The UAE has unveiled a long-term strategy to boost the nation's health by tackling poor diet and lifestyle choices from an early age.
Eliminating trans fats and slashing salt and sugar from foods are among new targets set by health authorities to cut rates of diabetes and obesity.
The National Nutrition Strategy 2022-2030 is being led by the Ministry of Health and Prevention.
The road map aims to develop a healthy and sustainable food system in the years ahead to limit common heath problems that currently plague children and expectant mothers.
Goals include reducing average salt intake by 30 per cent and bringing in limits on industrial trans fats used in food to improve the population’s heart health and cut the risk of diabetes.
“We will make every possible effort to decrease the prevalence of diseases connected to lifestyle and enhance the results of national health indicators,” said Abdulrahman Al Owais, Minister of Health and Prevention.
“We look forward to achieving the healthy nutrition goals for all sectors of society through this national strategy for well-being.”
The strategy has five foundations; developing sustainable and flexible food systems for healthy diets, providing health systems and comprehensive coverage of basic nutrition measures, offering social protection and nutrition education, providing safe and supportive environments for nutrition at all ages, and following an advanced food strategy.
What are trans fats?
Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat commonly found in meat and dairy products.
Although generally safe in moderation, artificial trans fats found in vegetable oils used in the production of highly processed food is harmful, and a contributor to heart disease.
According to a 2021 survey of more than a thousand residents by the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, 55 per cent said they had either been directly affected by heart disease, or knew someone who had.
Tighter controls on advertising of harmful foods are also planned, alongside more emphasis on nutrition in schools, to address malnutrition in children and growth deficiencies.
Early in 2018, the Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre mandated all healthcare centres to serve 70 per cent Weqaya-approved and 30 per cent non-Weqaya-approved, portion-controlled food.
Weqaya is a food specification programme launched by the Department of Health to provide healthy meal selections and reduce chronic diseases.
The mandate applied to cafes, vending machines, staff cafeterias, and outpatient food service outlets in health settings.
In August, the public health centre updated Weqaya with the introduction of SEHHI, a programme to identify and label nutritious foods in restaurants, cafes, healthcare centres, hotels, grocery stores and supermarkets across the Abu Dhabi.
Further legislation is in the pipeline in accordance with World Health Organisation guidance to regulate marketing of unhealthy food and drinks.
Tighter controls on social media advertising are also proposed.
Archana Baju, a clinical dietitian and head of diet and nutrition at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi said greater public understanding of nutrition would help improve community health.
“Healthy eating and sensible food choices are the only options to build a healthy society and decrease the prevalence of lifestyle diseases,” she said.
“Awareness and education are the most significant challenges today.
“This initiative should provide more accessibility to healthy choices for consumers to make unbiased decisions.
“The public is mostly aware of the importance of low salt, low fat, and low sugar in diets, but implementation and sustainability are usually uncertain.
“Healthy meal choices should be readily available, accessible, and affordable.”
The new government initiative aims to halve rates of anaemia in women and reduce the number of overweight under-fives.
Better maternity care and nutrition in pregnancy can also help the strategy reach a new target of cutting low birth rates by 30 per cent.
Workshops are scheduled for February 2023 with the food and beverage industry to set deadlines and firm guidelines on what acceptable levels of trans fats will be.
“There is a noticeable change in the culture towards food already, but at the same time, the market is bursting with unhealthy foods disguised as healthy alternatives,” said Ms Baju.
“It is often said that home is our first school, and parents are the first teachers.