UAE study shows calorie confusion is slowing healthy eating drive

Experts say greater understanding of the science behind food health is needed

Experts say a lack of understanding of calorie intake is hindering efforts to encourage healthier diets. Ravindranath K / The National
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Poor food literacy among the UAE public is hampering efforts to encourage healthier eating habits, with one doctor saying some diners “don't even know what a calorie is”.

In a recent poll taken over the last two years by the University of Sharjah, only a third of 1,279 adults understood the recommended daily energy intake, about 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men.

A similar study in the US found that 54 per cent of people had sufficient calorie knowledge to make more informed choices about their diet when eating out.

Food labelling can definitely help, particularly in those people who need to manage their diets for a health condition, such as diabetes.
Pranita Gavankar, clinical dietician at Saudi German Hospital in Dubai

Voluntary menu labelling of calories in meals on restaurant menus was introduced across the UAE in 2020, but experts said there were still widespread knowledge gaps in how to make better food choices for health issues such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

While it's not yet compulsory for restaurants to provide calorie information on menus, Dr Leila Ismail, an associate professor at the University of Sharjah's Department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, said making it mandatory in the UAE could cut obesity rates.

People were asked to complete online questionnaires via social media, in each of the seven emirates.

Although about half of the participants reported not knowing enough about energy requirements to make lower-calorie food choices, they were interested in knowing more.

A food calorie, or kilocalorie, is a measure of nutritional energy generated from what is consumed.

Understanding calories

Calorie literacy was a particular issue among young people, with 54 per cent of those involved in the study under the age of 30.

Almost 9 out of 10 people who took part said they ate out at least once a week. And although 66 per cent said they were knowledgeable about calorie definition, just 37 per cent recognised the recommended daily amount of calories required.

The majority of those who took part (76 per cent) said they preferred to see calorie information and other nutritional detail on menus.

A traffic light system introduced in the UK in 2013 has had some success in educating the public about food content.

A red, yellow or green sticker indicates food that has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt, and also informs consumers of the number of calories and kilojoules.

“Our study showed that many people did not even know what a calorie is,” said Dr Ismail.

“To be able to improve, we need to deliver more awareness for the consumer. We can do that by changing food labelling.

“We can tell people want to understand more about food, and the traffic light system does that.

“One of the aims around the world is to eliminate the use of the trans fatty acid, as it’s very dangerous to health and used a lot in fast food.

“Food apps heavily influence consumer choices, and there are not many healthier choices on these.”

Healthy food strategy

The UAE’s National Nutrition Strategy 2030 aims to develop sustainable nutritional systems, to provide safe and supportive environments for nutrition to all ages.

Several targets include developing sustainable and flexible food systems for healthy diets and providing health systems and comprehensive coverage of basic nutrition measures.

Worldwide, more than 1.9 billion adults are now overweight, while 650 million are obese.

In the UAE, obesity rates have doubled since 1989.

Since then, the UAE has introduced the ’Healthy Food School Box’ initiative which includes several innovative awareness activities promoting food safety and healthy eating among children.

Meanwhile, the ‘Mutabah system’ screens schoolchildren to help identify those who are overweight or obese.

in 2019, a 100 per cent excise sugar tax on energy drinks and a 50 per cent tax on carbonated drinks was implemented in an attempt to curb sweetened drink consumption.

“If making food at home, we know the ingredients and what the total calories and proteins are, approximately,” said Pranita Gavankar, a clinical dietitian at Saudi German Hospital in Dubai.

“When eating out in hotels or restaurants, we don’t always have that same knowledge or information.

“You don’t know whether it's fresh or frozen, or what has been added to make it more palatable.

“Food labelling can definitely help, particularly in those people who need to manage their diets for a health condition, such as diabetes.”

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Updated: November 21, 2023, 9:10 AM