Kaltoum Ben Cheqroun loves to cook Moroccan dishes, but rarely eats her meticulously prepared meals. She only nibbled at her home-made Sunday feast of salads, boiled sweet potatoes, sautéed chicken and fresh bread.
“You know when she wants to taste something [sweet], we always tell her it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad,” said her 20 year-old daughter Fatimzzohra. “But, you know, sometimes she wants to. She takes a little bit.”
Ben Cheqroun, 60, has Type 2 diabetes, which prevents her from eating her savory meals. Diabetes affects 8.3 percent of Moroccans and is now endemic in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the International Diabetes Foundation. As many as 10 percent of Moroccans may have the disease because of undiagnosed cases.
The rise in diabetes is linked to an increase in obesity and unhealthy eating habits. 10 million Moroccans, nearly one-third of the population, are overweight and at risk for obesity, according to Al-Arabiya. The proliferation of unhealthy food in urban areas and a less active population drive this epidemic.
In 2012, Moroccans consumed90 pounds of sugar per capita, according to Reuters. While America has the same prevalence of diabetes, the average American consumed 15 pounds less sugar, reported the New York Times.
While diabetes can be prevented through exercise and dieting, a 2010 survey from drug company Novo Nordisk revealed that many individuals in the region do not think diabetes is a serious disease.
“In the beginning, the doctor advised me to just do the diet and not do insulin, but I did not accept,” said Kaltoum. She now takes insulin and other medication to deal with her high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She cannot even eat salt.
Ihsane, Kaltoum’s oldest son and a doctor himself, said that his mother did not understand the full extent of her diagnosis at first.
Health risks are not the only complications for diabetics. Moroccans face a high economic burden dealing with diabetes, even though the government provides certain types of insulin for free, according to the Journal of Biomedical Science and Engineering.
A 30 day supply of Kaltoum’s four daily insulin shots is a steep $460, not including her other medication. Luckily, her family only pays a fraction of that because of government reimbursements and health insurance.
The Moroccan League for the Fight against Diabetes is urging the government to expand education campaigns so Moroccans can understand the full impact of diabetes. But change has so far been slow.
Kaltoum still does not exercise, despite doctor recommendations. While Ihsanenow tries to eat healthier, Fatimzzohrasaid the rest of the family have not changed their eating habits. Kaltoum still feeds them the same rich meals, with one notable exception.
Instead of sweetening her mint tea before serving it, Kaltoumnow offers a serving spoon and a bowl of sugar on the side. This concession is a rare chance for her children to go easy on the sugar and buck a national trend….or add a few more scoops.