Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

CORONAVIRUS

What parents and schools are feeding pupils amid Covid-19

Doctors say healthy eating habits will help boost immunity among children

Schools and parents have ramped up efforts to provide pupils healthier meals to boost their immunity and establish good eating habits as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Doctors in the UAE said some children had gained excessive weight over the past few months due to proximity to high calorie foods and a lack of exercise as they studied from home.

With children back in the classroom this month, doctors urged schools and parents to ensure healthier eating habits are embraced to stop this pattern.

Most school canteens are closed due to Covid-19 precautions so pupils are bringing their own lunch or being served pre-packaged meals.

Good eating habits will boost immunity as the world navigates a path through the pandemic, doctors said.

"The importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise cannot be overemphasised," said Noobi Koyaa, a specialist paediatrician at Canadian Specialist Hospital Dubai.

She suggested parents and schools give pupils balanced meals including fresh fruits and vegetables, starchy foods like pitta bread, fruit bread or crackers, dairy products like cheese sticks, yoghurt or milk and plenty of water.

In the past two months, most of the children have ended up with excessive weight gain as they have been at home mostly with easy access to high calorie foods

Dr Noobi Koyaa, Canadian Specialist Hospital Dubai

“In the past two months, most of the children have ended up with excessive weight gain as they have been at home mostly with easy access to high calorie foods,” said Dr Koyaa.

“This, along with practically no physical activity has led to the unfavourable weight gain.”

Dr Koyaa said schools have a responsibility to encourage pupils to follow healthy eating habits, as their nourishment reflects on their general behaviour and scholastic performance.

She said parents also play an important role and should speak to their children about the types of healthy foods they want packed in their lunch box.

Farhana Asim, a mother of two children in secondary school, said the pandemic brought to the foreground how important healthy eating is.

“I’m trying to pack as many vegetables and healthy snacks as I can in my children’s lunch box,” she said.

“I’m substituting chocolate or cookies for fruits or other low-sugar and healthier snacks. Instead of letting them buy food from the school canteen, as they’ve always done, I’m packing their lunch this year as we just feel safer that way.”

Alicia Hol observes daughter Sarah as she studies. Reem Mohammed / The National
Alicia Hol observes daughter Sarah as she studies. Reem Mohammed / The National

Alicia Hol, a mother of three, is sending her children to school with a packed lunch too.

“A healthy lunch box should be part of everyone’s lives, whether there’s Covid-19 or not,” she said.

“I’ve always tried to keep healthy lunch boxes and if your children are healthy, fit and well and have strong immunity – these are the best tool and weapon you can give them to tackle obesity.”

Last month, a study of 75 research papers and nearly 400,000 patients found that obese people, who contracted Covid-19, were 48 per cent more likely to die and had a 74 per cent increased risk of being admitted to intensive care.

The analysis, by a team at University of North Carolina, found those with obesity were 113 per cent more likely to require hospital care.

The links can partly be attributed to the various underlying health problems and risk factors that obese people have such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney and liver disease.

But obesity impairs the immune system response and anti-inflammatory cells needed to fight Covid-19, a repercussion also seen in influenza, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

Yasmin Haddad, paediatric and adult dietitian at myPediaClinic Dubai, said underweight, overweight and obese people were generally at greater risk of contracting an illness.

"Seventy per cent of your immunity comes from your gut and if your gut health is not well, then your immunity is lowered," she said.

"So, nutritional food plays a huge role in building immunity. You could be overweight, underweight or even be at a healthy range of height and weight – but if your body lacks proper nutrition, it can affect your immunity and increase risk of infection."

Schools are doing their part by offering a healthier menu to children this academic year.

At Dunecrest American School, cold sandwiches are offered for lunch.

Last academic year, a healthy hot buffet style lunch, as well as cold sandwiches and snacks including fruit cups, vegetable sticks and granola bars were available. The hot buffet included savoury menus planned around themed days such as ‘Pizza Thursday’ and ‘Meatless Monday’.

“In light of the global health crisis, all meals and snacks this year are now individually packaged,” said Bill Delbrugge, principal of the school.

“Our caterer has worked incredibly hard to deliver packaged hot food solutions. Last year, approximately 40 per cent of our students opted for eating in our canteen with the majority choosing a hot buffet menu. So far we still have approximately 40 per cent of students opting for the canteen but the preference has now shifted to healthy sandwiches.”

Individually packed food is being served to pupils, as canteens remain closed for hot meals. Courtesy: Jumeirah Baccalaureate school
Individually packed food is being served to pupils, as canteens remain closed for hot meals. Courtesy: Jumeirah Baccalaureate school

Most pupils at Jumeirah baccalaureate school are bringing lunch in from home.

The school continues to work with Slices – a school catering company that offers healthy options – to serve pre-packed food while the canteen and hot food ban is in place.

“We are closely monitoring food breaks with regard to the safety and well-being of all the students and staff,” said Richard Drew, principal of the school.

“This will continue and we will work with families providing information and advice on this. Our biggest challenge is to encourage students to bring sufficient supplies of water to school as we currently are not allowed to provide hydration for our students from the many water stations located around the school.”

At the Jumeirah British School Jumeirah Park, tables in the canteen are placed two-metres apart and pupils are bringing lunch from home.  Pawan Singh / The National 
At the Jumeirah British School Jumeirah Park, tables in the canteen are placed two-metres apart and pupils are bringing lunch from home. Pawan Singh / The National

The canteen at Dubai British School in Jumeirah Park will begin serving packed meals to pupils in classroom this week, though the majority are bringing food in from home.

“Although we have less control over what students bring to school in their packed lunches, healthy eating is a part of our curriculum and is reinforced through lunchtimes and through ongoing communication and advice to parents,” said Brendon Fulton, executive principal at the school.

Updated: September 9, 2020 12:31 PM

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