When Children Learn What Nutrition (Really) Is.
An innovative new concept and campaign tries to seamlessly integrate healthy living at the classroom level, by making nutrition education fun for the kids
Child nutrition and health has been a pretty hot topic in the UAE of late. With an almost epidemic-sized obesity problem among kids in the country, concerns about children's health is a oft-discussed and debated topic today.
A recent study by the New York University Abu Dhabi revealed that 40 per cent of children aged 11-19 , and 20 per cent of kids between 6-10 years, in the UAE are obese or overweight. Even scarier? Formerly "adult" health problems like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease are now turning up alarmingly in children too. And all because of the prevalent unhealthy eating habits, and lack of exercise, among the young ones these days.
Keeping these larger concerns in mind - ones that will impact the future of our children and, in turn, the country - a few agencies have taken it upon themselves to spread awareness and teach students the importance of healthy eating. And not just by paying lip-service to eat either. Loosely modelled on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's pioneering school dinners project that attempts to improve the quality and nutritional value of food that kids consume, the UAE has a new community development initiative that is currently taking place across 40 schools in the country.
Called 'Fit to Learn', Abregana Creative Brewery and Sadia, the frozen foods company, launched the new initiative to raise awareness about obesity and the growing trend of unhealthy lifestyles among children here. Started in September, the two month-long campaign covered schools in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Fit to Learn, Fit to Eat
"The main source of obesity is the food choices we make, lack of physical activity among kids, and also imbibed family lifestyles," said Jay Menorca, managing director of Abregana, which conceived and implemented the programme. "Doctors in the UAE also fear that growing obesity in children now could lead to chronic health conditions once they reach adulthood. The Fit to Learn campaign thus reinforces the message of fitness and nutrition at the grassroots learning level."
The programme was rolled out using three methods - an education in good nutrition habits, healthy cooking demonstrations, and fun sessions designed to promote movement and activity in the kids. For stage one, certified dietitians such as Hala Barghout, a clinical dietitian from the Diversified Integrated Sports Clinic, shared an outline of what constitutes healthy eating habits, and how to ensure that children enjoy what they eat, and in a timely manner. For the cooking demos, chef Elie Harfouche held fun cooking workshops to help kids understand what they eat, and also how to prepare quick, easy and healthy meals. For the third - and most - fun part, Fit to Learn brought professional Zumba dance instructors to add the much-needed, crucial exercise element to the healthy routine, and impart the importance of adopting an active lifestyle at an early age. The target age range for the prog-ramme was 5-12 years. "This is a very critical and habit-forming age, as they're quite curious and easily influenced by their surroundings, and hence the right time to inculcate good habits," said Menorca.
According to Abregana, Fit to Learn is a small yet significant step towards creating a healthy school environment, in turn leading to larger community wellness. "The students we met at all the schools were very bright and had lots of questions during the Q&A sessions, as well as during the cooking show. They just couldn't contain their excitement while checking out the dishes," says Menorca.
As for comparisons to Jamie Oliver's school campaign, he says, "You can say that both campaigns are similar in the sense that we're really focusing on exposing the little ones to good food choices, and how to maintain a balanced diet that they can continue throughout their lives."
The educators themselves had much praise for the innovative initiative, with Pooja Misra, a coordinator at DPS Academy, Dubai, saying, "The Fit to Learn campaign will help students across the country understand the value of a healthy mind and body. It is important to hold such events in schools, as it is there that children set the base for their lives and learn to become healthy citizens."
Seema Sharda, a teacher at the Oxford School, Dubai, said, "The impact of such campaigns is that the children understand the importance of healthy food. Regular events of this kind will instill it in their minds. This could be a game changer."
Healthy tips from Hala (for parents & kids)
Chop fruits and veggies to have them ready to go when you need them. Kids are more likely to eat fruits and veggies when they are cut up. Add a healthy dipping sauce like Greek yoghurt or hummus to make them even more kid-friendly. It's also a good idea to have cherry tomatoes, apples, bananas, baby carrots, and grapes at home and to pair them with some protein foods like cheese or peanut butter.
- Prepare meals to save time
Omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) are important throughout all stages of life. Research shows that they help maintain a healthy heart, positively impact brain function and cognitive development, and play a key role in eye health and visual development. The best food sources are fatty fish, like salmon and sardines. Omega 3 is also found in vegetarian sources such as olive oil, nuts, chia seeds and flax seeds. To help your kids get enough of these nutrients, pack them a tuna salad or sandwich with fortified orange juice, milk or yoghurt.
- Include omega-3 fats for heart, brain and eye health
Unfortunately, packaged snacks that appeal to your children's taste buds are the ones usually loaded with fat, sugar, artificial colours and preservatives. Be sure to read the ingredients list to see how much sugar is in the product - not just the claims on the front of the package, as they can be misleading sometimes. Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, so if sugar is one of the first ingredients, that's not a good choice.
- Pack "clean" and healthy snacks
It's extremely important for kids to stay well-hydrated to prevent fatigue and dehydration, and keep concentration levels high. Proper hydration can also help them maintain a healthy weight, as dehydration often masks itself as hunger and can cause children (and adults) to overeat. Skip the sugary energy drinks and sodas and give your kids a water bottle instead. If kids get bored with plain water, add some slices of citrus, berries, or a bit of 100 per cent fruit juice to the water.
- Keep your kids well-hydrated