Schools must do more to ensure pupils eat healthy meals, doctors say
DUBAI // Schools must overhaul their canteen menus in an effort to tackle the nation’s obesity crisis and to ensure pupils are more alert and able to learn, doctors say.
Dubai Municipality’s Food Safety Department has announced new nutritional guidelines for schools to encourage pupils into making healthier choices, though no details have been given yet.
The move came as doctors warned that junk food addictions are being fuelled by easy access to cheap, unhealthy meals, which is a major factor in spiralling youth diabetes statistics.
“Some of my young patients are eating fast food every day,” said Dr Shadi Hani Tabba, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist at Dubai Diabetes Centre.
“Fast food restaurants deliver to your door, it’s cheap and easy to get hold of.
“Children have more control over what they eat now and are not closely supervised so order food on their phones.
“Change needs to happen across society. School is a part of that, but there are many factors.”
Clive Pierrepont, a father of five who used to run a restaurant in the UK, has overseen a healthy eating project at Dubai British School in Jumeirah Park.
“We obsess about the curriculum but in the past have given little thought to what children are eating,” said the director of communications for education provider Taaleem.
“Some children are brought up by nannies and eat junk food like chicken nuggets so [they] learn bad nutritional habits from the word go.
“If you educate children, they educate the parents.”
Studies have shown that more than 34 per cent of children in the UAE are either obese or overweight, with most likely to continue being overweight into adulthood.
The UAE has the 16th highest rate of diabetes in the world, with 38 per cent of Type 2 diabetics - related to lifestyle - likely to develop diabetic retinopathy, a sight-threatening eye condition. They are also more prone to chronic muscular and digestive conditions.
Lifestyle changes taken on early enough can lead to a better outlook, Dr Tabba said.
“Studies prove poor diet is related to school performance, the bigger issue is the impact on physical and mental health later in life. Obese diabetics are not as confident in their abilities.
“In a year in Dubai, I’ve had young patients reduce the need for Type 2 diabetes medication because they have lost weight and changed their diet.”
Another school to make menu changes is Deira International School.
Its doctor overhauled the catering by monitoring portion sizes given to pupils and increasing compulsory servings of side salads and fruit.
“We looked at the way children were being served by assessing meal times for three weeks,” said Dr Sadaf Jalil Ahmed.
“We wanted to train the catering staff using an evidence-based model on dietetics, with guidelines on how much carbohydrate and protein children should be served.
“Children would ask for plain pasta, with grated cheese - a carbohydrate overload that sent their insulin levels sky high, leaving teachers with children who are fidgety, restless and unable to focus.”
A poor diet has been proven to hinder classroom performance, and many children at the school admit to beginning the day without eating a proper nutritious breakfast.
“I would say about 20 per cent of children in secondary school and 15 per cent of children in primary school come in without any breakfast,” Dr Ahmed said.
“Many were coming into school after having just a glass of milk, tea or biscuits - none of which count as a healthy, nutritious breakfast.
“They would turn up at the clinic with abdominal pain, nausea or with headaches. By default, the first question I asked was if they had breakfast. Out of the 10 children with a stomach ache, eight hadn’t eaten breakfast.”
The school has implemented changes that have resulted in classroom improvements.
At Dubai British School Jumeirah Park, Mr Pierrepont worked with British chef and restaurateur Gary Rhodes to implement a healthy menu for children, with no preservatives or sugar and using only natural ingredients.
Menus are changed monthly and parents are asked for their input to help educate families on the importance of a good diet.
“Things are changing here, and regulators are taking note of what is being served in schools now,” Mr Pierrepont said.
Updated: July 21, 2017 06:43 PM