Back to school in UAE: Obesity rate among children dropping, say doctors

The decline has been attributed to measures taken by the UAE government to curb health problems



Photo: A child during the ‘Back to School’ campaign held at LLH Hospital in Abu Dhabi's Mussafah
Photo: A child during the ‘Back to School’ campaign held at LLH Hospital in Abu Dhabi's Mussafah
by

Ashwani Kumar

Published: Sun 28 Aug 2022, 6:51 PM

Last updated: Sun 28 Aug 2022, 9:02 PM

Some paediatric specialists are reporting seeing a drop in the obesity rate among students, though 30 to 40 per cent have still been found to be overweight.

Doctors attributed the decline in obesity figures to the measures taken by the UAE government, including the introduction of ‘sugar taxes’, as well as a greater awareness among parents and children regarding obesity-related health problems. Based on their observations during the health check-ups done over the summer vacation, as well as the ‘Back to School’ campaign, doctors told Khaleej Times that 1 or 2 children out of 10 were found to be obese. 2 to 4 were also found to be overweight, with the rest being normal or underweight.

“Yes, there is a drop in the number of obese children compared to previous years", said Dr Mamata Bothra, specialist, paediatrics and neonatologist, Medeor Hospital, Dubai. "Out of 10 children, 1 to 2 may be obese, and 2 to 3 may be overweight."

Photo: Dr Mamata Bothra
Photo: Dr Mamata Bothra

A body mass index (BMI) of weight-for-height is commonly used to classify overweight and obses adults. While a BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight, anything more than or equal to 30 is considered obese. For children and teenagers, BMI is age- and sex-specific, and is often referred to as BMI-for-age, where all these parameters are considered.

For example, a 10-year-old boy weighing 46kgs and 4 feet and 6 inches in height will fall above the 95th percentile for BMI, and will therefore be considered obese. A high BMI is a major risk factor for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer, including colorectal, kidney and esophageal cancer.

A doctor checking the body mass index (BMI) of a child at LLH hospital in Abu Dhabi.
A doctor checking the body mass index (BMI) of a child at LLH hospital in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Chandni Pradeep, specialist paediatrics, Ahalia Hospital, Hamdan Street, Abu Dhabi City, noted that instances of children reaching the stage of obesity has been decreasing.

“The number of obese children is now less. 1 child out of 10 might fall in the obese range, 3 to 4 will be overweight, 1 or 2 will be underweight and rest will be normal,” Dr Chandni said. She also noted some of the factors leading to obesity include genetics, food habits, lack of physical activities, cultural and socio-economic factors.

Dr Chandni Pradeep
Dr Chandni Pradeep

Sugar taxes, steps curb obesity

Doctors hailed the measures taken by the UAE government to curb health problems such as obesity in children. In December 2019, the government introduced a tax on sweetened drinks and any products with added sugar or other sweeteners.

According to the Global School-Based Student Health Survey 2010 conducted in the UAE, 43.4 per cent of students usually drank carbonated soft drinks one or more times per day.

“So, the increased prices of carbonated drinks have helped curb obesity,” Dr Chandni said.

“Also, the government have opened so many parks for children to play in. The aim was to increase physical activity and reduce TV time. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the summer heat, children have been sitting at home and in front of TV more. Otherwise, the number of overweight and obese would have been much less.

But now with children returning back to school, there will be physical activity every day,” said Dr Chandni, who has been serving in Abu Dhabi for 20 years.

Dr Sai Srinivas
Dr Sai Srinivas

Dr Sai Srinivas, specialist, paediatrician, Aster Hospital, Qusais, noted that the government programmes to combat obesity have been showing positive results.

“The main goals of the programme have been to increase access to healthy food and beverages, to encourage children to be physically active, and to build an ecosystem that will enable the young ones to enjoy a healthy and happy lifestyle", Dr. Srinivas said.

"If we analyse the results of the programme from our experience, it is notable that the number of children who are obese and overweight has come down considerably.”

Counting the positive outcomes, Dr Srinivas added: “There is an increased consumption rate of fruits and vegetables among children. There is also awareness among people to not consume too much sugar, sweetened beverages and processed foods. Also, more children are now engaging in physical activities. These steps have all contributed to the declining obesity rate among children.”

Parents play a key role

Dr Mamata stressed that parents must incorporate healthy habits in their children right from childhood.

“When parents visit me, we discuss the expected height and weight of the child and plot it on the growth chart. Any abnormal deviation is discussed, and early intervention helps to prevent obesity and other growth-related issues.

Home cooked food, better sleep habits, exercising and avoiding sugar and packaged food helped play an important role in achieving the desired results.”

Dr Chandni added that parents and children now have a greater level of awareness of the importance of reducing weight.

“Even children who are overweight are aware of the need to shed kilos. They want to look fit. They are thus taking the steps and making sure they exercise to reduce their weight.

This sort of awareness is the latest trend, which is a welcome change", she concluded.

ALSO READ:


More news from UAE