x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

State must join obesity battle, say experts

Childhood obesity is a rapidly growing "epidemic" and the Government has to get involved to help overcome it, health care experts say.

ABU DHABI // Childhood obesity is a rapidly growing "epidemic" and the Government has to get involved to help overcome it, health care experts said yesterday. "The infrastructure is toxic for our childhood obesity crisis," said Dr Serah Theuri, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Zayed University. "The epidemic is moving at a faster rate than we can find solutions for," she told medical professionals at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress.

She said a combination of unhealthy food and lack of exercise was pushing up children's weights, but the solution did not only lie with the children themselves. "The issue doesn't lie with the individual, the environment has a lot to do with it," Dr Theuri said. "Paediatric obesity is not an individual child's problem but a problem that involves the whole family, the whole community." Environmental factors play a large role in public health because they could influence people to make healthy decisions, said Dr Eric Breton, assistant professor of natural science and public health at Zayed University.

"We have to understand that everyone is integrated into a social environment," he said. "We can't change unless others around us change as well. "We are not looking for a revolution. We are looking for people to integrate moderate changes." Urging the government to become more involved and introduce remedial programmes, such as banning TV food ads targeting children and introducing easy-to-read food labels, he said: "For small behaviour changes we need major policy reforms."

Both speakers said urban planning should encourage people to walk around the city and leave their cars at home. Dr Theuri said promoting exercise was one of the main ways to reduce children's weight, but noted that there were not enough places in the city for children to play. "We live in a country that has beautiful parks, but often it is too hot for children to play. "If we can build the biggest building in the world, then surely we can build a climate-controlled play area."

More studies are needed before the government could begin to make policy changes, Dr Theuri said. "The total causes of obesity are almost immeasurable." There is almost no data available on the number of children in the UAE who are obese or overweight. There have been small studies but no comprehensive national survey. The Ministry of Health announced in September that it would test the mental and physical health of children in the northern Emirates. The results are due to be released next month.

"There are not enough studies, so we need to collaborate," Dr Theuri said. A study completed in 2006 found that 13.7 per cent of children in the Gulf region were obese, and another 21.5 per cent were overweight. Professionals have expressed concern about the effect of a generation of overweight children on the UAE's health care system. "They will grow into obese adults and present with hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease," Dr Theuri said. "The quality of life in the whole nation will go down."