ABU DHABI // Schools may be fined if they break proposed nutrition rules by selling junk food to pupils, as authorities try to halt rising rates of childhood obesity. Burgers, chips, chocolate and fizzy drinks are all on a list of banned foods, under a new Ministry of Health proposal, which could result in penalties for schools that continue selling the unhealthy products. The moves come as a leading paediatric doctor reveals that a lack of healthy food and physical activity is resulting in young adults as early as in their mid-20s being diagnosed with heart disease. Dr Mariam al Matroushi, the central school health director at the ministry, has confirmed that authorities are considering clamping down on schools to ensure they are doing their part to protect the health of their pupils.
"There are certain standards in place at the moment but they are not strict; there are no punishments if they don't follow them," she said. "We hope for better standards and better monitoring of foods served in schools. This will be supervised, and whoever does not follow the rules should be punished. No more bags of chips and chocolate. "We need very strict standards that are implemented in all the schools. They need to be pushed to change because it is not easy."
Dr Matroushi said a key part of the plan was to improve the supervision of the schools, with a dedicated monitoring team. "We have not decided how we should make sure schools follow the rules, but fining them is one of the suggestions." School heads would be given a set of regulations and conditions, outlining acceptable foods. The move has been welcomed by health professionals, who have seen the numbers of obese and overweight children increase dramatically in recent years.
World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show one in three children in the UAE is overweight or at risk of becoming so. About 25 per cent of school pupils drink one or more cans of carbonated drinks every day, and 18 per cent eat in fast food restaurants three or more times each week. Only 18.5 per cent eat fruit and vegetables five or more times a day. According to a study published in Obesity Reviews in 2006, 21.5 per cent of schoolchildren in the Gulf region were overweight and 13.7 per cent were obese.
Dr Shahraban Abdulla, the head of the paediatrics department at Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai and the president of the paediatric section of the Emirates Medical Association, said she hoped tough new rules for schools would stop children getting mixed messages about the foods they eat. "If we provide chocolates and fizzy drinks to children in schools we cannot tell them to avoid them, or blame them when they eat them," she said.
"If they have guidelines and also ways to enforce them, this will be a big step for the future. Hopefully, we can protect our children." Dr Abdulla said she had seen an increase in the number of young people being diagnosed with coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which is linked to poor diet and a lack of exercise. Patients of 11 years of age were being treated for the condition, while patients as young as 10 were being diagnosed with high cholesterol, she said. "With the high cholesterol and all the stresses of modern life our children are now prone to have heart disease early in life. We used to know that this was something affecting those above 50, but now we are having people in their mid-20s and early 30s. It is dangerous."
Mona Thabit, head teacher of Al Samha school for girls in Abu Dhabi, said she would be happy to follow the rules. "We don't have guidelines for lunches, but we will give pupils sandwiches and juices. Guidelines are a good idea and we would be happy to enforce them." Rana Sami, who works at Al Wuhaida School in Dubai, said she thought the change in diet during school hours would have a big impact on behaviour. "This is a very good thing because most pupils like chips and chocolate and coke. They don't know the bad things that will happen to them. With the healthy food, the children will be smarter and better behaved, but not with the food now."