50 per cent of obese kids are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: It's 5pm on a Friday and the Mall of the Emirates food court is bursting at its seams. A family of two adults and two kids have just had one gigantic burger each and are now gorging on deep fried nuggets. Between swigs of cola and fries, they place another order - strawberry sundae for everybody.

By the time the typical outing ends, the overweight adolescents have consumed 750 more calories each than they should have in the entire day.

The siblings will be lucky if they don't develop Type 2 diabetes, a fatty liver, heart ailments - even cancer - over time as the spectre of these diseases looms over one out of two obese children in the UAE.

According to a survey, UAE residents eat out 11 times a week on an average. That's more than half of the 21 meals they consume over seven days.

But since statistics don't reveal the horror parents of hospitalised kids go through, the dreadful consequences of such junk binges remain lost on residents.

The UAE is clearly heading for a child obesity epidemic. Since 2000, the percentage of obese children has been rising at a frightening two per cent per year. Around 35 per cent of the country's children are now obese.

Evidently, it's poor parenting more than anything else that has led to this crisis. Experts say kids are increasingly being raised on a wrong diet because of a combination of socio, economic and psychological factors.

Dubai-based raw foodist Cyntha Gonzalez sees it as a sign of the times. "We live in towers, work on computers and get our food from factories. We are out of sync with nature and the process of growing our foods. The degree to which we are disconnected from earth is also the degree to which we are disconnected from what we put into our bodies."

Stuffing children with wrong foods boils down to a matter of time and convenience. "In many households both parents are working. They have little time to plan a meal or feed their children right. It is easier to eat out or have food delivered at home," says Dubai-based behaviourial psychologist Zaufyshan Haseeb.

"A mother who is constantly running against time or is plain lazy is more concerned about her child eating something rather than him eating right," she said.

Getting children to eat a healthy meal is not easy. Ask any parent. Kids will have their way when it comes to junk food.

Emily Hartmann, Registered Dietician with the EHL Dubai Mall Medical Clinic, said junk foods are calorie-dense and low on fibres, vitamins and minerals. She should know. Twenty-five per cent of her patients are children.

She said unlike in her home country Switzerland, fast foods are affordable and easily available in the UAE.

"We can get a meal for four from our favourite pizza place for just Dh55. That's real value for money," said Sharon, a Filipino mother of two kids in Deira.

An Indian father of an eight-year-old said: "My wife works and we do tend to eat out a lot. We find it convenient."

It's about time the mindset is changed.

Dr Fathia Hatim Ebrahim Mohammad, Head of Health Promotion Section, Public Health and Safety Department at Dubai Health Authority (DHA), said: "Reversing the obesity epidemic requires a long-term, well-coordinated approach."

Of late, DHA has launched several public health initiatives to tackle child obesity through a range of efforts aimed at prevention and treatment.

The key responsibility, however, lies with parents. They let children spend several hours in front of the TV or computer when they should be out playing. Watching TV is accompanied by snacking. Thus, inactivity finds a dangerous companion in junk foods.

"Poor snacking habits tend to accumulate fats in the bodies of children. Add to this the lack of physical activity and it is a recipe for disaster," said Hartmann.

Shamsa Gareeb Sulaiman, Principal Awareness Officer in the Food Control Department of Dubai Municipality, said efforts to promote healthier eating will make little difference unless parents play an active role.

"Good nutrition begins at home. Parents should educate themselves and their maids and children about the need to eat right."

It's difficult but with a little effort you can break your child's craving to eat out. Give them a heavy meal at home before you take them to a mall. Remember a treat should remain just that.

Alice Adams, a Briton, said some child health experts in her country had initiated a debate on the need to treat parental failure to check obesity as a child protection issue. In other words, parents who consistently fail to change their children's lifestyle and poor eating habits could be held guilty of neglect. "While that may be an extreme view, it does make you sit up."

Ideal Breakfast for Kids

The following is a balanced option of healthy breakfasts recommended by Dubai Municipality for kids:

Kindergarten level

  • Cup of breakfast cereal (cornflakes, rice, oats) plus milk OR a small sandwich. Cup of cut fruit or 120ml fresh juice
  • Snack in second break: Custard or rice with milk and yoghurt with fruit plus 250ml of water

Elementary level

  • Small sandwich (cheese, egg) plus milk with banana cocktail/other fruit. Cup of fresh fruit or 120ml fresh juice
  • Snacks: Medium-sized pie or biscuits with dates, 250ml of water

Middle school level

  • Medium-sized sandwich (cheese, egg, chicken etc) or falafel sandwich with vegetables. Cup of fruit or 120ml fresh juice
  • Snacks: Biscuits or medium-sized pies, milk with strawberry or other fruits or milk with rice or pudding, 250ml of water

Secondary level

  • Big size sandwich (cheese, egg, chicken) or falafel sandwich with vegetables. Cup of fresh fruit or 120ml fresh juice
  • Snacks: Biscuits or medium-sized pies, milk with strawberry or other fruits or milk with rice or pudding, 250 ml of water

In Figures

  • UAE residents eat out 11 times a week on average
  • The UAE is ranked No 10 in terms of the maximum number of obese people a country has in the world 
  •  More than three-fourths of the UAE's population of women and two-thirds of its men are overweight 
  • UAE schoolchildren are 1.8 times more obese than US children 
  • Over 35 per cent of children in the UAE are overweight 
  • 50 per cent of obese kids are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer