Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 March 2018

UAE parents are ‘blind to children’s weight problems’

Even though they are presented with evidence that their child is overweight, many parents are flatly refusing to face the facts.

Abu Dhabi // Many parents with overweight or obese children refuse to recognise that there is a problem, health professionals say.

They say the high rate of overweight and obese children in the UAE — measured at 40 per cent in 11 to 19 year olds by the New York University Abu Dhabi last year — is largely caused by poor diet.

Nadine Aoun, a dietician at Medcare Hospital in Dubai, said some parents blindly refused to accept their child was obese.

“They don’t like this idea and thus they neglect it,” she said.

Ms Aoun gave the case of a seven-year-old patient who had put on a lot of weight.

“Her peers teased her and her mother knew her weight was not suitable for her age but did not seek help at first,” she said.

“The mother came to me and said ‘I know I am late, but I want my child to get help and to control her weight’.”

Ms Aoun said she also had a five-year-old patient who suffered from high cholesterol and obesity. She said he lived on a diet of unhealthy food such as bacon, fried eggs, burgers and chips.

“This led him to having high cholesterol, even though he has no family history of high cholesterol,” she said.

Ms Aoun said every time a child visited the doctor, the parents should be told if their child’s body mass index falls within the normal category.

“The doctor should find out if the child is eating properly or exercising enough and, if not, sound the alarm,” she said. “Parents often think that if the child’s appetite is good and they eat, it is a sign of good health.”

A UAE study entitled Parental Weight Perceptions, published last year in the online journal PLoS One, found that three of five parents with overweight children thought the youngsters were of normal weight.

The study was written by Abdulla Al Junaibi, a paediatrician from Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi, and Dr Abdishakur Abdulle and Nico Nagelkerke of the UAE University in Al Ain.

Dr Anita Das Gupta, a clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital, said she had patients as young as 2 who were obese.

“During open days or when we go to schools to spread awareness about obesity, we meet many children and we have seen that many are overweight or obese and their parents are not seeking help,” she said.

“In many cultures, people think if a child eats well it is healthy and if they are not eating, it is unhealthy. This idea is common here as well.”

Dr Das Gupta said the parents’ choice of food for their children was also a consideration.

“The parents say ‘no, our child does not eat a lot’. However, the child is eating unhealthy food.”

She said it was essential to educate parents about the benefits of giving children healthy food. “If the children get habituated to eating unhealthy food, they don’t want to give it up.

“Parents need to be taught what to feed their children. We explain to mothers when they are pregnant. The earlier the child is taught, the better.”

Dr Abdishakur Abdulle, associate director at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Public Health Research Centre, said: “Parental involvement is a key factor in managing childhood obesity, thus parental recognition of weight problems is vital.”

Despite this, he said, most parents of overweight and obese children underestimate their children’s condition.

“This is a clear obstacle to prevention, thus obesity prevention programs should take into account the important role of parents in developing national prevention strategies for childhood obesity,” Dr Abdulle said.

Suffering from obesity or excess weight as a child can bring about chronic conditions when they reach adulthood, such as diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure and orthopaedic disorders.