Sweets and junk foods at hospitals.There were no salads, or even light sandwiches, let alone gluten free or sugar-free items. Image Credit: Jumana Tamimi/Gulf News

Dubai: When Fatima Bint Saif, a grandmother, recently took her 6-year-old sick granddaughter to a hospital’s emergency ward, she was surprised to see a vending machine in the waiting area full of everything that her little one shouldn’t eat or drink: chips, chocolates, sugar-loaded canned juices and cakes, among other junk food items.

There were no salads, or even light sandwiches, let alone gluten free or sugar-free items.

“I asked the staffer: does this vending machine that you have placed in front of the children’s eyes have healthy or unhealthy items?”

“Not healthy,” was the response.

“So why you have put it here?”

The grandmother was promised by the staffer that her complaint would be shared higher up.

But that didn’t stop the child crying for the items on display. “In a waiting area there are many children with their families and no one wants to hear a crying child, so I had to meet her wish, but when I bought my granddaughter the biscuits she wanted, it came to the last biscuit and another child wanted it too, and he started crying as well.”

11.8%

the percentage of diabetic people in the UAE in a 2017 report

This is not Fatima’s first experience. Last year, she also found a similar vending machine in a trauma section of another hospital when she took her grandchild. She was equally furious and complained to the hospital’s management.

“Hospitals should pay more attention to the quality of food items being offered to patients’ relatives or visitors,” Nadine Andari Halabi, a Dubai-based clinical dietitian, told Gulf News.

Nadine Andari Halabi
Nadine Andari Halabi, Dubai-based clinical dietitian Image Credit: Supplied

“Healthy items should be on display next to some unhealthy options, but it’s 100 per cent important that there must be healthy items,” said Andari, who is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and holds a master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition.

“Most of the time, people opt for healthy products when they are available,” she said.

One staffer in a privately-owned medical facility explained to Gulf News that usually managements rent spaces for different retailers to sell different food items.

“Patient’s food is the responsibility of hospitals but cafés target relatives and visitors,” said the staffer, under condition of anonymity.

Cafés in hospitals don’t fall under the jurisdiction of Dubai Health Authority, but under Dubai Municipality.

However, the municipality’s Food Safety Department explained that the “Dubai Municipality’s role is to ensure food safety and hygiene. The municipality’s Food Inspection Section conducts regular inspections in all food outlets in Dubai,” according to a Municipality statement sent to Gulf News.

Healthy items should also be available at affordable prices, because high prices constitute a barrier for many people to buy such food items. Promotion, availability and placement can also encourage people to choose more healthy items.

However, at the same time, “You can’t force people to have healthy food, and there is a need for awareness campaigns to achieve such a goal,” Andari said.

Parents play an important role in educating their children to have better choices by themselves, according to doctors.

Dr Abdul Razzaq Al Madani, consultant in medicine and endocrinology and President of Emirates Diabetes said in a city like Dubai that is open for trade and business, it is not possible to tell people what to sell in vending machines and what not to sell.

Dr Abdul Razzaq Al Madani
Dr Abdul Razzaq Al Madani Image Credit: Supplied

“There are worse things, which is fast food. There is a fast food outlet in every neighbourhood and every petrol station. There is also home delivery, a child sitting at home can order junk food via phone,” he told Gulf News.

Already, in a country where the percentage of diabetic people reached 11.8 per cent in 2017, the government has been exerting extensive efforts to raise awareness about healthy and proper diets.

Among the important steps taken was to stop selling chocolates bars and chips in school canteens a few years ago. The prohibited list includes soft drinks, energy and fruit drinks, chips, chocolate and sweets composed of excessive sugar and colourants. Hospitals might become a logical extension to this initiative.