A childhood obesity taskforce has set an ambitious target of reducing the average body mass index of children by 15 per cent whilst increasing physical activity by the same amount by 2020.
A call to arms has been sounded at the Abu Dhabi Childhood Obesity Forum where international experts have shared the latest findings and success stories in combating what has become a global epidemic.
Healthcare spending in the UAE is predicted to more than double to $47.5 billion by 2040 as obesity levels increase putting people more at risk of non-communicable diseases.
“The rate of obesity is expected to rise unless we undertake community and institutional interventions with all relevant parties to put an end to this increase and control this health problem,” said Sheikh Abdulla bin Mohamed Al Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi.
Restrictions on fast food restaurants near schools was one option being considered, following successful reports from the UK.
Further restrictions on advertising of junk food towards children and traffic light labelling of the nutritional content of food are also being considered for an Abu Dhabi action plan, with red signalling foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
The two-day forum is being held at the Sofitel on Abu Dhabi Corniche with more than 300 delegates attending from 12 government agencies and nine private organisations.
“We are looking at both the UK and USA plan in how this issue is being targeted, so we can take a combination of the best approach,” said Omniyat Al Hajeri, director of public health at the Department of Health in Abu Dhabi.
“We will be establishing specific key performance indicators so we can monitor the progress of the plan to reduce childhood obesity.
“The idea is to have measurable outcomes during this process, and we can learn from our colleagues.
“We recognise that obesity is a social and a health problem and there needs to be a large intervention in the community to help children.”
Among other practical steps being explored are regulating the intake of calories and sugar among children, and reducing their access to products with high sugar and calorie content.
Over the long term, Abu Dhabi hopes to introduce innovations in developing healthier products for consumption by children, using advances in science and technology to make products that are nutritionally good for children, while also appealing in terms of taste.
One of the successful projects adopted in the UK that has been taken on for discussion as a proposal in the UAE is restrictions on fast food outlets within close proximity to schools.
“We are testing the ground in this area, but this kind of decision needs political and economic support,” Ms Al Hajeri said.
“It is a decision that will need to be taken at federal level. We have some drastic suggestions, and we should not accept half solutions. This is the time to take brave decisions.
“We are not looking at necessarily making fast food more expensive, but we want healthy food to be more accessible and affordable.
“Advertising will play a big role in this, and encourage kids to make the right choices. It needs to be a drastic change; this is a global issue.”
Globally, learnings from successful campaigns in the UK, Sweden, The Netherlands and Mexico have been presented at the forum with key insights focusing on the early years as an important stage to promote healthy eating and activity that can be maintained beyond childhood.
The fight against childhood obesity is being made not just in terms of health concerns, but also because of the economic costs. It was estimated the NHS in England spent close to Dhs25bn on obesity-related illnesses (children and adults) in 2015.
“We have started to see success in the nutrition in schools, but it is also important to look at the wider environment that children are exposed to that is contributing to the food choices they are making,” said Robin Ireland, director of research at the Health Equalities Group UK, which specialises in tobacco and diet control.
“There is only so much we can do, there has to be a certain degree of responsibility.
“In England the message has started to be delivered from a wider level, with some local authorities working with planning boards to ensure no fast food restaurants are allowed to open within 400 metres of a school.
“The staff in school also need to be aware of how to create a healthy eating environment.
“Education is part of that environment, sometimes we assume that passing on understanding will lead to a change in behaviour, but childhood obesity needs to have a wider approach.”