Where childhood obesity statistics are concerned, the UAE is now on a par with the US. We spoke to clinical dietician Lama Alkhuja about weight loss in children and keeping our kids fit and healthy.
Q: How many children are actually overweight in the UAE?
A: Far too many! Twenty per cent of kids here between the ages of eight and 14 are overweight, while seven per cent are classified as clinically obese. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the figures are higher still. The Middle East region is now on a par with the United States in terms of obesity levels. It’s a huge problem.
Q: Should we be putting our kids on strict diets?
A: Actually no. That’s possibly one of the worst things you can do when a child is growing and developing. Instead, families need to take a good hard look at their lifestyles as a whole, and start making changes from there. If your child is very overweight, go and see a qualified dietician who can take into account your child’s height, fat volume, muscle mass and then advise you on the foods they should be eating.
Q: What about when kids snack secretly between meals?
A: When this kind of thing happens, it’s usually because the child’s relationship with food has become disrupted. Often, it occurs when a parent has been pressurizing the child to diet, which in turn, makes them want to eat more, but in a sneaky way. You deal with this by making no food out of bounds, and by not making food the enemy. Portion control, making sure healthy snacks only are available at home, and encouraging the child to get involved in the kitchen, preparing the food etc, can make all the difference.
Q: Should you talk to your children about weight loss?
A: Its ok to mention it, but the main drive should eating well to achieve a healthier lifestyle. Weight loss is simply one of the results of living in a better way. Furthermore, if you emphasize the weight loss aspect, it can have a detrimental effect. Children can often start skipping meals – breakfast is the usual one – in an attempt to cut out calories. But of course this is a bad thing because they then can’t concentrate properly at school, and they will inevitably overeat later on in the day to make up for it.
Q: It’s also difficult to get some kids to enjoy exercise
A: I hear you. But you need to tackle it in a different way. Don’t sign them up to a gym, or get them a personal trainer. That can just make the whole thing so boring and it might put them off. Talk to them about what kinds of activities they’d like to get involved with, and take it from there. Girls love dance classes, cheer leading, horse riding etc, while boys can do anything from skate boarding and hip hop classes to a martial art. Or vice versa. Dubai is a town where cool after school activities abound. You should aim to get your children running about with their friends for 30-60 minutes, five days a week.
Lama Alkhuja is the Clinical Dietitian at Health Bay Clinic, Umm Suqeim (800 4272).