Diet centers find growing clientele among children, seniors

BEIRUT: The slew of diet centers that have recently expanded around the country are welcoming an unlikely clientele: children and senior citizens.

Conversations with proprietors of more than a dozen Lebanese diet centers revealed a few recent weight-loss trends in the country, most notably a rise in the number of overweight children using the centers’ regimented meal plans to trim down.

“The number of children has considerably risen since we [opened in] 2007,” says Mayadah al-Etter, a dietitian at Dania’s Diet Center.

The number of obese Lebanese children, aged 6 to 19, doubled from 1997 to 2009, according to a study released by the American University of Beirut last year. Another study published by the Lebanese American University revealed that one out of three Lebanese children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

In response to this increase in childhood obesity, parents are turning to diet centers, which provide both meals and counseling in one place. With the right support, children tend to make very quick progress, Etter said.

She gives her young clients the same freedom adults have in choosing their own meals. Naturally, they tend to choose fried foods, she said. The secret to reducing calories and making food more healthily, however, is to grill and not fry. Most of the tweaks diet centers make to child-friendly cuisine can be done just as easily at home.

“The only difference between home-cooked meals and those prepared in our center is that we grill them,” Etter said, adding that if parents were aware of how easy it was to cook in a healthy way, the number of obese children might not have increased so sharply.

Between 2003 and 2012, more than 18 independent centers were opened in Lebanon, with the majority centered in the greater Beirut area.

The rising interest in calorie-counted and light offerings is also reflected in the rise of diet menus, which have become a mainstay at local chain restaurants and fast-food joints.

Standard services offered at local diet centers range from the delivery of low-calorie meals to consultations with a dietitian who determines how much food each client needs daily so that they can reach their target weight.

With a dip in expendable income over the past five year, diet centers told The Daily Star that their typical clientele, previously women aiming for a size 6, had changed. Instead, it’s those that fall on the outer limits of the age scale who are now frequenting the centers.

Senior citizens have discovered that diet centers offer a way to eat healthy, home-cooked meals without making it themselves.

“We have a lot of orders from 60- or 70-year-olds who live alone,” said Lara Zugheib, a dietitian at Health Watchers Center, one of the country’s first diet hubs that opened in 1989. “It’s become very [common] for people who prefer not to cook for one person only.”

The trend also goes back to food education. For most of these elderly clients, its hypertension, high cholesterol levels or diabetes, not weight loss, behind their diet concerns, staff from another diet center told The Daily Star.

Unsure how to handle all the food restrictions associated with these ailments, seniors are turning to diet centers to help them adjust their eating habits.

Far from their typical image as a luxury for dieting women, these centers increasingly offer something for every age.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 13, 2014, on page 2.




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