Healthy school menus to fight child obesity

ABU DHABI // Several public schools will start offering healthier menus to pupils this autumn in an attempt to counter the high rates of obesity and diabetes among children.

Juice will replace soda and fresh fruits and vegetables will be served up instead of pizzas and breads in canteens as the Ministry of Education introduces a healthy eating programme over the coming weeks at five public schools.

The programme begins after Ramadan and will include workshops for teachers, parents and pupils about healthy eating.

Ahmad Abdul Rahman, the director of student activities at the ministry, said: “The number of people in the UAE that suffer from diseases like diabetes is very high. There are a lot of overweight kids and, as the Ministry of Education, we should be doing something about it. We should be serving healthy food in schools.”

The UAE has the second highest rate of diabetes in the world, with one in four Emiratis suffering from the disease, well above the world average of six per cent.

Doctors have also warned that the number of children with Type 2 diabetes, linked to bad diet and lack of exercise, is rising.

Although the programme is being introduced in only five schools, the new rules will be extended to all public schools during the 2009-2010 school year.

The ministry is also considering introducing similar guidelines for private schools, Mr Rahman said.

The scheme was conceived after a ministry study of 50 public schools found that pupils were eating poorly.

“We have a large percentage of children who eat bad foods, who are consuming a lot of soft drinks, which cause them to be overweight,” Mr Rahman added.

Tina Hathorn, a principal adviser at Salama bint Butti and Um al Emarat school in Al Shamka, said that, considering the popularity of junk food, she was surprised to hear pupils say they wanted healthier food.

“A lot of carbs are served, and I think the kids get tired and want something more nutritional. They want more of a hot meal, or salads and fruits.”

Ms Hathorn said the food served in school canteens was not “a healthy choice” and did not compare favourably with US school meals. “Very seldom, if ever, have I seen fruit or vegetables served. They just don’t have a variety.”

Dr Hussain Saadi, associate professor on the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at UAE University and a member of the Emirates Diabetes Society, said improving eating habits alone was not enough.

A lack of exercise is one of the key risk factors, along with family history, for Type 2 diabetes and if schools want to make headway in solving the problem they must strengthen their physical exercise programmes, he said.

Dr Maha Taysir Barakat, medical and research director at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, Abu Dhabi, said healthy meals of fruit and vegetables should be introduced together with regular exercise.

A 2005 World Health Organisation study showed that 33.6 per cent of pupils were overweight or at risk of becoming so. It also found that only 19.5 per cent of pupils surveyed were physically active for at least an hour a day.

While physical education is part of the school curriculum, it is offered only twice a week in many schools.

Ms Hathorn said: “I think our kids get one PE class every two weeks and that is just horrible. They are focusing more on the academics than on PE.”

Furthermore, public schools do not offer the same kind of extra-curricular sport activities found in the US and Britain, or the UAE’s private international schools.

“Ideally you need to get children to exercise more,” said Dr Salah Gariballa, a clinical nutritionist in the Department of Internal Medicine at UAE University. “You also need to tackle television watching,” he said, pointing to two American studies that found the most effective way of reducing obesity was cutting the time children spent slumped in front of the TV from two to one hour a day.

“They eat in front of the television, they eat the wrong food, they sit there without exercising for long hours and they also see adverts about junk food,” he added.

Dr Gariballa believes the UAE should take a holistic approach to the problem — and educating parents must be part of that.

“If you have an obese child, the chances that you have an obese parent are very high. If you have two obese parents the chances of having an obese child are 50 per cent,” Dr Gariballa said.

“A single programme will not work. Whatever you do to the child at school, if they go back home and find the environment the same it won’t make a difference. Any programme to improve the diet of a nation must work on many levels: you need to improve the diet and you need to improve the lifestyle. You need to get people to exercise more.”


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