DUBAI // An epidemic of childhood obesity in the Middle East is particularly grave in the UAE, a visiting US researcher has warned.
"Some of the contributing factors include changes in lifestyle, dietary habits and physical activity patterns," said Kelly Stott, a Columbia University doctoral candidate in health education.
More than three-quarters of women and two-thirds of the men in the UAE are overweight and the numbers are expected to increase, according to World Health Organisation statistics. The UAE is 10th in a list of countries with the most overweight people.
Ms Stott is conducting a survey on obesity among children in Ras al Khaimah and revealed preliminary results in a recent lecture hosted by the Dubai School of Government.
"The aim of my study was to identify how key groups, such as parents, teachers and students, viewed the issue of obesity and what barriers they faced to be physically active," she said.
Ms Stott got permission from the education zone to visit some of the public schools in Ras al Khaimah and then took the initiative to go to private schools as well, resulting in insightful observations from two Arabic, English and Indian schools.
"I did surveys and I had over 50 interviews with parents, teachers and kids ... I have about 170 surveys. Most of the interviews were with Emiratis because I wanted to get their point of view," she said.
"When I was interviewing the kids and parents, the biggest thing was that they were not aware and parents could not control what their kids were eating. Parents give their children money and they can buy whatever they want," said Ms Stott.
A British primary school teacher in Ras al Khaimah, who did not wish to be named, agreed with Ms Stott. He said: "As a teacher, I see what children carry in their lunch boxes and some of them come to school with chicken nuggets, french fries and two packets of crisps ... others with just a packet of crisps."
He said the situation has improved over the past two years, but that it was still evident some parents showed a disregard for what constitutes a healthy meal.
"The eating habits of children have to improve, because at a young age they do not know how to eat well," he said.
In seeking to understand what key factors influenced the health status of the children, Ms Stott noted that more health facilities were required for children to be active.
She found that at the Indian schools, children were given one hour of physical education a week but that it was all theory.
"Poor nutrition and reduced physical activity are the two main factors behind the alarming proportions of health imbalance in the UAE," she said. "I saw different cafeterias and although they might not sell soda, they have fried chicken, chocolate croissants, and chocolate and strawberry milk. If you ask the kids if they are healthy, they say 'yes'," she said.
Some of the consequences of childhood obesity include low self-esteem, hindrance to academic and social function, as well as cardiovascular disease risks, among others.
Ms Stott recommended improved cafeteria food, mandatory physical activity be implemented at least four times a week, as well as stricter rules about what children can bring with them to schools. She also advised parents to take more control of what they are feeding their children.
She believed it was important for both private institutions and the Government to have joint campaigns.
"The implications of the study were to help initiate preventative and interventionist strategies during early childhood because we need to hit the children as they grow up to become adults," she said.
Dr Tarik Yousef, Dean of the Dubai School of Government said: "The lecture conveyed a disturbing picture. Child obesity is a growing problem in the Middle East that requires urgent attention."