x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Healthy food habits are not instinctive

We make many decisions on behalf of our children, for their own good. So why do we let them choose their own food?

In a bold move, the Ministry of Education has announced a radical overhaul of health guidelines for schools. The new instructions will force schools to choose caterers based on the type of food they provide: processed food such as crisps, chips and chocolates are off the menu and caterers who fail to adjust will be off the payroll.

This is a welcome move by the ministry. There are few things more detrimental to long-term health than eating and becoming accustomed to lots of fat, salt and sugar in meals at a young age. The cost in medical bills and health problems later in life is high.

But there is more to the diet of schoolchildren than merely the food supplied at school. Juvenile obesity in children, which often continues into adulthood, is a complex problem. Children, like adults, live in a society where fast, not always healthy food is everywhere, advertised in bright colours on television and online, offered cheaply in most neighbourhoods and, in the case of some soft drinks and sweets, even seen as aspirational. In such an environment, it is easy and tempting for adults to make unhealthy choices - and so much easier for young, impressionable minds.

At the heart of this discussion is a philosophical question, epitomised by the statement in yesterday's report in The National from one parent that she gives her children Dh4 a day to purchase sandwiches and juice. Perhaps this parent has sufficiently educated her children about wholesome choices. But many do not.

Too often parents, teachers, peers and role models may think that children are mature enough to make good decisions about what they eat, and how they choose to live. This is unlikely, because schoolchildren are too young to understand the impact on their long-term health.

Most responsible parents would not let their 10-year-olds play with petrol and matches, skip out on dinner, stay up all night, talk to strangers or race off across the road without looking both ways. Why, then, do too many parents assume that children in primary school with money in their pockets won't simply eat empty calories for lunch?

The ministry's move is a recognition that healthy diet and smart choices about food are things that can be left to young minds alone. These lifestyle habits must be taught, and learnt. Teaching how to live, like what to eat, is the responsibility of parents and the wider society.