One child in three is overweight or obese, UAE study shows

Researchers studied 1,440 children and teenagers aged 6 to 19 and found 14.2 per cent were overweight and a further 19.8 per cent were obese.

ABU DHABI // One in three children is overweight or obese and at risk of early diabetes and hypertension, a new study suggests.

Researchers studied 1,440 children and teenagers aged 6 to 19 and found 14.2 per cent were overweight and a further 19.8 per cent were obese.

"Obesity unfortunately exists among a large number of our kids and intervention is needed," said Dr Abdulla Al Junaibi, consultant endocrinologist at Zayed Military Hospital and the study's main researcher.

Children with overweight or obese parents were more likely to become overweight themselves, he said.

Most of the children studied were Emirati children and adolescents. A small percentage were expatriates. They were categorised by their body mass index, a calculation that uses height and weight to estimate body fat against a child's growth chart.

Problems were especially acute in children aged 11 to 15, of whom 40 per cent were overweight or obese, and 16 to 19, of whom 39 per cent were overweight.

In the 6 to 10 age group, 22.8 per cent were overweight or obese. As the children grew older, the likelihood of obesity increased.

This could be because older children have more freedom to choose what they eat, said Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, co-author of the study and a research specialist at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at United Arab Emirates University.

"More research needs to be done but speculatively when children reach this age group they are more independent in their food choices, which could be a contributing issue," he said.

Girls were more likely to be overweight and boys were most likely to be obese, the study found, and those who were overweight or obese tended to have higher blood pressure.

This could lead to diabetes and hypertension in later life, said Dr Abdulle.

Another significant finding was that children who consumed more dairy products were less likely to become overweight or obese. The overall consumption of fruits and vegetables and amount of exercise in all children of all ages were "very sub-standard", said Dr Abdulle

The researchers found 8.3 per cent of children in the study were underweight.

The study also looked at the link between obesity in parents and their children and found those with overweight or obese parents were more likely to overeat, said Dr Al Junaibi.

"The study showed that high parental body weight was a clear risk factor for childhood obesity," he said.

A child was 30 per cent more likely to be overweight or obese if a parent was. That increased to 80 per cent if both parents were overweight or obese.

"Importantly, being overweight or obese is not purely genetic, it is both genetic and the environment," he said.

Those who are not exposed to healthy food and lifestyles are less likely to exercise or eat healthy, he said.

Dr Al Junaibi said by comparing the results of the study to results from ten years ago there was a "significant increasing trend of obesity" in all age groups over the past decade.

The children in the study were randomly selected from 23 out of 246 public schools in Abu Dhabi, Al Gharbia and Al Ain. There were no marked differences in the prevalence of obesity among the three areas.

The findings of the year-long study were published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Dr Al Junaibi said there needed to be a national strategy to improve the current levels of childhood obesity. Prevention strategies should focus on younger children, particularly children of obese parents.

He said obesity trends were similar to those in North America, which has reported a three-fold rise in overweight or obese children in the past decade.

Worldwide, about 40 million children under the age of 5 are overweight. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, with about one in three being overweight or obese.

In the UK, about 30 per cent of children are overweight, the same as in the US. In 2010, more than 40 per cent of children in the North American and eastern Mediterranean regions were overweight or obese, 38 per cent in Europe, 27 per cent in the western Pacific and 22 per cent in southeast Asia.