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Meals on wheels further Saudi obesity, health issues, but other culprits weigh in

Two things are accelerating their growth in Saudi Arabia: Obesity and health startups. Are the two connected? What's causing one and prompting the other?

Saudi overweight and obesity are at 35.1% and 34.8% among men, and 30.1% and 35.6% among women There are over 3.8 million diabetics in the Kingdom, representing almost 20% of the adult population Sihatech is an online platform where consumers can discover healthcare services, find providers, and book appointments

Two things are accelerating their growth in Saudi Arabia: Obesity and health startups. While many of the health startups are not necessarily dealing with harmful food types, and lifestyle issues in the Kingdom, some are, but the culprits behind increased obesity are many, including delivery apps. 

A ‘BIG’ problem in Saudi 

Over the past 3 decades, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased dramatically worldwide. More than 1.9 billion adults are overweight, and over 650 million were obese in 2016.

Saudi is now among the nations with the highest obesity and overweight prevalence rates due to a number of factors. 

The rate of obesity is significantly high in the country among different age groups and occupations; at different locations in the country; and among both males and females. 

The main factors causing obesity include family history, diet patterns, eating habits, genetic factors, and lack of physical activities. The major consequences are cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers, and heart disease.  

 The risk of prediabetes, diabetes, dyslipidemia, and hypertension increase with increasing body mass index (BMI).

The GCC is in the top 15 worldwide in BMI with Kuwait in 3rd position.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, the overall prevalence of obesity in KSA was estimated to be 35.4% compared with 31.7%, 30.4%, and 27% in the neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, and Oman, respectively.

More specifically, Saudi overweight and obesity being at 35.1% and 34.8% among men, and 30.1% and 35.6%, among women.

About 75% of the Saudi population will be obese by 2020 if no preventive steps are taken, a study focused on the causes of obesity among intermediate and secondary school students in Riyadh has warned. 

There are over 3.8 million diabetics in the Kingdom, representing almost 20% of the adult population and more than 40% of Saudi citizens are obese. When we add overweight cases to this ratio, the number hits 70%. The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 places great emphasis on preventive medicine and the fight against chronic diseases as such complications are draining nearly 40% of the health budget in Saudi. Some 45% of deaths in Saudi are the result of heart disease.

Main causes of obesity in Saudi 

Lack of physical activity 

The highest levels of insufficient physical activity are found in Saudi, which had a prevalence of 53.1%, whereas the lowest levels are found in China, with a prevalence of 14.1%. Across most countries, rates of insufficient physical activity are higher among women compared to men, especially in Saudi with differences as high as 20%.

Diet and delivery apps 

Fast-food chains are expanding in Saudi and similar to their global unhealthy impact o people, they are weighing in on the problem in the Kingdom. 

Fast food consumption in Saudi is estimated at around $4.5 billion. The number of fast-food establishments in Saudi in 2015 was approximately 14,553.  

Food delivery applications have seen a surge in growth over the past decade with digital ordering representing 50% of all food delivery visits.

Digital orders via mobile apps, the internet, or text messages have grown 23% over the past 4 years representing a $26.8 bn dollar industry.

GrubHub, founded in 2004, was the first successful third-party food delivery system and now has 44,000 restaurants on its with food sales reported in October 2019 grossing about $1.4 bn.  UberEats grew by 230% in 2017. 

The top 10 food and drink delivery apps in Saudi during the COVID-19 pandemic are listed below and notice the emphasis on fast food, quick delivery, and appetite. 

10. Tmmt 

9. KFC

8. Wssel Food delivery

7. McDonald’s 

6. Jahez (Ready)

7. Zad (Grocery delivery)

4. Uber Eats

3. Careem Now

2. Hunger station

1. Nana (online grocery shopping app)

Heath startups 

Some up and coming Saudi health startups are tackling lifestyle issues of diet and exercise, but the majority are enabling quicker access to medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.

There are around 60 HealthTech startups in Saudi.    

Late in 2019, digital health service startup Nala launched its Artificial Intelligence platform that enables instant medical diagnosis in Arabic and obtained $1 million in its first financing round, aiming to reduce the cost of healthcare by a factor of 10. 

Nala’s instant access to personalized healthcare through a mobile application has so far received 50,000+ downloads.

Sihatech provides an online platform where consumers can discover healthcare services, find providers, and book appointments. The platform also enables users to apply for medical loans and order medicines. It created a link between 14 major insurance companies, 110 hospitals, and 1390 clinics and medical centers in Saudi running around 1.7 million online transactions per day for over 1,500 medical visits per week. Sihatech received $1.3 million in funding. 

Nala is an online platform for appointment booking. It allows 100,000+ users to store all health-related data where AI enables instant medical diagnosis in Arabic. Nala raised $1 million in its first financing Series A round. 

Meanwhile, the Saydl app enables the user to connect to local pharmacies and upload the prescriptions or medicine details online which is then delivered to the user within an hour.

TorsoFit is an online platform enabling users to connect with a professional for fitness training. Users have to fill a questionnaire to assess fitness requirements, goals, and levels. The professional will create a personalized fitness training plan based on fitness needs.  

Drzone is an online appointment booking platform with doctors, allowing users to search for doctors based on specialty, and location and provides information on all the listed doctors including experience, qualifications, patient reviews, and ratings.

Image: RozenamahRozenamah is another online platform to book appointments with Saudi-based doctors across multiple specialties such as cardiology, dermatology, endocrinology, internal medicine, oncology, psychology, etc.

Health Links is a consultancy company in the Gulf region that partners with healthcare policymakers, and organizations for operational support in data collection and survey management. Its solutions ‘Patient Voice and Employee & Physician Voice’ are based on feedback on the care provided.  

A KAUST acceleration program graduate, Cura, produced a telemedicine app that connects patients with doctors enabling patients to receive healthcare ‘on demand’ such as a checkup, test results, or prescriptions from medical doctors and specialists via a video call.

Vezeeta claims it can enable patients to search, book, and review the best doctors and medical services in just one minute. Currently operating in 50 cities across Egypt, Saudi, Jordan, and Lebanon, the platform generates 4 million annual appointments.

Junnah provides online behavioral-change programs focused on chronic disease prevention through education platforms, monitoring, gamification, and certified coaches’ support. 

Junnah’s first program targets the second most chronic disease in Saudi, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (DM) with prevalence among Saudi adults nearly 4 times that of the average global prevalence. Junnah helps individuals change their lifestyles through a science-based program, fun education, and challenging environments.

Peregrine Genomics aims to conquer the current technical imperfection in genetic diagnosis and accelerate its application to human healthcare. In 2019, it received funding of $100,000.