Egypt’s wellness boom

Gihan Shahine , Thursday 12 Sep 2019

The wellness business is flourishing in Egypt, with growing numbers of people joining what has become a global craze, writes Gihan Shahine

If you haven’t already noticed, health and wellness are all the rage these days. They are all over the place on social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where all things related to health and wellness have been reaching a global peak and finding a secure niche in Egypt particularly among the affluent classes.

Keto and paleo diets, clean eating, gluten-free and plant-based diets, all-natural products and detox smoothies — all these things are part of a growing trend, with more and more people inclined to take better care of their health and give themselves over to the growing cult of wellness.

Various studies suggest that our digestive systems can be what decide our immunity, mood, hormonal balance, and mental well-being. “You are what you eat,” as one health coach once put it. Recent research suggests that 80 to 90 per cent of the feel-good hormone serotonin is produced in the digestive system rather than in the brain, and that stress can be a major detriment to any diet plan.

As a result, life and health coaching have reached a peak, and dieting is being included in a holistic approach to well-being that has given an unprecedented boost to health tourism, spas, and even health housing, a new concept that has also been growing into a global trend.

Experts say that our guts should no longer be considered as just organs that digest and absorb our food. Rather, they are now widely recognised as being the main organs affecting other aspects of our health, like enhancing the immune system, affecting mood and behaviour, producing certain vitamins and hormones, and, of course, affecting weight.

Nutritionists explain that the digestive system has a diverse population of 300 to 500 different kinds of bacteria containing nearly two million genes. Research suggests that each person is different in terms of his or her bacteria and that those in healthy people are different from those with certain kinds of diseases. People who are sick may have too little or too much of a certain type of bacteria.


Recent studies have also suggested links between certain kinds of illness and the bacteria in a person’s gut. Obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are all suggested to be linked to gut bacteria, which can also affect a person’s metabolism. Dieticians suggest that the number and type of a person’s gut bacteria also determine the amount of calories and nutrients he or she will get from food.

“Lesser known is that scientists estimate that 90 per cent of serotonin is made in the gut, and imbalances in this peripheral serotonin have been linked to diseases ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis,” writes US commentator Catharine Paddock on the website

Serotonin is probably best known as a brain chemical that affects emotions and behaviour, an imbalance of which is thought to contribute to depression. Brain, Behavior and Immunity, the journal of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society (PNIRS) in the US, has revealed that stress can cause “almost immediate changes to the gut bacterial population, and that some of these affected sub-populations strongly influence the effect that stress has on immunity”.

Jeffery Gordon of the Washington University School of Medicine in the US has been quoted in the Western media as one of the first researchers to link intestinal bacteria and obesity. He found that a diverse mix of gut bacteria is the key to staying slim. Increasing intake of fruit, vegetables and whole grains is said to encourage the production of a diverse mix of good gut bacteria, increasing metabolism and producing energy.

The Egyptian Toronto-based health coach Dana Dinnawi sums it up this way: “Your health is not about losing weight; it’s about gaining life.

“What if, instead of waking up every morning and jumping on the scales to check your weight, you wake up every morning and check your energy levels, you check your mood, you think about what you want to create for yourself that day and then see how excited you are to wake up and live your life,” she queried on her health and wellness page.

THE WELLNESS BOOM: Dinnawi’s logic seems to be resonating with a growing number of people worldwide.

Recent research by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a non-profit research and educational resource for the wellness industry in the US, has revealed that the “wellness market is growing at a historic rate, nearly twice as fast as global economy,” and is even expected to be the next burgeoning industry over the next 20 to 30 years.

According to the GWI, “the global wellness market grew 10.6 per cent to $3.72 trillion from 2013 to 2015, while the global economy shrank 3.6 per cent over the same period.”

The GWI’s 2018 Global Wellness Economy Report finds that the global wellness industry continued to grow by 12.8 per cent from 2015-2017, from a $3.7 trillion to a $4.2 trillion market.

“To put that in economic context, from 2015-2017, the wellness economy grew 6.4 per cent annually, nearly twice as fast as global economic growth (3.6 per cent),” the report said. “Wellness expenditures ($4.2 trillion) are now more than half as large as total global health expenditures ($7.3 trillion). And the wellness industry represents 5.3 per cent of global economic output.”

On the prospects of the wellness business, the report expects that the industry will continue to boom.


Likewise, the Forbes Los Angeles Business Council in the US also noted in a recent report that “the health and wellness industry is experiencing a ‘healthy’ boom that is shaping the ever-growing industry like never before.”

“There are companies disrupting the marketplace with staggeringly fast growth and massive media coverage,” it elaborated. “Part of this boom is due to the fact that consumers want to adopt healthier habits with products that are actually good for them. They are reading labels, and they are diving in and digging for any research they can find on products labelled healthy, all-natural or plant-based. Millions have even taken to social media to share their love for slathering on and ingesting products with fewer toxins.”

The GWI’s Global Wellness Economy Monitor, which has been providing comprehensive global wellness economy data for business leaders, researchers and the media since 2014, provides in its 2018 report updated figures for the ten industry segments that comprise the global wellness economy: fitness and mind-body; healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss; personal care, beauty and anti-ageing; preventative and personalised medicine and public health; the spa economy; thermal/mineral springs; traditional and complementary medicine; wellness real estate; wellness tourism; and workplace wellness. 

According to the report, “beauty and anti-ageing account for $999 billion, with healthy eating and nutrition behind at $648 billion,” of total value. “Wellness tourism comes in third at $563 billion, and fitness/mind-body fourth at $542 billion,” the report says.

Among the main factors contributing to the growth of the global wellness business is “an increasing consumer interest in all things related to maintaining and improving health driven by ageing, a rising global epidemic of chronic disease and stress, the negative health impacts of environmental degradation, and the failure of the ‘sick-care’ medical model to improve quality of life,” it adds. It also gives credit to “a collective, growing awareness among a subset of (more educated and affluent) consumers that their choices convey meaning, purpose, and impact.”

“Once upon a time, our contact with wellness was occasional: we went to the gym or got a massage,” notes Katherine Johnston, a senior research fellow at the GWI. “But this is changing fast: a wellness mindset is starting to permeate the global consumer consciousness, affecting people’s daily decision-making — whether food purchases, a focus on mental wellness and reducing stress, incorporating movement into daily life, environmental consciousness, or their yearning for connection and happiness.”

Healthy eating trends seem to be dominating the landscape. “From organic and plant-based food selections at the grocery store to the numerous weight-loss and healthy food delivery services available at our fingertips, this trend shows no signs of slowing down,” the GWI notes.

EGYPT’S WELLNESS TREND: When Dinnawi launched her career as a health coach six years ago, she was living in Toronto in Canada, and her online plant-based recipes included ingredients that were widely available there.

It was sometimes challenging for her online Egyptian clients back home to find those ingredients in Cairo, and she would try to find them substitutes as a result. “The list of unavailable ingredients was really long,” Dinnawi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Dinnawi has been living in Cairo since, before she moved back to Toronto a few weeks ago. It was during those few years that Dinnawi noticed a major change in the Egyptian wellness market.

“Today, almost every single ingredient in my recipes and shopping lists for my programmes is available (pricey, but available),” she told the Weekly. “We used to have one healthy food store providing organic ingredients and super foods, but now we have them all over Cairo. And they are only increasing.”

Even ingredients that may sound unusual for many Cairenes, and which are not essential and may have easy substitutes on the local market, “are now available for those who want and can afford them,” according to Dinnawi. “And, yes, there is a growing need and adaptability happening that’s making it possible for these shops and products to have loyal customers,” she went on. “The reason for that is that people feel the difference in their health when they make this shift and so the demand increases.”

A recent report by Euromonitor International (EI), which carries out extensive country-based market and business analysis of 100 countries, may attest to Dinnawi’s observations. A recent EI country profile already says that “health consciousness” has risen in Egypt.

“Thanks to increased connectivity and awareness of global trends, there has been an increase in health, fitness and diet programmes and plans, as well as the introduction of several health and wellness products” in the country, the EI report noted.

That said, however, the report also warned that this “increased health awareness that is spreading in Egypt is threatened by double-digit inflation.”

Egypt has experienced unprecedented inflation as a result of a sluggish economy following the 2011 Revolution. It started to bite hard in 2017 following the economic reform programme adopted by the government, which started with the floatation of the Egyptian pound, causing a hike in the prices of imported products, including health and wellness products. This was followed by the application of a new value-added tax (VAT) and the gradual lifting of fuel and power subsidies as part of a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Suppliers offering health and wellness products have thus faced challenges from declining consumer demand, as [other] purchases are being prioritised,” the report noted. “Imported products face a greater challenge, as the devalued local currency means it is now much more expensive to import.”

To face up to such economic challenges, the report showed how those in the health and wellness business have adapted to survive. “Health and wellness products have been directed by the suppliers and manufacturers to certain channels, targeting specific consumer segments that are aware of the health trend and products and can afford them,” the report said. “As such, health and wellness products are usually found in chain supermarkets in areas where middle- and higher- consumers live.”

That said, the report speculated that “the health and wellness trend is expected to continue as more Egyptians become connected and the desire for a healthy lifestyle spreads. However, the challenge will continue to be the double-digit inflation in the country,” the report concluded.

Yet, Dinnawi is not worried about such trends. She says that the health and business market “definitely started with the affluent classes and cultural elite simply because they were exposed to it earlier than other people.”

“But today I can see this trickling down, and more and more people from all walks of life are starting to pay more attention,” she noted. “I was interviewed last year by a group of students from Arish University who were starting a wellness magazine for their University to spread awareness, for example.”

Dinnawi also insists that eating well does not necessarily demand a big budget. “This is a misconception,” she notes, as the basics of eating healthily are fruit, vegetables, and good protein.

“Everyone has access to fruit and vegetable,” she explains. “They don’t even need to be organic. There are a lot of ‘add-on’ ingredients that may cost more, but they aren’t essential: you can choose to keep them or remove them. And at the end of the day, I always ask people to consider their health. Getting sick is very costly.”

MORE WELLNESS OUTLETS: Over the past few years, Egypt has been witnessing a surge in the number of restaurants, stores, online caterers, and wellness sites providing clean, organic and nutritious recipes and products.

Bakeries offering gluten-free pastries, cafes offering dairy-free coffee with almond milk substitutes and detox smoothies, restaurants and online caterers serving organic and super-clean dishes, and stores offering needed products — all these are growing in number in Cairo and some other cities, encourageing more people than ever to stick to a healthy diet.

All-natural beauty products have also been a trend in Egypt, since more and more people now understand that detoxing is not just a matter of a quick weight fix but is more of a way of life. The skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and it can allow toxins into the body if we use chemical products.

Health tourism has also been finding a niche in the Egyptian market, and health resorts have been popping up recently. One resort that has recently opened up on the Cairo-Assuit Western Road, has been seen as perhaps the first in Egypt and the Middle East offering weight-loss and anti-stress camps for clients.

Located 40km from the Giza Pyramids, the luxurious premises of this resort have been providing a set of stay-in programmes and camps with personally tailored nutrition, treatment and fitness plans for each client under the supervision of a staff of dietitians, doctors and trainers.

The programmes promise a total transformation of the body, not just weight-loss. They emphasise tightened skin, a pain-free body, and a detoxed body and mind. The resort also offers anti-stress packages that aim at breaking the stress-cycle and help clients to disconnect from daily life and focus solely on themselves.

Such luxurious services, however, remain reserved for the affluent classes that can afford them. But for online health coaching like that offered by Dinnawi, the real challenge is not necessarily related to budgets, but is more because for many people health coaches still do not carry the credibility of doctors.

“When we talk about nutrition and learning how to balance the body and re-balance uncomfortable symptoms and diseases using nutrition instead of medication, there can still be a lot of scepticism,” she explained. “The other part of this, of course, is that we teach people to completely change how they’ve been eating all their lives and how their parents and grandparents have been eating, so this is a huge mindset shift that takes work to bring about.”

After all, according to Dinnawi, “people are programmed for quick fixes, whether those are crash diets or instant relief from medications. They don’t like, or don’t have the patience for, long-term nutritional rebalancing and lifestyle changes that health coaches prescribe.”

Another challenge facing those following specific diet plans is finding the time to prepare recipes and buy groceries. Today, however, a number of online services have been catering healthy and super-clean foods that may also conform with many famous diet plans like the keto and paleo plans.

Nadine Al-Alaili, the founder of BodyBlocks, an online site that both designs personalised health programmes and caters healthy meals in Egypt, says that “there definitely is a growing market for healthy food [in Egypt], but we still have a very long way to go.”

BodyBlocks was launched over five years ago to offer nutritional consultations to clients, offering functional nutrition sessions that take into account all aspects of client health and well-being, such as diet, sleep, workouts, family health history, stressors, as well as blood tests to uncover missing nutrients or imbalances.  

“Luckily, we were successful and created our BodyBlocks online platform around three years ago to offer healthy packages, since we noticed that many clients’ main obstacle to eating healthy food was their lack of time to prepare or find that food in the marketplace,” Al-Alaili said. “We realised there was a big gap in the market for healthy options, and so we started outsourcing meals and delivering them to our clients to facilitate healthy eating.”

A year ago, Al-Alaili decided to open her own small manufacturing facility and start expanding the range of healthy meals and options for her clients. “We currently offer nutritional consultations, healthy eating packages, and a tailored option where we can customise our clients meal plans for them based on their specific condition and goals,” she noted.

She said that the number of her clients was growing in Egypt because “more and more people are finally realising the link between what we eat and chronic disease. And with chronic diseases on the rise, more and more people are starting to look into their foods and are wanting to invest in their health.”

She expects the wellness market in Egypt to continue to boom, even with the background of all inflation. “With chronic diseases on the rise, more people are realising that if they make better food choices, invest in quality food, and go for regular checkups, they can prevent chronic diseases,” she explained.

“In the past, you might hear of a few people you knew that had cancer; now almost everyone either has a family member with cancer or has had cancer themselves. As this problem increases, people are going to want to prevent it and to take care of themselves and make healthier choices for the children and teach their children how to make healthier choices as well,” she said.

The real challenge, she added, is “to find ingredients that are without chemicals, preservatives, additives, and hormones, which can be challenging in Egypt.” Besides, she said, “high quality ingredients can be expensive.”

This has the effect of making healthy choices something that is still too often reserved for the affluent classes. But could that change soon?

 “Even though we have started off by attracting the more affluent and the cultural elite, we are hoping to gradually grow our offering to be more affordable for more families,” Al-Alaili said. “The whole challenge is finding ingredients that are clean, that follow our core beliefs (no sugar, preservatives or processed food), and that are affordable to a larger part of the population.”

“That will definitely be more of our focus over the coming year,” she concluded.

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