DUBAI //More than half of Emirati schoolchildren are overweight but only about a third are worried about it.
A study funded by the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research found only 38 per cent of pupils in Ras Al Khaimah thought obesity was a problem in schools.
More than 60 per cent of parents and teachers were concerned about pupils' weight and 58 per cent said it was a problem in their family - but that message does not seem to be trickling down to the young.
Kelly Stott, a doctoral student from the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, conducted the study last year.
She interviewed 162 RAK pupils between the ages of 9 and 18, most of them (102) Emirati. Another 48 were Indian and 12 were other nationalities. Fifteen teachers and 41 parents were also polled. Of these, 42 per cent of parents and 69 per cent of teachers labelled obesity a serious issue in the community.
Aisha Alsiri, the director of nutrition and school health section at the Ministry of Education, said most state-school pupils displayed the same attitude towards obesity.
"They know the term means being big," she said. "But they do not understand that it affects their health. They don't know it could lead to diseases like diabetes and heart defects." The problem may lie in school curriculums, Ms Stott said.
"I'm not sure students necessarily understand the threat that obesity is to their health as from what I understand this is not being taught in school," she said. "Perhaps implementing formal curriculums in which health education is added may help students better understand the consequences of obesity and its related diseases."
Ms Stott said her study aimed to identify barriers to addressing the issue of childhood obesity. Inappropriate nutrition in schools and restaurants was one of the main reasons for poor child health.
She said she noticed that Indian pupils were more likely to bring home-cooked meals than Emirati children were.
"What I think needs to be addressed are portion sizes," she said. "In today's society there is so much supersize foods that portion control and knowing how much to eat is not something that comes easy to people."
Ms Alsiri said the ministry had started visiting schools with experts and nutritionists to raise awareness.
"We also plan to publish a magazine on healthy lifestyle which will reinforce the importance of good nutrition and physical activity."
The ministry is working on new canteen guidelines for schools in the Northern Emirates, she said, and schools have been told to provide lessons on nutrition.
Asma Humaidan, a teacher at Al Dhait School in RAK, said she wanted more parental involvement in addressing the problem. "They don't listen when we tell them not to give their children only burgers and pizzas for meals," she said.
"Workshops on healthy eating do not happen often so children do not take them seriously.
"What we need is dedicated weekly sessions on these topics or something that is part of the curriculum itself."
Asma Yousef, a Grade 10 pupil at the Umm Al Quwain Public School, said she knows junk food must be avoided. "It's full of oil but we eat it when we are bored of home food," she said. Her school canteen sold only such items. "We get chips, chocolate, juice - no salads."
Asma said she had started walking for an hour every day but would like to have more PE classes at school, too. Her school has one class a week.
"It would help if there are more sports options and gym classes. Because if it is made compulsory, we will not have a choice but to stay fit."
Teachers interviewed by Ms Stott also blamed the low number of PE lessons and lack of proper sports facilities.
Ms Stott suggested developing a childhood obesity prevention programme including hosting health fairs and constructing community centres to overcome the issue.
"Community centres would be used by children as there are currently few places for indoor activities.
She said they could be a common place to hold healthy eating cooking classes, fitness classes, pool, gymnasiums, first aid and CPR courses.
"This would help to raise awareness of childhood obesity and promote healthy lifestyles in schools and the community as a whole."
Any awareness campaign needs to take into account the diversity in the area and must be culturally sensitive.
"If we can change young students lifestyles early on there we are on our way to helping them grow up to be healthy, fit adults," she said.
According to a 2010 survey by the Ministry of Health, 38.4 per cent of pupils are overweight and 14.4 per cent obese. About 18 per cent children said they eat fast food three to five times a week.
Last year, Seha, Abu Dhabi's health services company, found 29 per cent of pupils in Grades 1, 5 and 9 at state schools were either overweight or obese.