Image Credit: AHMED KUTTY/Gulf News

Dubai: Overweight children grow up to become overweight adults if they don’t make a lifestyle change in time, say health experts.

With the UAE listing as the fifth country with the highest childhood obesity rate in the world, the need for awareness on the risks of being overweight at a young age is a necessity.

Dr Farouq Mohammad Bafiuddin, consultant surgeon at Mediclinc in Dubai Mall and President of the Emirates Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Interest Group, told Gulf News that along with the increase in obesity among children, there has also been a spike in the prevalence of childhood diabetes. “Childhood diabetes has increased from two per cent 10 years ago to around 11 per cent to date. Obesity and diabetes go hand in hand,” he said.

Along with diabetes, there has also been an increase in hypertension among teenagers, as well as anaemia, cystic ovarian disease in girls and joint problems resulting from difficulties to support the extra weight, explained Dr Bafiuddin.

An unhealthy diet and inactivity is the cause of most childhood obesity cases.

However, the root of the problem could also be genetic. Having genes which predispose to diabetes would increase the chances of children becoming diabetic. Having those genes and a low basal metabolic rate (BMR) is also a reason most children gain excessive weight that is sometimes accompanied by diabetes.

“In this situation a person would burn less energy than a person with normal BMR for the exact same activity,” he said.

Economic prosperity in the region is also a reason for the increase in childhood obesity, said Dr Bafiuddin. With an abundance of all types of food and imported products, certain foods containing foreign substances may not be genetically compatible to Emiratis or residents who have settled in the UAE for long periods of time, explained Dr Bafiuddin.

“Eating is also seen as a recreational activity in this part of the world, and a way to socialise with others; and children are also a part of this trend,” he said.

Make a change

Dr Bafiuddin pointed out that the human body is designed to be physically active, and this applies to children as well as adults on a daily basis. “It all starts at home and includes the whole family,” he said.

Parents should be responsible for the types of foods that are available and prepared for their children at home.

Dr Bafiuddin pointed out that mindful eating is the first step for a child to lose weight in a healthy way without harming their body. A combination of a low-calorie balanced diet and consistent physical activity is necessary.

“Drugs should not be an intervention used for a child to lose weight, and surgery should only apply to hopeless cases as a last resort,” said Dr Bafiuddin.

A focus on physical activity at school and at home that is considered engaging and fun for the child, is a key factor parents and educators should look at when helping obese children lose weight.

Dr Ahmad Mahmoud Hady, Pediatrician at Medcare Hospital in Dubai pointed out that physical activity ranging from swimming and football to group sports are some of the more common and engaging activities that children usually enjoy. He explained that parents play a key role in encouraging their children to exercise, and should carry out physical activities as a family to prevent the child from feeling isolated.

“They can go to the park and do some walking or at home parents can limit the time their children watch TV and play computer games and encourage them to play sports outside instead,” said Dr Hady.

Specialist paediatrician Dr Nasma Lawawi from Medcare Hospital pointed out that hiring professional coaches and trainers who can design exercise routines for child weight loss is also an effective option.

She explained that parents should also raise their children to make healthy choices by promoting healthy food at home from a young age.

“They should encourage eating healthy food by preparing appropriate meals at home with their children, and avoiding fast food. They can also forbid eating while watching TV, and avoid rewarding their children with sweets and fatty food.”

While there are several causes to childhood obesity, the main cause continues to be an imbalance between calorie intake and physical activities. Children may not be aware of the risks of obesity, but it is up to the parents to alter their lifestyles and help them lead a healthy life, said Dr Lawawi.