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Lunch boxes are the gateway to a life of healthy eating

Obesity and ill health in adulthood can begin in childhood, so parents must encourage good habits now.

'We are what we eat", the adage tells us. And yet, it seems that too few people believe in the truth of this wisdom.

The lifestyle choices that we make, what we eat, how much we exercise and whether we smoke heavily determine our state of health. These factors account for 90 per cent of all heart disease and 45 per cent of all cancers. So is changing our lifestyle choices a panacea - a way of preventing disease?

Possibly. Dietary interventions are used by individuals to manipulate diseases such as cancer, inflammatory bowel and other chronic diseases through fine tuning of the immune system or other effects on the body. While these are not always scientifically proven, they seem to make a difference to the lives of many individuals.

So are children what they eat? The answer is yes, absolutely. The nutrition of children and babies even during the time in the mother's womb in pregnancy, has been shown to influence the onset of obesity, diabetes and even academic achievement much later in life.

And while increasing numbers of schools have either opted in or are obliged to meet specific nutritional criteria of the foods they sell, the vast majority of food eaten in local schools is brought from home in lunch boxes and remains unchecked. The contents of lunch boxes vary from good to bad but surveys show that well over half of all lunch boxes brought in by children do not meet nutritional guidelines.

What, then, can be done to ensure children are eating as well as they can?

There are many ways that parents can make lunch boxes exciting and nutritious. The contents should be a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fibre, vegetables and fruit and include a drink. Examples of foods that a healthy lunch box should include are:

A portion of starchy food, for example wholemeal roll or bread, wraps, pasta or rice;

Plenty of fruit and vegetables, be they fresh (like an apple), canned (fruit chunks in natural juice) or dried (a small box of raisins);

A portion of dairy food, for example, semi-skimmed milk or an individual cheese portion;

A portion of lean meat, fish, eggs or beans, like chicken, beef, tuna, egg or hummus;

A drink, like unsweetened fruit juice, semi-skimmed milk or water.

Using bright and colourful foods with different tastes and textures will keep children interested in what they are eating. Other ideas include adopting a colour theme for each day, taking inspiration from holidays or different countries and using foods that are in season. Children should be involved at an early age in choosing and packing their own lunch.

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and drinks with added sugar and caffeine should be restricted. Treats can be included at lunch time but keep them low fat and sugar-free.

Schools and policymakers can also help to improve the nutritional state of lunch boxes. Rewards and incentives, such as stickers, house points or credits, or even old-fashioned praise can encourage children to eat healthily. Healthy recipe books made by the children themselves can be a great and fun resource for the school.

Policies relating to the nutrition of food should not stop at food sold in school but should include food brought in via lunch boxes. Although this can be much harder to monitor and control, it completes the linkage between food children eat and the lessons learnt at home.

Many schools have zero-tolerance on foods such as nuts that can trigger allergies. But what we teach our children about nutrition and diet today will stay with them for a lifetime. Isn't it time for zero-tolerance on unhealthy food in schools too?

Cother Hajat and Jomana Fikree are physicians and academics based in Abu Dhabi

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