Drastic action is needed with child obesity on the rise

Setting up exclusion zones around schools and banning fast food outlets nearby could save lives and the cost to health care

March 4, 2009 / Abu Dhabi/ Zahwa el Said, 4,  enjoys food from Popeyes in Abu Dhabi Mall March 4, 2009.  (Sammy Dallal / The National) *** Local Caption ***  sd-030409-fastfood-09.jpg
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We are putting our children's lives at risk with a diet of fast food and little exercise. The cost will mount as they get older – not simply because of the financial implications of treating obesity-related conditions but because their life expectancy will be significantly shortened as a result. That was the message from the Child Obesity Forum in Abu Dhabi this week, where more than 300 health experts and doctors have gathered to tackle a growing crisis.

Figures from the World Obesity Federation show child obesity cases in the UAE are on the rise. In Dubai alone, one in five children under the age of 11 is deemed obese, while nearly half of 11 to 16-year-olds are overweight, according to Dubai Health Authority. We don't have to look very far to find the culprits. Comfortable, sedentary lifestyles, a lack of exercise and the ease of access to fast food almost everywhere all contribute to creating a larger population. While many benefit from the good life here, there is a downside to having everything on your doorstep. In fact, we are creating huge problems for future generations. Health care to deal with obesity-related diseases is expected to cost nearly $50 billion by 2040.

A key suggestion to tackling the epidemic is setting up exclusion zones around schools preventing fast food outlets from opening nearby. The tactic has already been rolled out by 20 authorities in the UK, who said "pester power" was undermining parents' efforts to control their children's diets. What is clear is that a multi-prong approach is needed to ensure children are gearing toward a health future. That doesn't simply mean parents controlling the levels of sugar and fat they consume or sports teachers getting them to participate in the school gym. Fast food companies have a responsibility not to target the young and vulnerable through advertising and to make the nutritional value of their products clearer. Of course, commercial interests will always prevail so until children are old enough to make sensible decisions for themselves, taking junk food out of the equation – or out of easy reach – might just be the best option.