The prevalence of overweight and obese children in Abu Dhabi continues to rise as parents fail to recognise, or underestimate, the weight problems of their children, according to a new study.
Researchers found that only one out of six parents of obese children correctly identified their child’s weight. Nearly 40 per cent defined their obese child’s weight was a “normal,” with another 41.7 per cent calling their child overweight and only 2.1 per cent observing their child as underweight.
"Most people thought of obesity as an adult issue," said Dr Eideh Al Shehhi, co-author of the study, Prevalence and risk factors of obesity in children aged 2—12 years in the Abu Dhabi Islands.
Dr Al Shehhi found that parents of obese children often misinterpreted their child’s weight as growth, with many saying “they are children, they have to eat, they have to gain weight because they are growing.”
Parents who fail to recognise their child has a weight problem will also fail to help them get healthy, said Dr Noora Al Ali, one of the study's authors.
“It plays a major role because if the parent is not aware, they will not act on this problem, so their children will continue to have obesity and maybe more complications in the future,” said Dr Al Ali.
A team of family doctors practicing in Abu Dhabi public hospitals sought to measure the prevalence and risk factors of obesity and above-normal weight gain among patients between the ages of two and 12 years.
They issued a questionnaire to 274 mothers who accompanied their children to two government ambulatory health care centres in the emirate between February 2014 and January 2015. The mothers were asked about the family’s socio-demographic make-up, their child’s activity level, diet, sleep routine and biometric data, such as weight, height and body mass index of the child.
Results of the study, published in the November issue of the Middle East Journal of Family Medicine, showed a worrisome trend, the authors wrote.
“After comparing our study with the previous studies done in the UAE about the childhood obesity, we noticed that obesity in this age group, from 2 to 12, is increasing, and the obesity is more common in the national people than non-national,” said co-author Dr Noora Al Ali.
The prevalence of overweight and obesity among the study population was found to be 32.8 per cent overall — 15.3 per cent were overweight and 17.5 per cent were obese.
When isolating the data to represent only UAE nationals, the rate of obesity was even higher: 22.2 per cent versus 10.4 per cent for non-nationals, according to the report.
By comparison, a study carried out in the year 2000 to measure the weight of UAE children using data from a national survey of pupils found that 8.3 per cent were overweight or obese. In 2012, research paper published in International Journal of Obesity showed 14.2 per cent of surveyed Emirati children in Abu Dhabi were overweight and 19.8 were obese.
“That was surprising because we thought that after this study was published that something would be done be to reduce the rate of obesity,” said Dr Al Shehhi. “But it hasn’t. It is increasing.”
The researchers said they hope their findings will persuade policymakers to improve public awareness campaigns to encourage families to adopt healthier diets and more active lifestyles. Schools can do their part by raising the number of physical education classes to three mandatory periods of exercise weekly for this age group and eliminating the sale of junk food, the doctors said.
“There should be a nutrition committee in each school searching for this problem and making sure that all the healthy foods are provided for the kids,” said Dr Al Ali. “There is a law banning unhealthy foods in schools, but it needs to be monitored and enforced.”