ABU DHABI // Pupils at selected schools will write down everything they eat and drink as part of a campaign to deal with the growing problem of childhood obesity. "Food diaries" kept by 160 boys and 160 girls for three days will provide the basis of the first comprehensive dietary survey to be conducted in the UAE. The results will then be scrutinised by researchers at Zayed University who hope to build an accurate picture of what children are eating.
The pilot study, to be carried out this spring in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, will be extended across the emirate and then nationwide in the autumn. The results could then form the basis of a national anti-obesity strategy. "We have a health crisis here with diabetes and obesity," said Dr Serah Theuri, assistant professor at Zayed University and leader of the study. The survey will involve pupils in Grades 8 and 9, with ages ranging from 13 to 15.
"This is the age when their eating habits are not good," said Dr Theuri. "They're trying to gain independence from their parents and habits are not quite established yet. I want to compare the boys and the girls, and also the eighth graders and the ninth graders." Using techniques and tools provided by the university, the participating children will make detailed notes about what they eat. "In a ziplock bag we will provide measuring tools for when they go home - measuring cups, measuring spoons, a ruler," Dr Theuri said. The data will be processed by nutritional analysis software to calculate the total calories eaten, along with the vitamins and minerals consumed. The study will also determine which food groups the child is eating from, and whether some groups are being overindulged at the expense of others.
Dr Theuri said it was important for children to develop good eating habits early because the health consequences could be serious and lifelong. "Obesity, combined with lack of exercise, has far-reaching health repercussions and is linked to diabetes and heart problems in adulthood. "The arteries can start to clog at five years old," she said - adding that the first indication of this might be a stroke at the age of 30.
"High cholesterol does not just start over two days but is caused by ongoing problems," she said. "It is important to create an awareness of healthy eating, especially in schools." Once the survey has been rolled out across the country the number of children involved could rise to the thousands. "We want to get samples from each city, each emirate," Dr Theuri said. "I'm hoping to get bigger participation which will give us national data. We will be able to confidently say that this is the nutritional status of students across the UAE."
The Ministry of Health (MoH) is also collecting data for the World Health Survey. Statistics from the most recent Global School-based Student Health Survey, published in 2005, indicated that in the UAE 13 per cent of boys and 11 per cent of girls were overweight while 20 per cent of pupils were at risk of becoming so. The self-reported questionnaire also showed that 18 per cent of children ate fast food at least three days a week and more than a quarter drank soft drinks at least twice a day.
"It is definitely important that studies like this are being done," said Dr Huda al Suwaidi, director of the World Health Survey at the MoH. "Whatever you do as a child and a teenager is important, especially in terms of food consumption - it's quality and quantity. It's very important in this period, even more important than in adult life. You get whatever you put inside your body." She said the ministry welcomed any effort to improve the health of the population.
"Obesity is the major problem of our generation," said Dr Jamal al Jubeh, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist from Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi. Emphasising the point that obesity in childhood can have serious consequences later in life, he added: "Obesity will first affect their movement - their ability to run and participate in sports. It makes them less likely to participate in such activities.
"It can also cause them to have low self-esteem and suffer some degree of isolation and teasing regarding their weight and their look." Children as young as seven were being diagnosed with conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, formerly found only in adults, he said. "Most of the time children do not make healthy choices. They can be influenced by advertisements to pick foods that aren't very healthy. Education campaigns to teach people and drive people to make better choices are very important."
The results of the pilot study are expected to be published in the summer, and the national scheme may be in place as early as the autumn. "Imagine that bad habits are arrested in childhood," said Dr Theuri. "We would have a nation growing up to be healthy." firstname.lastname@example.org