It is important that lunch boxes contain the five main food groups: cereal, dairy, fruit, lean meat and vegetables Image Credit: Agencies

Dubai: As students get set to return to school after the summer break next week, the health authorities have launched educational campaigns to effectively reduce childhood obesity.

As per the UAE government’s official portal on child health, nearly 14 per cent of UAE’s schoolchildren in the age group seven-15 years are overweight, with approximately 15 per cent being obese.

The figures are alarming because by 2021 as per the National Health Agenda the goal of reducing childhood obesity is set at 12 per cent. All junk food such as soft drinks, cakes and chips are banned for sale in school canteens which are directed to sell fresh whole foods, fruits and salads.

Diet, nutrition, exercise and monitoring of vitals of all students are among the key health initiatives launched by Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and Ministry of Health and Prevention (MOHAP).

DHA initiative

Wafa Ayesh, DHA’s director of clinical nutrition, said: “This year we continue with our ‘Healthy Plate’ programme. We educate all stakeholders on what students need for different meal times, all the major food groups to be included in their meals, what to carry in their lunch box and how many servings of fruits and vegetables they need in a day. We educate them about having lean protein, whole milk, saying no to sweetened drinks and remaining well hydrated.”

In addition, she said, “Students’ height, waist-hip ratio and weight are recorded. Based on the results, children who are overweight or obese are specially monitored and advised. We provide them tips on how to remain active and how good overall health impacts general standards of studies and cognitive improvement.”

Physical fitness programme

All schools integrate physical fitness and sports into their timetables. Schools across Dubai make sure students involve themselves in at least one sports activity for at least 45 minutes each day.

Geraint Ehys Passmore, sports coordinator for Gems International School, Al Khail, said, “When our school reopens, we will have a programme called the Daily Mile, where parents who come to drop their wards will run with them and the school staff for 15 minutes. Like every year, we make sure all students get enough exercise during the day. We have swimming, athletics, dodge ball and students choose one physical activity. All staff members also participate in a physical fitness programme from 4 to 5pm.”

Ministry cooking classes

The Health Ministry holds healthy cooking classes to share nutritious lunch box ideas.

Nouf Khamis Al Ali, deputy director of the Health Education and Promotion Department, said: “We have a three-pronged approach to educate parents under our Ma’kom initiative. We begin with smart shopping, where we take mothers for shopping, teach them to pick the right ingredients based on knowledge of their nutrition (values), read labels etc. Next, we hold practical demonstrations by our appointed chef to cook children’s recipes for the lunch box. These items are tasted by mothers and children and recipes tweaked based on feedback. These recipes are available on the ministry’s Instagram, YouTube channel and website. The third programme provides general nutritional education to parents on how to choose ingredients and create new recipes and balance the lunch box with the right servings, avoidable foods etc”

Tips for a healthy lunch box

Lina Shibib

According to Lina Shibib, nutritionist at Medcare Hospital, “Healthy lunches and snacks are particularly important for active children as there is limited time for children to eat during the day — especially at school. Eating healthy food helps them concentrate, learn and develop. However, healthy eating changes are not always easy, so it is best to start with the lunch box.”

• Fruit — fresh or tinned

• Vegetables — cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, capsicum and cucumber with a dip

• Milk, yoghurt and custard

• Dips, cheese and biscuits

• Variety of bread, including bread rolls, pita bread, flat bread, bagels, fruit loaf or buns, scones, pikelets, muffins, crumpets, crispbreads, rice cakes or corn thins

• Varied fillings including vegemite or other yeast extract, peanut butter, cheese, tuna, egg, sliced cold meats, baked beans, grated carrot and lettuce, chopped roast meat with pickles or chutney and avocado. Dips like caviar (taramasalata), eggplant, chickpea (hummus), cucumber, yoghurt (tzatziki) or spinach also make good spreads.

• Muesli and ‘breakfast’ bars? Almost all ‘bars’ are too high in sugar to include regularly. Cereal bars may be better for teeth than chewy sticky muesli bars.

• Water and milk are the best drinks for children. They can be frozen to help keep foods in the lunch box cool. Sweet drinks such as fruit juices, juice drinks, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured mineral waters, soft drinks and fizzy drinks are high in sugar and not necessary.

• Burgers need not be unhealthy as they can be packed with vegetables and protein.