Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 July 2019

Some Emirati infants fed unhealthy diet of fries, cakes and biscuits, study finds

Many infants and toddlers in the country have unhealthy eating habits, a government-run university says

Children as young as five months are being fed french fries, a new study has found. Victor Besa / The National
Children as young as five months are being fed french fries, a new study has found. Victor Besa / The National

Emirati children as young as five months old are being fed an unhealthy diet of fries, cake, packaged juices and biscuits, a new study has found.

The survey of 1,000 UAE national parents revealed that one in five infants aged between five months and two snack on biscuits, while nearly one in ten infants aged between one and two are fed fries.

Five toddlers aged between one and two even consumed pizza, parents admitted.

Doctors said the snacking habits uncovered in the study, titled Meal and Snack Patterns of Infants and Toddlers in the United Arab Emirates: The UAE Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study, could have worrying implications for children's health.

Although a minority of babies were being fed such foods, studies show about one in three children in the UAE are either obese or overweight, which experts said emphasises the need for a healthier start in life.

A junk food diet can lead to brain development being affected, while immediate side effects can include acidity, gastritis and colic, experts concluded.

Yousef Abdulrazzaq Albastaki, Emeritus professor of paediatrics and neonatology at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at UAE University, said children need nutrition in the "critical" first two years of their lives. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Yousef Abdulrazzaq Albastaki, Emeritus professor of paediatrics and neonatology at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at UAE University, said children need nutrition in the "critical" first two years of their lives. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Consuming unhealthy food at a young age may pave the way for the future development of diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

The study of parents of infants under the age of one and toddlers under two-years-old was conducted by researchers at UAE University and doctors in Dubai and Al Ain and has been published in the Dubai Medical Journal.

Yousef Abdulrazzaq Albastaki, Emeritus professor of paediatrics and neonatology at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at UAE University, the lead author of the study, warned parents against feeding children items such as chips and juices.

“The first two years of a child’s life are critical in the development of cognitive, social, physical and emotional development. It's very important to give them the right nutrition in this two-year period," said Professor Albastaki.

“We do have several people being underfed or overfed. Their food lacks iron and could lead to iron deficiency which may affect brain development.

“Chips and juices are not necessary and shouldn’t be given. I don’t think it's healthy for any age as it contains sodium and is toxic. Juices just contain sugar and are not helpful."

He said there were positive findings in the study, with nearly seven out of ten infants and toddlers being fed vegetables.

The most common fruits eaten by the children included bananas, apples, dates, mangoes, and oranges. Also, seven out of 10 infants and nine out of 10 toddlers eat rice.

Juice was consumed by seven per cent of the infants before the American Academy of Paediatrics-recommended age of six months.

Chicken is the most commonly fed meat for children, consumed by 19.6 per cent of infants and 57.2 per cent of toddlers, the study found.

Dr Mohamed Embabi, a specialist paediatrician at Bareen International Hospital in Mohamed Bin Zayed City in Abu Dhabi, said it is dangerous for a child under the age of one to have juice and chips as part of their diet.

“We should start with other items which are necessary for the growth and development of the child," Dr Embabi said.

"I see children coming to my clinic who less than a year-old holding fries, chocolate and juice. I talk to the parents and tell them these snacks are not healthy for their children but they tell me they only have these when they are going out. I believe they are using these on a daily basis."

He said that there is a lack of awareness of the benefits of healthy eating.

"We should push authorities as well as parents who need to learn about the benefits of eating healthy.

"They are giving unhealthy food because they see unhealthy foods advertised.

"Most mothers are working and many stop breastfeeding early as they might go to work."

The study found that 54.2 per cent of infants were fed breast milk between the ages of five and 12 months, but this number dropped to 25 per cent for toddlers aged between 12 and 24 months.

"Once the child has chips and juice, he or she loses appetite for regular meals. We invite the parents to buy fruits for children," Dr Embabi said.

He said that parents need to be educated about the benefits of eating healthy at this age for neurological growth.

Antenatal classes may be helpful as mothers can be made aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and healthy eating habits, suggested the doctor.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education banned parents from packing junk foods such as doughnuts and fizzy drinks in their child's lunches in the hope of promoting a healthier lifestyle.

Schools in Dubai are also not allowed to serve unhealthy food on their menus.

Last year, the cabinet banned the advertising of formula milk and introduced mandatory labels that specify it is not a substitute for breastfeeding, in a bid to promote breastfeeding.

Updated: April 2, 2019 05:11 PM

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