x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Just the right approach to eating

Just Falafel and the nutritionist Hala Barghout have combined to teach middle and high-school students what it means to lead a healthy lifestyle, writes Hala Khalaf.

The nutrition expert Hala Barghout speak to students of Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha in Dubai. Courtesy Just Falafel
The nutrition expert Hala Barghout speak to students of Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha in Dubai. Courtesy Just Falafel

The popular eatery Just Falafel – a growing franchise born in the UAE and quickly spreading as far as the UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar and Oman – has decided to do something about the growing obesity epidemic in the UAE.

The vegetarian fast-food chain has launched a health awareness campaign across the UAE with the help of the nutritionist and health promoter Hala Barghout. Barghout is going about it by talking to middle and high-school students and teaching them what it truly means to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Kicking off the campaign last week, Barghout visited Al Mawakeb School in Al Barsha, Dubai. Students in grades nine and 11 came together to listen to her message: healthy choices must become their norm.

We caught up with the 29-year-old Lebanese national to find out how she’s reaching out to the nation’s youth.

The plan

There’s no end in sight for Barghout and Just Falafel’s plans to get young people thinking about their health and their lifestyle – not while there are students out there who have yet to hear Barghout’s presentation. This hands-on approach, says Barghout, is the best way to make students aware of what’s right and wrong.

“We’ve contacted 25 schools already and asked them if we can drop by and give students a one-hour presentation that is meant to educate them about what it means to lead a healthy lifestyle,” she says.

“I talk about obesity, healthy lifestyles, making behavioural changes and disease prevention to these kids who range in age from 13- to 18-year-olds – a key age to start learning about healthy choices and creating healthy habits when it comes to food and exercise.”

From teaching them how to read a menu in restaurants and still make healthy choices, to incorporating activity in one’s day to round out a healthy lifestyle of correct nutrition choices, Barghout aims to cover the spectrum of healthy living.

The approach

“We have to reach these kids now, before they start going on fad diets, before they are affected by the media and whatever current trend is out there, before they are influenced by the unhealthy choices of their peers,” says Barghout.

She hopes to instil the basics of nutrition, such as not allowing their nutrition habits to be governed by stress, understanding emotional eating, choosing healthy snacks over junk and not believing all fats to be “evil”.

“Lots of these kids don’t have this awareness at home or at school; I would say 70 per cent of the 150 girls I spoke to had very little information when it came to making healthy choices,” says Barghout.

The justification

More than one child in three is overweight or obese and, according to a study by a BMC Public Health journal, the UAE has become the fifth “fattest” nation in the world.

“This is the right age group to target. These kids haven’t really tried losing weight, haven’t dieted, and I want to reach them now before they turn into chronic dieters with weight problems. We want them to adopt healthy lives that are dominated by correct nutrition choices and lives that are not sedentary. This has to become normal to them.”

The irony

The words “falafel” and “healthy” in the same sentence is cause for raised eyebrows. The two just don’t work together; the Middle East’s favourite street food is traditionally deep fried and a typical falafel sandwich is doused in tahini sauce and stuffed in carb-heavy bread.

That’s not stopping Just Falafel from exploring ways to “healthify” its menu, from baked falafel bites to falafel mixed with chia seeds.

“We only use very fresh, high-quality ingredients, no preservatives, no additives,” explains Barghout. “We are fast food but we are not junk food. Options of baked falafels are available and we’ve substituted white pitta bread with wraps – we have whole-wheat alternatives too and you can replace french fries with hummus or lentil salad.”

“Our goal is to empower the younger generation with the knowledge to make healthy eating and lifestyle choices at an early age,” says Mohamad Bitar, Just Falafel’s founder and managing director. “Recent upgrades to our menu, including organic and fresh juice options, encourage the general public to take note of health-conscious options for those on the go.”

The next step

Schools interested in Hala Barghout speaking to their students should email marketing@justfalafel.com. Visit www.facebook.com/justfalafel for more ­information.

artslife@thenational.ae