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Lebanon launches localized dietary guidelines manual

Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil attends the launching of the food-based dietary guidelines at AUB in Beirut, Thursday, July 25, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir )

BEIRUT: Nutritional experts released Thursday a newly published manual on dietary guidelines for Lebanese adults, calling it an important step in addressing the country’s high rate of nutrition-related illnesses. The new manual, “Food-based Dietary Guidelines,” available in Arabic and English, was released at a round-table conference at the American University of Beirut presented by AUB’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences Dean Nahla Hwalla, who launched the project three years ago; National Council for Scientific Research Secretary-General Mouin Hamze, AUB President Peter Dorman and caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan.

“This collaborative work will promote the awareness of nutritional needs for adults and will decrease and forestall chronic diseases,” Dorman said, sitting before health experts, academics and reporters as he launched the dietary manual, which is the result of detailed research based on guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization adapted to Lebanese eating habits.

The guide consists of 14 chapters, starting with how to “Enjoy and Maintain a Healthy Body Weight.” Information in the first section includes studies linking body weight to health, the prevalence of obesity in Lebanon and steps to follow for reaching a healthy body weight, with tables showing healthy weights for a range of heights. It will soon be distributed to health care workers across Lebanon.

“Illnesses relating to nutritional health have killed more people than in all the world’s wars,” Hasan noted. Indeed, the WHO reports that 86 percent of deaths in Lebanon are caused by noncommunicable diseases, with cardiovascular disease – mainly caused by poor eating habits – topping the list.

The launching of the guide comes at a time when obesity and nutrition-related illness, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are on the rise.

According to research by AUB, 53 percent of Lebanese over 20 were overweight in 1997, a figure that continues to grow. A two-fold increase was seen between 1997 and 2008 among the elderly, and overweight youths, aged 6-19, increased from 20 percent in 1997 to 35 percent in 2008.

In addition to weight-related illnesses, in recent years Lebanon has also seen a high rate of vitamin D deficiency – found in 70 percent of a sample tested in an AUB study – a condition that is in part related to eating habits.

Other nutrition-related illnesses prevalent in Lebanon include certain types of cancer, anemia, goiter and osteoporosis. These conditions can often be reversed by changing dietary practices such as decreasing the intake of saturated fat, increasing the consumption of whole grains and eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as more fish.

“In Lebanon we still have healthy eating habits, but they’re eroding,” said Lara Nasreddine, who contributed to the development of the manual, pointing to the rise in fast food restaurants and unhealthy snacks in recent years.

Sarah Farhat, who also contributed to the study, said that even though there were already dietary guidelines available in other countries such as the United States, it was important to have one specifically for Lebanon to address specific local eating habits.

“People use a lot of butter and lard on traditional dishes – it’s not just fast food,” Farhat said. “We’re also tackling food and drinks that are high in sugar, like [the syrup date drink] jallab.”

So far, the AUB researchers behind the new book say that those who have seen the manual – which will be released to the public once health professionals are trained in teaching the contents – have been encouraging.

The next step will be to develop a similar guide for Lebanese children, who, like their adult counterparts, have increasingly high rates of obesity.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 26, 2013, on page 4.

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