The UAE has a love affair with fast food. In every food court in every mall across Dubai, restaurants jostle for favour as they purvey their tempting treats. But what happens when these meals, which are high in saturated fats, stop being occasional bites and start creeping into everyday diets? One in five children in the UAE are obese, according to recent World Health Organisation research, and a recent seminar on the Global Crisis of Obesity, which was held in Dubai, threw up some very worrying findings. It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do in order to educate children and parents here on the dangers of over-consumption.
Zenia Menon, a nutritionist with The Health Factory, believes, understandably, that nutrition is an important part of human life. It’s a part of the treatment, recovery and prevention of future illnesses. But it’s a complex issue. “Childhood obesity is an interaction between the obesogenic environment and individual lifestyle choices,” she explains. Overall, she says, it’s a mixture of children taking in too many energy-dense foods (foods that are high in sugar and carbohydrates), a low intake of vegetables, fruit, dairy and whole grains, and spending too much time watching television or playing video games. “Also, in some cases, genetic and hormonal factors come into play, as well as family history.”
Fast food is high-energy food that’s low on nutrients. When a child bites into a burger or chips, the brain secretes dopamine, which is the main neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, happiness and excitement. This can cause a complete lack of control and an intense demand from the brain for more similar types of food.
One study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that once children have eaten fast food they consume more calories and fewer nutrients for the rest of the day, too. This kind of high-calorie diet can then lead to significant health problems in children and is a risk factor for medical problems such as high cholesterol, diabetes and pulmonary issues.
It’s not just about health, either. Diet also has a significant effect on children’s study habits. Junk food and foods with high sugar content deplete energy levels and the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. This can result in low health, low immunity, more sick days and low school performance.
But, don’t panic, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Childhood obesity starts at home,” Menon warns. “Parents must start with themselves, by eating healthier food, doing more outdoor activities, dining together without the distraction of the television, and so on. Parents should also try to involve their children in grocery shopping and cooking meals at home by getting them to chop and wash fruits and vegetables.”
Educating ourselves on how to properly read nutrition labels on grocery products also helps. This way, we’re more aware of what we’re consuming. Menon also advocates for schools to host health awareness workshops, but also for marketing professionals to take note and more responsibility for their campaigns geared towards children. “Simple consumer education to promote a better balanced diet and healthy lifestyle is key. Show a child enjoying a healthy yoghurt instead of a sugary popsicle every time.”