The survey found 88 per cent of parents in the country believe that children’s eating habits should be healthier but 33 per cent say they don’t always get time to prepare healthy meals. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: More than a third of schoolchildren in the UAE are known to be obese or overweight, yet more than 70 per cent of parents do not know their children’s body mass index (BMI), a survey has found.

In fact, parents display ‘a sort of blindness’ to the measure, commonly used to determine if body mass is in the healthy range, and this is especially concerning in light of the worldwide obesity epidemic, Dr Gowri Ramanathan, associate chief medical officer at Abu Dhabi-based private health-care facility King’s College Hospital London.

“Parents are either unaware about how their children’s BMI [calculated as a height-to-weight ratio] is relevant to overall health, or simply choose not to address it. At any rate, there is a failure to acknowledge that eating unhealthy coupled with a sedentary lifestyle puts children at tremendous risk,” Dr Ramanathan told Gulf News.

The survey, which reached out to 500 parents from across the country, was undertaken by King’s College Hospital London in November. Its extended results will be revealed at the Abu Dhabi Childhood Obesity Forum, which begins on Sunday.

The two-day forum, being organised by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and the emirate’s health sector regulator, the Abu Dhabi Department of Health, will discuss UAE children’s ‘weight problem’.

This is the first time the forum is being convened, and it comes as the global obesity epidemic continues to worsen. In fact, 50 million infants and 250 million schoolchildren around the world now carry excess body weight, and more than 90 million are at high risk of developing chronic conditions including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and fatty liver disease that need a lifetime of treatment.

The problem is significant in the UAE, with eight per cent of expatriate children and 19 per cent of Emirati children displaying abnormal BMI, including low BMI, said Dr Malin Garemo, co-chair and assistant professor of health sciences at Zayed University.

“Looking at the situation, it is obvious that we need to start action before women even get pregnant. We know that habits are formed as early as at two years old, so it is only through intervening early that we can hope to make a difference,” Dr Garemo said.

The King’s College Hospital London survey also found that 88 per cent of parents in the country believe that children’s eating habits should be healthier, yet 33 per cent say they do not always have the time to prepare healthy meals.

Dr Garemo said that many parents say they often allow their children to indulge in chocolate cake and sweetened milk on a daily basis.

“There is still not enough insight that parents have a big role in addressing this obesity epidemic, and this is where family doctors and primary health-care workers can step in to create awareness,” Dr Ramanathan said.