ABU DHABI // A panel from 12 government agencies has designed a plan of attack against childhood obesity.
Measures range from promoting healthy foods and exercise to improving the health care of women before and after they become pregnant.
The head of the panel, Health Authority Abu Dhabi chairman Dr Mugheer Al Khaili, presented statistics from the World Health Organisation showing that 15.1 per cent of pupils in the emirate are obese, while 16.7 per cent are overweight.
“Statistics from the report Childhood Obesity in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi indicate a significant number of obese children – an alarming statistic that highlights the importance of addressing this issue and ensuring the next generation is healthier,” Dr Al Khaili said.
“This cannot be achieved without a collective effort from each and every individual and organisation across our society.”
Other measures in the plan include guidance and support for early childhood diet and exercise, and programmes to promote nutrition and exercise for school-age children.
Services for weight management of obese children and adolescents.
Representatives from the 12 agencies formed the task force a year ago, Dr Al Khaili said.
“These are all entities in Abu Dhabi that have an influence on how children behave in terms of their eating habits and their exercise,” said Dr Maha Barakat, director general of Haad.
“It’s not just eating and exercise, it is also fostering an environment that will encourage them, incentivise them to want to do more physical activity.
“This isn’t just about schools, there is the community and there is what happens in the house.
“This is why the framework that the WHO has defined, the six pillars of how they want to tackle childhood obesity, covers all the aspects that could influence how a child eats or exercises.”
Abu Dhabi Media, which publishes The National, is one of the government organisations involved in the task force.
“Loyal to our social responsibility, we at ADM are especially keen to raise awareness about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” said HE Mohamed Ebraheem Al Mahmood, Chairman and Managing Director of the media group.
The task force has presented its recommendations to the Executive Council for approval, as some of the proposals will require new laws.
“There are initiatives to each of the six pillars, so some concern schools, some concern what people eat, what children eat, some concern how much exercise, some concern the environment – how easy is it for a child to exercise in this society, in the community,” said Dr Barakat.
“Some of them are easy to implement, some of them are more difficult.
“The more difficult ones relate to, for instance, how you stop people from eating sugar and what do you need to do to stop people from buying sugar? These are not easy.
“Unlike tobacco, where no one can say it’s healthy, sugar is different.”
Increasing the amount of exercise children get in schools and improving the quality of food in canteens would be “relatively straightforward,” she said.
“Clearly, we will need the right number of staff and we need to expand to as many schools as possible,” she said.
The WHO study of 45,000 pupils was conducted in 2014 and 2015. A related study presented by Haad showed that only 27 per cent of schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi had 60 minutes of physical exercise daily.
Dr Ayesha Al Dhaheri, chairwoman of the Nutrition and Health Department at UAE University, said early intervention and prevention is key to combating obesity.
“The figures presented by Dr Mugheer means that one in three children of UAE are either overweight or obese, with the risk of diabetes and hypertension, so we need to focus really a lot on the prevention of childhood obesity, which starts from an early age,” said Dr Al Dhaheri.
Anything that boosts physical education and improves nutrition in schools would be welcomed, she said.
“We need to enforce this because, apparently what’s currently is going on, once the child’s level of education increases, the physical activity class decreases,” said Dr Al Dhaheri.
“We want them to introduce the physical activity and enhance their physical activity from younger age and continue until they enter the university.
School policies governing healthy choices in canteens need to be enforced, she said.
“They have established guidelines and policies regarding school canteens, but those are not implemented. They are not enforced. There is no fine for those who will not follow this implementation,” said Dr Al Dhaheri.
“I think we need to really work hard, and this will not come from an individual, it should be interdisciplinary approach, so from policymakers, from school principals, from the children, teachers and parents.”
The panel include representatives of the General Secretariat of the Executive Council, Haad, Department of Municipal Affairs, Abu Dhabi Education Council, Urban Planning Council, Quality and Conformity Council, Sports Council, Food Control Authority, Seha, Abu Dhabi Media, Family Development Foundation and Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs.