DUBAI // Eat less junk food and take more exercise – this is the message being given to teenagers at schools across the country.
The Start Making All The Right Turns, or Smart, campaign teaches pupils from grade 8 onwards about diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
“We’re trying to convince them to make their own choices,” said Nadia Ghenia, the programme’s coordinator. “Everywhere they go, like the canteen, they find unhealthy food.
“Families can’t force children to avoid junk food, so children should learn to make their own choices.”
The campaign, by the Majid Al Futtaim Charity Foundation, advises teenagers that the decisions they make now will affect their health for many years to come.
"The problems of smoking, diabetes and obesity start at that age," Ms Ghenia said. "We're trying to convince them to make the choices by themselves – to say no to smoking, no to unhealthy food, to start exercising, to find out about diabetes and what can be prevented through exercise."
The programme, in its second year, has reached 85 schools so far. The foundation’s target is 500 schools over five years, or 100 schools a year.
“Last year, we went to a school every day,” Ms Ghenia said. “This year we want to finish all grades of one school each week before moving on to another.”
The charity visited the Oxford School and Al Maaref Private School last week, and spoke to children at the Dubai Modern Education School today.
"The programme focuses on hypertension, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease," Ms Ghenia said. "We talk to them about the prevention of smoking, and nutrition and physical activity, too."
According to the World Health Organisation, 80 per cent of premature heart disease, strokes and diabetes can be prevented.
“The lifestyle in the UAE is different [from that in the West],” Ms Ghenia said. “Children don’t have enough time and because of the weather, they can’t always exercise out.
“They don’t have the mentality to go exercise in specific places, so we’re telling them they need to move by cycling, walking or any other way.”
The programme has the children try 10 health-related activities, including checking the glycemic index, counting calories and learning about rehabilitation.
Children also complete nutrition score cards and use pedometers to measure their exercise levels.
Parents have welcomed the healthy eating initiative.
“The new generation just eats junk food, which increases their risk of diseases in the future,” said Salim Illias, the father of a 15-year-old pupil at the Model School in Abu Dhabi.
“They don’t realise that they could go to hospital and be diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes. Most kids are not aware.”
Mr Illias said his son Suhail exercised at school but junk food was a major problem.
“We reduced the number of times we go out to eat because I want this kind of junk food to disappear,” he said. “The programme is a great idea because all this is very harmful, especially for teens, and they are not conscious of their health.”
Teachers said such concepts should be introduced at school.
"Children should be more aware," said Suja Udaikumar, a teacher and supervisor at Delhi Private School in Sharjah. "Whatever they learn at that age, they retain it and keep it for life.
“It’s a very sedentary lifestyle children have here because of the weather and parents are overprotective.
“Children live a very cocooned life, they play in indoor facilities, so exposure to the outdoors is limited. But physical activity should be ingrained.”