DUBAI // Doctors have raised concerns over a weight loss campaign that invites children as young as two years to go on a diet to win gold.
The Your Child in Gold campaign, which started on Tuesday, will reward participants with a gram of gold for every kilogram of weight they lose over the course of six weeks.
People can gain two grams for every one kilogram they lose if they register as part of a family — provided a child in the family loses a minimum of 2kg of weight.
The option is available for children between the ages of 21 months and 14 years old. Healthcare professionals said care should be taken by parents, especially in the case of young children.
“If a child is dramatically overweight, then 2kg over the course of a month is fine,” said Dr Fawad Khan, a consultant in family medicine at Al Noor Hospital.
“But if the child is under four and they’re losing that much weight, that might pose some health concerns.”
The campaign is only available for children who qualify as obese, based on their body mass index. The measurements are taken at weigh-in sites by professionals from Cedars — Jebel Ali Hospital. A doctor from the clinic has been at each weigh-in site to offer advice and suggestions on how to cut weight healthily.
The goal of the campaign is to curb the rise in obesity in the Emirates. A survey in a medical journal in 2012 found the UAE to be the fifth fattest country in the world, with about 68 per cent of the population overweight.
Dr Khan said there was a lot of anecdotal evidence of rising obesity in children being linked to influence from their parents. However, the solution was gradual and a sustainable lifestyle change, rather than drastic action, he said.
“It’s not an ideal way to address it, by directly pointing out the weight issue and offering aggressive measures like gold in exchange for immediate weight loss,” he added.
Officials connected with the programme at Dubai Municipality could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Charmaine van Zyl, a psychologist at Canadian Medical Centre in Dubai, said she dealt on an almost daily basis with children who were sometimes very obese, and it was a particular problem in the UAE.
However, she said there were certain ways to address the issue, and said offering gold for weight loss could end up causing more problems.
“When they start at a very young age to go on a dedicated weight loss diet, it never, ever ends well,” she said. “They go on yo-yo diets, just about for the rest of their lives.
“It should be the parent’s responsibility to encourage children to eat healthily for the sake of being heathy, not for losing a certain amount of weight in a certain period of time.”
She added: “I don’t agree with it at all. It’s detrimental to a child’s self-esteem and gives them an emotional responsibility that they’re not ready for.”
Raymond Hamdan, a clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, said proper medication supervision was important.
“There should be professional intervention from a paediatrician first to determine if this is a safe measure for that child,” he said. “If it is, it’s a contingency only, if it’s possible to affect body weight without damaging body image.”
Dr Khan said weekly check-ins with a practitioner should be the norm, and that professionals should examine if parents were helping children to lose weight in a responsible manner.
“There should be the option of dropping a family from the scheme if they are found to be trying to lose a child’s weight in an unhealthy way,” he said.
“It’s not enough to simply get a child to lose weight, if you’re damaging the health of a child at the same time.”