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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

'BMI blindness' means parents are failing to spot childhood obesity warning signs, study finds

One in five UAE parents unaware of how to measure healthy weight in children, according to research conducted by King’s College Hospital

One in five parents interviewed in a survey did not know about the body mass index measurement that could help identify obese children. Pawan Singh / The National
One in five parents interviewed in a survey did not know about the body mass index measurement that could help identify obese children. Pawan Singh / The National

Parents in the UAE are sleepwalking into an obesity crisis and 87 per cent do not realise diet has an impact on their child’s body mass index, a survey has found.

Research conducted by King’s College Hospital, London in the UAE discovered 1 in 5 parents did not know what a BMI measurement was, or that it is a key indicator of childhood obesity.

Just 140 of the 500 parents surveyed knew their child’s BMI, of which 72 per cent said their child had a healthy weight for their age, with 28 per cent of parents admitting their child had an unhealthy weight.

Experts asked a mix of 500 men and women from various backgrounds, including UAE nationals, as well as Arab, Asian and western expatriates. All were married with children aged up to 10 years old.

Dr Gowri Ramanathan, acting chief medical officer at King’s College Hospital, said “BMI blindness” was a dangerous pre-cursor to rising childhood obesity in the UAE.

“We don’t know the full scale of the problem of BMI blindness globally or locally, but this study indicates that some parents struggle with the concept of unhealthy BMI or how to recognise the early signs that a child is overweight,” Dr Ramanathan said.

“Often parents mistake the early signs that a child is overweight for so-called ‘puppy fat’, which is the fat children sometimes have.

“This fat is known to disappear as children grow, usually by the ages of 10 to 11.

“If not properly identified, what could appear as cute ‘puppy fat’ can constitute a high risk to the child and impair their health later in life.”

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According to the World Health Organisation, more than 60 per cent of children who are overweight before puberty will continue to be overweight into early adulthood.

More than three quarters of parents asked with children aged 11-17 did not think overweight children were more at risk from obesity in adulthood.

Of the 500 surveyed parents, only 15 per cent were aware that a child’s puppy fat converts into real weight by the ages of 10 to 11.

Forty-two per cent of surveyed parents said they didn’t have a trusted regular family doctor they could turn to for advice, citing reasons such as not having found one they liked or trusted, or that they would rather directly visit a specialist.

“The study helps to show where increased awareness is needed,” said Neil Buckley, CEO of King’s College Hospital London in the UAE.

“The objective of studies like this is absolutely not to place the blame on parents, but to understand where the gaps lie and how we can help parents face those challenges best.

“Families must understand that a family medicine consultant will act as their health champion, and be with them throughout their journey to better health.

“He or she will know their family history and lifestyle habits, be able to address issues that may not be apparent to parents, and will therefore be able to safeguard against child obesity and other chronic conditions.”

There are more than 41 million overweight or obese children worldwide, and it is estimated the epidemic will reach 70 million children by 2025.

In the UAE, curbing the rising prevalence of child obesity is amongst the top priorities of government authorities, healthcare providers and insurers.

International experts have been in Abu Dhabi this week attending workshops alongside government department heads at the Childhood Obesity Forum to help develop a clear strategy in the UAE to help reduce the average child’s BMI by 15 per cent before 2020.

“Healthy choices should be encouraged for diet and exercise together, but personal responsibility is important,” said Dr Omniyat Al Hajri, director of the public health division at the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi.

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“We will be working in collaboration with ADEC, the KHDA, Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and municipalities to ensure we are working together on the same message. People need to have access to healthy cities.

“It is a similar problem to how attitudes towards smoking have changed.

“We are living the same trend now with fast food, but we have more knowledge now to make better, more informed choices.

“The biggest challenge is reaching out to children in a language they understand and appreciate.

“They often don’t want to be told what to do, they must want to make these choices for themselves and that starts with their education.”