even after two days I was getting anxious to go home. Not that I'm doing much more here, although I do have access to my laptop, but it's nice to be in more comfortable and familiar surroundings.

One advantage of medical care in Doha is that it's relatively quick to get scheduled for a procedure. This was not any kind of emergency yet from diagnosis on a Wednesday I had the surgery on Saturday. No wait list, no having to wait for weeks for the surgery.

It will be more than a week before I can return to work. Lots of people might think that would be great but it's not ideal for me as I'm not one for sitting around relaxing for long periods of time. Even when I go on vacation I'm not a big fan of just sitting by a pool or beach for days on end, I like to get out there and explore. Nothing to be done about it though, I need to do what the doctors say and just relax, take my medications, and recover.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

2015 Qatar Open Tennis Tournament

The Qatar Open Tennis is on once again and this year I foolishly left it too late to buy tickets. I wanted tickets for any of the weekend games (quarterfinals, semifinals, or finals) but by the time I went to buy them they were all sold out! I was kicking myself a little for not getting tickets earlier, I will try to remember that for next year.

Luckily a friend of mine managed to get some tickets for last night’s matches. I knew that both Djokovic and Nadal would be playing matches that night so it would be great to see them play. I've never watched Djokovic live as it's the first year he's played at this tournament.

Unfortunately by the time I got out of work, fought the traffic, found parking, and met up with my friends Djokovic’s match was over! That's the downside to those straight-set victories, it can be over pretty quickly. My friends and I got to our seats just as Rafael Nadal was warming up against a German qualifier that I'd never heard of before, Michael Berrer.

The first set went pretty much as we expected, with Nadal completely dominating. I think he won the first nine or ten points and we were pleasantly surprised when Berrer managed to win one game, losing the first set 6-1.

But then something happened . . .

I think Berrer just decided, “Screw it, I'm going to play completely high-risk tennis" and in the next set he really went for it, hitting the lines, rushing the net, faster serves, yet it was all clicking and Nadal started to waver a little in form. I was honestly shocked when Berrer took the second set. From that point on I was rooting for him (I like rooting for the underdog) and in the third set he didn’t let up, he even did a full-power second serve rather than the safer standard second serve (it worked, he got the point). In the end he was just playing great and the second and third sets turned out to be really good to watch. Not surprisingly Berrer’s victory has been in all the major sports pages today.

Berrer is 34 years old, ranked 127th, and has said this is his last season. He'd never beaten a top five player before and it was nice to see how happy he was at the post-game interview. He was even mobbed by fans for autographs as he was leaving the court, something that I don't think has happened to him very often in his career.

As for Nadal the tennis press was buzzing. Returned too soon from his operation? Will he be in form in time for the Australian Open? Only time will tell I suppose.

Doha always seems to be a tournament where some underdog gets some big wins last year it was another guy (also German, maybe just German players have a great time here) who made it all the way to the semis and managed to take the first set off of Nadal before losing the other two sets.

I'm still surprised that Berrer beat Nadal but at least I was there to witness it.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Qatari Camping at the Sand Dunes

It's wintertime so now that the weather is pleasant many Qataris have set up camps in the southern desert. A friend invited me to visit his camp at the sand dunes near Sealine Resort so I went down on Friday to meet him.

I don't have a 4x4 so I had to park at Sealine then my friend picked me up in his Land Cruiser. The area just outside of Sealine was packed with cars. Things were a bit chaotic as cars were driving every which way along with dune buggies. Some guy was even zooming around on two wheels in a buggy.

So we got out to the camp, it was a nice place with a main tent, sleeping quarters, a kitchen trailer, a bathroom trailer, an outside majlis, generators and so forth.

Here’s the inside of the main tent. Nice, huh? This certainly isn't camping like you would do in North America with a simple tent. There were two television sets (one was for the gaming system) complete with satellite channels, and of course the tent had air conditioners but the weather was pleasant enough that they weren’t turned on. The area where I was standing was where we had lunch, a tray of chicken and rice which we ate in traditional style with our right hand.

After that we went out for a spin in my friend’s Polaris dune buggy. I had never been in one before but it had a 5-point star seat-belt to keep you securely inside, and a mask was provided to protect against sand. The thing had a powerful engine and we were able to go up very steep dunes without much effort.

After sunset I had to head back to Doha so I got dropped off back of my car and headed home. I can see why during the camping season Qataris can spend all weekend out at their camps, it’s comfortable living.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Mal Lawal Heritage Exhibition

Yesterday I stopped by the Doha Exhibition Centre to see the heritage exhibition called Mal Lawal (which apparently means “from the old days”). It was a lot more impressive than I thought it would be.

Out front was a beautiful flower display, a lot of old cars, and a large outdoor food court where small enterprises were selling various types of food and desserts.

Inside there was a small souq as well as a café (not including the Costa Coffee which was also open). Surprisingly it seems that most the people here were Qataris and other Arabs, there were almost no ex-pats. Maybe word hasn’t gotten around.

In the Exhibition Centre itself are large displays of traditional, historical, or vintage items. Clothing, money, weapons, documents, books, and all sorts of other things trying to document the culture of the region. It wasn't just limited to Qatar, there were items on display from Bahranis, Omanis and so forth.

There was also a 16th-century Kaaba cover, flanked by some antique globes.

There was a kids area, but I didn't go in (it's for kids – duh)

My favourite items had to be the old photographs, showing Qatar from the 1950s and 60s. Looks like the traffic hasn't changed much ;-)

and there was also a stage where live performances of Arabic singing and dancing were taking place.

Admission is free and the exhibition is on until February 28th. I think it's well worth the effort to go see it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Reflections of 2014

So ends another great year. Time to look back on what I got up to during 2014.

Enjoying the view from Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

At my friend's place in Mudanya, Turkey

Enjoying a blue tequila cocktail, Las Vegas

Target practice on the Bosporus. Istanbul, Turkey

Enjoying a picnic with my friends, Tourtour, France

The view from the balcony of my hotel room, overlooking St. Lazarus Square, Larnaca, Cyprus

Being my nephew's wing man, Los Angeles.

Watching the Canada vs USA Olympic hockey semi-finals at a sports bar, New York City . I was one of only two Canadians in the bar, the waitress said I was brave for being there. (Canada won)

A proper meat pie, Edinburgh, Scotland

At a village banquet, where the entire village comes to eat in the central square. I don't remember much about the food but I do remember there was a lot of wine. Tourtour, France.

A breakfast that required two ladies to bring out the tray. I kid you not on this try was cheese, butter, another cheese, another butter, and some cheese melted in butter. Mount Uludag, Turkey.

Watching the Super Bowl at the main betting hall of the MGM Grand, Las Vegas.

Winning the grand prize at the National Day party held by my office (tickets and hotel to Istanbul!). Doha.

The only question you probably have is which Disney is this? The original. Anaheim, California.

At the Grand Mosque, Muscat. Oman

At the (infamous?) Brazen Head pub, Glasgow, Scotland.

Touring the abandoned village of Kayaköy, Southern Turkey.

My nephew can't believe all the things I've done either! Vancouver, Canada.

I hope everyone has a great 2015.