Childhood obesity is reaching epidemic levels in the UAE. So how can public health be changed to help improve the lives of our youth?
There’s no denying it: Childhood obesity is on the rise. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016 there were 41 million obese children around the world, and this number is projected to nearly double by 2025.
Closer to home, the World Obesity Federation predicts that childhood obesity in the UAE will affect 14 percent of children under the age of 20 by 2020, an increase of more than two percent since 2013.
With serious health conditions resulting from obesity, including diabetes and heart disease, it’s clear that we have to take action to help improve the health of children.
A growing problem
While the rise of childhood obesity is a global issue, the prevalence of the problem in the UAE is a major cause for concern.
Speaking at the Gulf Obesity Summit and Regional Congress 2018, a representative from WHO stated that childhood obesity in the UAE is twice as prevalent than the global average – with 17 percent of schoolchildren in the country classified as obese. Alarmingly, this trend shows no sings of stopping.
“Childhood obesity is on the rise and the main contributing factor is lifestyle,” explains Dr Rania Dib, specialist in paediatrics at HealthPlus Children’s Specialty Center.
“Children are engaged in too few activities and prefer the sedentary lifestyle, using video games for entertainment as opposed to taking part in actual sports activities or exercise.”
A recent study by YouGov found this to be the case, as 51 percent of parents in the UAE stated that their child choose playing video games over participating in a physical activity. But there’s more to the epidemic than lack of exercise.
“It’s not just inactivity,” continues Dr Rania. “Children are also getting too many calories from food and drinks, especially sugary drinks that are [appealing] and readily available.
“In addition, we shouldn’t overlook that genetic and hormonal factors might play a
role as well.”
In a bid to reduce the number of calories and sugar ingested by children, the UAE government introduced an excise tax in October last year, adding a 50 percent tariff on sugary drinks and 100 percent on energy drinks.
Launched to improve public health, the tax is just one measure the government has taken to reduce the rise of serious conditions connected with obesity that can be detrimental to children’s health.
“Type 2 diabetes is one of the most significant complications of obesity and is due to the resistance to the work of insulin, the hormone of the pancreas,” explains Dr Rania. “[Other complications include] increased blood pressure, heart disease and metabolic syndrome with an increase in cholesterol. At the end of the spectrum, obesity can even cause fat deposition on the liver, leading to the development of fatty liver disease.
“Another issue is sleep apnoea, where there’s an obstruction to respiration during sleep that causes snoring, repeated awakening at night and tiredness that might affect the child’s school performance.
“Finally, there’s the psychological burden with low self-esteem that in some cases can lead to depression.”
While there is no overnight solution, there are simple measures that parents can take to help set their child up for a healthier future.
When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, it’s all about maintaining a nutritious diet and exercising regularly.
“Parents should allow children to be involved in more physical activities and sports,” Dr Rania explains. “It’s also important to educate children in schools about the food pyramid and how to make the correct food choices, and offer alternatives that are as attractive to a child as the unhealthy ones.
“The early introduction of healthy food options and establishing a familiarity with good food practice is also extremely important at a young age so that your child will grow with good habits.”
As a parent, it can be challenging to help your child lead a healthy and happy life and you might not often see that they are starting to become overweight because you want to keep them happy – but you could be doing more harm than good.
It’s important not to judge your child or make them feel bad about themselves, but you should be aware that developing obesity at a young age could have a detrimental effect on their life as a whole, and can lead to a host of serious medical conditions.
What’s more, research suggests that children who achieve a healthy weight are better able to learn and are more confident, traits that will help them to achieve the best results in school and develop as individuals.
So what small changes can you make to help your child maintain a healthy weight and steer clear of obesity?
Children look to their parents as examples so you can’t tell children that they should eat healthily while you do the exact opposite. Children will learn most of their habits from their parents so practise what you preach and build a healthy relationship with food based around a wholesome diet.
Children are not adults, so don’t feed them adult-sized portions. Overfeeding from an early age will have a negative effect so make sure that the portions you feed your child are appropriate and they’re not overeating, a hard habit to break.
Maintain a healthy diet
Treats are called treats because they’re not enjoyed often. Forget fast food as a regular meal, and instead be more aware of what you’re putting into your and your family’s bodies. Read food labels, be aware of fat and sugar content and make healthy substitutes where possible for foods that are high in calories and saturated fat. Also, don’t be scared of getting your hands dirty in the kitchen; encourage children to help prepare meals so they become familiar with healthy cooking and nutritious meals.
Drink more water
Water is so good for the body but most of us aren’t drinking nearly enough. You might think fruit juices are healthy, but they are high in sugar and you just can’t beat water. If your child doesn’t like plain water, then try infusing it with fresh fruit slices like lemons, strawberries, cucumber and even mint to add a bit of flavour.
Encourage 60 minutes of exercise a day
Being active doesn’t have to be a chore. Does your child love football? Then sign them up for a team or go out and kick the ball around. Does your child love to swim? Then take them to the pool and let them use up all their energy in the water. Whatever your child takes an interest in, encourage them and enable them to take part.
Get some sleep
Research has shown that a lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain as well as a reduced attention span and energy. Our bodies need to recharge their batteries at night to provide us with energy to use throughout the day and children are no different. Set a bed time and make sure that they are getting a good night of quality sleep.
WORDS Colin Armstrong