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Abu Dhabi aims to reduce children’s BMI by 15%

Two-day forum to discuss most effective strategies to counter obesity epidemic

Image Credit: Ahmed Kutty/Gulf News
Children try out workout props during the Abu Dhabi Childhood Obesity Forum.
Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The number of overweight and obese children in Abu Dhabi is on the rise, yet a top health official announced on Sunday that the Emirate is aiming to reduce children’s average body mass index by 15 per cent by 2020.

In addition, authorities will work together with the private sector to help raise the average level of physical activity among the youth by 15 per cent, said Shaikh Abdullah Al Hamed, chairman of the Department of Health-Abu Dhabi (DoH).

“The latest statistics show that 15 per cent of children in Abu Dhabi are obese, and that another 17 per cent is overweight. Without community engagement and institutional intervention, this rate is expected to rise. This is why the time to act is now,” Dr Al Hamed said.

He was speaking at the first edition of the Abu Dhabi Childhood Obesity Forum, a two-day gathering of 300 government officials, company executives and health professionals. The delegates will participate in interactive sessions during the event, and enable the selection of the most effective strategies to tackle obesity. These could include proposals to locate fast food joints away from schools, initiatives that encourage more physical activity or increase the accessibility of healthy foods, and even plans to limit the marketing and advertisement of unhealthy foods in the long run, Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, director of public health at the DoH, told Gulf News on the sidelines of the conference.

Meanwhile, experts warned about the many negative habits and trends that are causing the obesity epidemic to worsen in Abu Dhabi.

“A 1,400-parent survey we conducted about three years ago shows that 65 per cent of parents did not even know that their children was were obese. At the same time, children had easy access to food delivery services, including for junk food, and we even came across some children who were drinking as many as 15 sodas a day,” Dr Abdi Shakur Abdulle, associate director for public health at the New York University Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News on the sidelines of the forum.

He added that the onset of obesity in the emirate was occurring, on average, between seven to nine years of age.

At the same time, a significant proportion of parents in the emirate are known to be unaware of the crucial role played by diet and eating habits towards obesity.

A study by private health-care facility, King’s College Hospital London, which reached out to about 500 parents last month (November) found that a whopping 87 per cent of them did not know that diet contributes 80 per cent to a child’s body mass index. In addition, 85 per cent of parents did not believe that children’s excess weight before puberty could convert into lasting body mass by the age of 10 and 11 years.

“It is extremely worrying to look at the current statistics. More than four per cent of Abu Dhabi children, or about 40,000 kids, are actually morbidly obese. We need concerted action to change these staggering figures,” Dr Abdulle said.

Dr Al Hajeri said that along with federal and regional measures to promote positive behaviour, the change also needs to come about at an individual level.

“We can create initiatives that reach out to children in schools, but it is a challenge to get through to families from the 200 different nations that reside in the UAE. To add to this, teenage children want to make their own decisions, and the initiatives we implement must speak to them,” she said.

The Department has therefore gathered 20 children to act as a focus group to test the strategies that are discussed during the forum. A number of the most effective action plans will then be implemented to counter obesity.

The obesity epidemic

50 million infants and 250 million schoolchildren carry excess body weight

90 million are at high risk of developing early stage chronic conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and fatty liver disease

15% of Abu Dhabi children obese

17% of Abu Dhabi children overweight

27% or less children get at least an hour of physical activity ever day

25% of UAE children face difficulties, including pain and physical limitations, when undertaking physical activity

Sources: The World Obesity Federation and the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi