ABU DHABI // More than half of parents who give their children unhealthy food regularly do so despite knowing the adverse effects and because of their offsprings' insistence.
A survey of 999 UAE parents found that 40 per cent often let their children consume calorie-laden foods such as chips, burgers, pizza and chocolate.
The survey, compiled for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) programme and The National by YouGov, found that 59 per cent said this was because they cave in to their children who "insist" on eating unhealthy foods.
A further 32 per cent said they gave their children unhealthy foods because they were "picky eaters".
Other respondents said they had no time to prepare healthy meals at home and said unhealthier foods were more convenient, while some said fast food and ready-to-eat prepackaged dinners were cheaper than preparing a meal from scratch.
Of those who admitted to giving their children unhealthy food, one in 10 admitted they did so "whenever they ask for it".
More than 50 per cent of respondents said they fed their children unhealthy food "once to twice a week".
But experts are clear that a healthy lifestyle when a child is young is key to the prevention of weight problems and obesity later, and avoiding illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
"Food parents choose for kids these days has become a matter of convenience rather than health," said Rashi Chowdhary, a Dubai-based nutritionist. "It is easier for parents to order in a pizza over a nutrient rich, home-cooked meal.
"Parents are a child's biggest role model, but since adults here are completely misinformed about food, they take no time out for any activity and eat unhealthy meals next to their kids, so having unhealthy, overweight or even obese children is bound to happen.
"Kids as young as eight have Type 2 diabetes in the UAE today."
The answer, she said, was to "encourage your children to eat food in its most natural original form. So choose whole fruit over fruit juices, pick whole grain breads over refined white breads, whole milk over skimmed". She added: "Start at a young age with kids, and they will grow up to be healthier adults."
The study found Dubai parents were more than twice as likely to give their children unhealthy food as parents in Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. Of those asked, 42 per cent admitted buying fast food on a "regular basis" for their children.
Hamda Al Hameli said she regularly gave her three children fast food because of its convenience.
"I am a working woman and do not have enough time to cook when I return home," said the 28-year-old Abu Dhabi resident. "I admit it, most of the time I pick food up."
Mrs Al Hameli buys takeaways such as baguettes, burgers or hot-dogs for her children three or four times a week.
But Rahma Al Ketbi, a nutrition education manager at the Abu Dhabi-based Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, said parents needed to be role models for healthy eating.
The risk of adult obesity is at least twice as high for obese children than for non-obese children, she said.
"Adolescents are being diagnosed at younger and younger ages due to obesity linked to physical inactivity and unhealthy diets," she said.
"Children are often more willing and open to learn about healthy choices than adults realise," she said. "Just don't force them to choose between cookies and carrots. But, if the option is between fruit and whole-grain crackers with cheese, either choice is a winner."
For more information about this survey, watch Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) programme at 8pm on April 6.