Three years ago, Khaled Al-Suwaidi, now 35, received advice that changed his life forever. He was warned that he might not live much longer.
Originally from Abu Dhabi, Al-Suwaidi was born and educated in the United States. He studied for a masters degree and doctorate in the hope of pursuing a profession in academia.
But during that intense period, Al-Suwaidi says, he was veering toward an unhealthy lifestyle, weighing in at 127 kilograms (280 pounds).
“I was always studying, and if I wasn’t studying, I was out, enjoying my time, eating late at night,” he said. “Not once did I think about how long I was going to live.”
In 2013, he moved back to Abu Dhabi, and in 2015, he took on the role of executive director at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. During a regular checkup with his doctor, he got surprising news.
“At the age of 32, my doctor told me I was going to be diabetic in the next couple of months,” Al-Suwaidi said. “I was shocked.”
The consequences of luxury
Rates of obesity and diabetes in the Middle East are staggering, particularly in the Persian Gulf region. The International Diabetes Federation reports that 37 million people in the Middle East and North Africa are living with diabetes, about 9.7% of the population there. Globally, it is estimated that 415 million people are living with diabetes – about 1 in 11 adults.
High rates in the region are due to its luxurious lifestyle, said Dr. Gurjyot Bajwa, a physician in the Heart and Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“A lot of things that the rest of the world does themselves, they’re taken care of here,” she said, highlighting driving to work versus walking. “Which, on the flip side of the coin, makes for a very sedentary lifestyle.”
The Middle East has the second highest rate of increase in diabetes in the world, with genetic risk factors also playing a crucial role.
Many studies have found that a sedentary lifestyle is worse for your health than smoking, diabetes and heart disease.
According to Bajwa, simple changes such as a 20-minute stroll each day can reduce your risk and increase your lifespan.
“We all have a predisposition towards things we can inherit genetically,” she said. “But the things we can modify are how we live, and every day is a possibility for change.”
A life-changing decision
“The first step is realizing that you can change and that it’s going to take time,” Al-Suwaidi said. “Then, a lot of great things will start to happen.”
He started getting to sleep early, restricting the amounts and types of food he ate and, of course, exercising. He focused on consuming large amounts of vegetables and a variety of fruit whenever he had a sugar craving.
“I made a life-changing decision to lose weight,” he said. “But at the same time, I wanted a physical challenge.”
And what a challenge it has been. Three years later, Al-Suwaidi became the first person to run nonstop across the United Arab Emirates for cancer awareness. He went from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi, 327 kilometers (203 miles), in 3 days and 8 hours.
His father is a cancer survivor, which made him develop a strong determination to battle his obesity.
“Once I started to become fit, I realized that I’m at the peak of my physical capabilities,” he said. “If I don’t try to push myself now, it’s going to be more difficult as I get older.”
Since his passion for running began in 2017, he’s run over 6,294 kilometers (3,910 miles). He says he’s pushed through pain, blisters and nausea, but it’s all been worth it.
Now, he’s training for his next energy-sapping journey: a 2,070-kilometer (1,286-mile) run from the UAE to Saudi Arabia in 40 days.
“We’re given everything we need to be successful in this world, and I feel it’s time for us to give back,” he said. “Doing these long runs in remembrance of many things is my way of giving back to my community.”
But he credits the improvement he’s seen in his health to his diet, more than the exercise.
Following a wholesome diet can quickly make you feel better and look better and motivate you to do even more, Bajwa said.
Diet is key
“80% of everything that’s happened to me happened in the kitchen; 20% happened while I was training,” Al-Suwaidi said. “You can work out in the gym for many hours, but if you’re not taking in the proper nutrition in the kitchen, there’s not going to be any change whatsoever.”
About six months ago, Al-Suwaidi began experimenting with a plant-based diet. Three times a week, he eats vegan, and he says he’s seen better performance and energy in his training.
Research shows that plant-based diets have tremendous health benefits and have the potential to prevent diabetes. Consuming mostly fruits and vegetables and cutting out refined foods has been proved to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Bajwa said diets should be well-rounded, with loads of fiber, something vegetables have a lot of.
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“Foods high in salt and saturated fat are the no-go,” she said. “Addressing these risks and taking good care of what you eat has valuable health benefits.”
Going back to 2015, Al-Suwaidi describes how he was on the road to an extremely dark place. “I never thought about my lifespan whatsoever,” he said. “I just thought about my next meal.”
After his changes, however, he believes that he’s added decades to his life.
“I’ve learned so much in these past three years,” he said. “I think I’m in the best shape of my life right now.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of time Khaled Al-Suwaidi took to complete a race from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi.