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Students take obesity war straight to society

Jasmine Al Kuttab/Abu Dhabi
Filed on December 6, 2015 | Last updated on December 7, 2015 at 03.48 pm
An initiative to spread healthy eating habits.

(Supplied photo)

A group of students tries to bring a difference in the lifestyle of residents of Al Sila, a traditional town

It is not every day that you encounter young students who have set out on a mission to lead change in society.

Hala Aqel and Alyssa Yu, two students from the New York University of Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), are determined to make a difference in the lifestyle habits of the residents of Al Sila, a traditional town of approximately 10,000 people in the Capital's Western Region.

The students recently won the Public Health Think Tank, where over 30 students from the country submitted proposals on grass-root level solutions to fighting obesity. Aqel and Yu collaborated to plan an intervention strategy for Al Sila.

"The UAE in general can be seen as a obese-ogenic country," Aqel told Khaleej Times, adding: "people tend to live pretty stagnant lives in terms of movement."

The 18-year-old biology student, who recently moved from New Jersey, said they chose Al Sila for the project as it is a small, quiet town.

"We thought it would be easy to practise our proposal in a smaller town. We chose this (town) ... because it's less modern, it doesn't have as much access to takeouts and junk foods.

"Also, because it's an isolated area, we can help control their diet and not worry about them sneaking food from outside their (town)," she said.

Addressing the cause

Aqel said their plan is not just to address obesity, but its causes as well. Promoting healthy eating in the town is what the young girls intend to do. The girls plan to visit restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and even peoples' homes in the town.

"We took a three-pronged approach, where we target all the places the people in Al Sila get their food from."

One of the initiatives is to increase the number of restaurants sporting the 'Weqaya' label, which is a screening programme launched by the Abu Dhabi Health Authority that identifies cardiovascular risk factors and assists in improving the individual's health status.

"By increasing the number of restaurants that have the Weqaya label, we figured that as a consumer, if you see more healthy options in front of you, then you would eventually gravitate towards it."

At supermarkets, the students aim to use a psychological theory known as the nudge theory. By simply rearranging the shelves and placing healthy foods at eye level, while fatty, sugary and salty foods are placed at the very top, shoppers are more likely to choose what they see first.

"It's a subconscious idea, the more you are exposed to something, the more likely you are to purchase it," she said.

Finally, the girls will target the homes of Emiratis. By working closely with the women, the students believe that they will be able to educate them about healthier cooking techniques, which can help combat obesity. However, changing the diet doesn't necessarily mean that one must stop eating traditional food.

"We are teaching women how to cook their traditional foods but in healthier ways. For instance, the options of what oil to use, such as coconut oil, or brown wholegrain rice and quinoa, instead of white rice or flour."-jasmine@khaleejtimes.com

Fight is personal for the 19-year-old

The fight against obesity is "a personal one" for Alyssa Yu, Social Research and Public Policy student at New York University of Abu Dhabi.

The 19-year-old social research and public policy student, who recently moved to the Capital from Manila, said obesity is a widespread illness with a domino affect, which needs to be addressed.

Alyssa told Khaleej Times: "Diabetes is a common disease in my father's family, so this is a very personal and important issue for me."

"Obesity is associated with a multitude of other chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and arthritis," she said.

She noted that progress occurs with time, which is why it will take almost two years to study and implement the changes in Al Sila, starting from January 2016.


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