There is a serious health crisis in the UAE – an epidemic of overweight and obese children. Unless we take action now, there will be grave consequences for all of us.
Life today is not how it used to be. Mornings used to start slowly with a good, nutritious breakfast eaten with the family. You walked to school, ate a balanced lunch and exercised in gym class and after school. Dinner was a home-cooked meal that the whole family shared together.
Now, mornings are madness. Everyone is rushed. Trying to work out what even constitutes a healthy breakfast is a constant challenge. Children are under pressure too. In many places, you can’t walk to school any more. The internet, video games and television are all too enticing and in any case, homework leaves little time for going out and playing outside. Families eat dinner out on the fly or do the takeaway option. Life is just too busy for the old-fashioned ways. Many parents feel overwhelmed and guilty but the truth is, they are not entirely to blame.
This hectic lifestyle is leading us astray. As a nation, our children are eating too much food that is bad for them – processed foods, junk food, fast food, sodas and candy. The number of overweight and obese children is alarming. According to WHO, the number of overweight children has doubled in the recent years. The odds are stacked against parents being able to change the way they shop or what their children eat. Our busy lives make it harder to avoid buying high-calorie, pre-packaged foods or eating out in restaurants. So we have a major problem on our hands.
The cost is immeasurable. Overweight children are more likely to have high cholesterol, which will cause their arteries to clog earlier and faster, leading to heart disease. Overweight children are more likely to have high blood pressure, which also will lead to heart disease, as well as stroke and type 2 diabetes, a condition that used to occur only in adults – and older adults, at that. We are seeing a whole variety of adult diseases – or what used to be adult diseases – in children, caused by poor eating habits and inactivity. Poor nutrition in children can affect the immune system and ability to concentrate. It can affect bone growth and development for a lifetime. We are posed to see the first generation of children whose life expectancy will be lower than that of their parents.
The good news is that there is a lot we can do about it. If you decide to take just one of these steps, you will be on the way to a better, healthier future.
- Look at your shopping list. Cut down on some of the junk food and add more fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Encourage your children to be open-minded about trying new things – and remind yourself, too. Keep in mind that children’s food choices expand as they grow. Just be patient with them when trying new healthy foods.
- Remember that food should be fun. Try not to fight over it.
- Given healthy choices, children usually eat what they need – maybe not at every meal but it is true over time.
- Serve smaller portions and give your children more if they ask, but don’t make them clean their plate. Children who are forced to eat more are more likely to overeat when they’re older.
- Don’t use junk food or trips to fast food restaurants as rewards. Use non-food rewards instead, like going to the park or playground with the family.
- Make exercise part of your health plan. Just going out and walking with your children will go a long way to keeping you and your family in shape.
- Remember that you, as a parent, are a very powerful role model.
Ensuring that our children have a healthy future requires us to take steps forward – just small steps – together. As parents we need to join together and start taking action now.
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Dr. Nura Arabi is a physical education teacher in Abu Dhabi with a health promotion background who advocates for parents and children to have a healthier lifestyle. Her current research is about E-learning and child psychology. Through radio appearances, her profession and writing, she wants to change the world of children’s health one healthy tip at a time.