The dietary habits and health of contemporary Saudi families : a sociological study in the city of Riyadh

Al-Abdullatief, Latifah Abdulaziz


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© 2002 Latifah Abdulaziz Al-Abdullatief. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

This study investigates diet and dietary habits, changes in food practices and nutrition in contemporary Saudi Arabia. A survey was conducted using the questionnaire method on a sample of 310 participants drawn randomly from four different quarters of Riyadh: Al-Worood, Al-Rabwah, King Saud University staff campus and Al-Oud. 17 questions were used to guide the research. Data were analysed using chi-square, correlation and cross-tabulation techniques.

The study revealed important changes in several investigated factors in general and within Saudi families in particular. Living conditions have improved through increased education, better medical care, technology, changes in income, communication and transportation systems. Consequently, certain economic and educational functions are no longer performed within the family domain but have been transferred to other society structures such as schools and markets. Moreover, there seems to be an increased dependency on foreign workers inside and outside the home.

Alongside these changes, changes in diet and dietary habits have occurred. There is a relationship between obesity and changes in diet and dietary habits resulting from increases in high fat, fast food and sweets. Increased consumption of carbohydrates of different types plus soft drinks, and low intake of fruits and vegetables, unfortunately go along with low levels of physical activity. Thus the obesity rate in 2001 was 52% in all Saudis and 66% among women. There seems to be a relationship between mortality rate and welfare diseases such as: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hyper-cholesterol, heart diseases, cancer, gall bladder impairment and cardio-pulmonary diseases. These diseases might be associated with increased consumption of fats that are rich in amino acids, cholesterol and sodium chloride derivatives that are added to artificial drinks and foods. At the same time there is increased malnutrition and poor natural immunity among children which may be a result of the shift from breast feeding to artificial feeding of babies. Poor dietary standards at schools owe to nonadherence of school canteens to proper dietary instructions.

Many malnutrition problems might be attributed to the lack of awareness of components of a healthy diet rathert han to economic status. Consumption of natural, traditional food is on the decline, while the tendency to consume canned, frozen and new foods is on the increase. Excessive choices of food items available to consumers, along with low level dietary awareness of many people, might have led to failure of many people to make healthy food choices. The study found that modern cooking appliances have helped in changing Saudi diet and dietary habits. In regard to the relationship between gender and change in diet and dietary habits, the study indicated in significant difference between them. But in regard to the relationship between age and going to restaurants and change in diet and dietary habits, the study found that the young generation are more likely to go to restaurants and change their diet than the older generation.

Mass media is a significant factor in increasing health awareness in the family and in society generally. In spite of that there is a need to improve health and nutrition programmes. There is a significant relationship between level of education and dietary awareness, health issues and level of income, number of children in the family and change in dietary habits. Findings regarding the relationship between income and family diet and healthcare indicate that there is a significant relationship between high income of the family and better diet and health conditions. But there seems to be no relationship between level of income and the number of children. Furthermore, there is a significant relationship between socio-cultural and physical environment, family diet and health. Traditions and customs seem to play a significant role in food choices and dietary habits. Social factors also appear to influence dietary habits.

Health authorities and educational curricula in schools and universities appear to play an inadequate role in making people aware of sound dietary principles. Moreover, there is an acute shortage of children's health books, especially in the area of diet and dietary habits. In addition to that, there is a great need to increase and improve supervision of restaurants and grocery shops.

Despite several non conducive features, family health conditions have improved over the last two decades as a result of the efforts of the government combined with socioeconomic change. However, there is a need for more improvement in family diet and health awareness, especially in the Al-Oud quarter.

More in depth studies of Saudi family diet and dietary habits by social scientists and medical professionals are needed to bring about further improvement of diet and health conditions, especially in the old quarters of Saudi cities.

Department of Sociology, The University of Hull
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