UAE children more obese than US, with 30% in Abu Dhabi overweight

Despite the results, progress is being made in improving the eating and exercise habits of the young, the emirate's health authority has said.

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ABU DHABI // Nearly a third of schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi are obese or overweight, but progress is being made in improving the eating and exercise habits of the young, the emirate's health authority has said.

Thirty per cent of six to 18-year-olds are either obese or overweight, according to the latest statistics from Health Authority Abu Dhabi (Haad).

And nearly 10 per cent of children under the age of five in the emirate are anaemic, according to a 2010 study.

UAE schoolchildren are 1.8 times more obese than US children, studies conducted by the cardiology department at the Saif Bin Ghubash Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah concluded.

Despite this, Haad said its school-based "Eat Right, Get Active" programme, which aims to improve the health of pupils through healthy eating habits and physical activity, is achieving results.

"The programme was brought in because there are challenges in eating habits and physical activity in Abu Dhabi among children," said Dr Jennifer Moore, the section head for maternal and child health at Haad.

"It's important for children to learn healthy behaviours early on in their life about healthy eating and physical activity.

"Since we started the programme, we have been incredibly impressed with the amazing work that the schools have done."

More than 60 schools have participated in the initiative since its launch in 2011, and new schools are joining steadily. Each one conducts a pre and post-implementation assessment and the results show significant improvements, Haad said.

The percentage of schools offering at least three physical exercise classes of 40 minutes per week rose from 33 per cent to 60 per cent, for example, and the percentage of schools offering sports programmes after school hours rose from 26 per cent to 46 per cent.

Monthly healthy-eating awareness sessions went from being held at 78 per cent of schools to 92 per cent of them, and the availability of healthy eating options at school premises - in canteens, vending machines and during events, rose from 64.3 to 71.4 per cent.

Focus groups have been held with schools, Dr Moore said, to find out what challenges they are facing.

"They have raised things like needing to get parents more involved in actually providing the healthy food - both at school but also at home," she said.

"It's very important to have a school programme that's supported by parent involvement, because children are at school and then they go home and they eat the food that's served at home."

Held under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the programme is a collaborative effort between Haad, Abu Dhabi Education Council, Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and Ambulatory Healthcare Services.

Dr Ahed Bisharat, a consultant paediatrician at Abu Dhabi's Burjeel Hospital, said the number of obese or overweight children in the emirate is a concern.

"It's worrying because the style of life now is different than before," he said. "They have junk food more than before and a sedentary life - they don't exercise.

"It's a big problem in Abu Dhabi and they should work on this as soon as possible. This can lead to many, many health problems."

Obese children can get high blood pressure and high cholesterol, Dr Bisharat said, and are also more prone to developing conditions such a cardiovascular disease, kidney problems and Type 2 diabetes in adulthood.

He recommended a balanced diet containing foods such as chicken, meat, milk, eggs and vegetables.