With the prevalence of diabetes sky rocketing among both the adult UAE and expatriate populations, teaching your children to eat healthily at a young age is becoming paramount. But how do you encourage them to reach for the carrots instead of the chocolates?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 19.5 per cent of adult Emiratis have been diagnosed with diabetes, while doctors are seeing a huge rise in cases among the expatriate population. What’s even more alarming is that children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with the disease – the majority of cases of which are preventable. There’s not a lot you can do about Type 1 diabetes, which is when the body decides to stop producing insulin of its own accord. But Type 2, the brand we’re talking about, is caused by obesity matched with physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet and high blood pressure. This can only mean one thing. To prevent our kids from contracting a disease that is incurable, potentially debilitating and life threatening, we’ve got to get them to eat better and get out and about more.
According to Dr Maha Taysir Barakat, an Endocrinologist and medical research director at the Abu Dhabi-based Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), this is not as hard as it sounds. ‘Adults underestimate children and their willingness to eat healthy foods,’ she says. ‘If you take an extra step to make it seem special or fun, kids are very receptive to new foods. Just don’t force them to choose between cookies and carrots. Instead ask them to choose between fruit and whole-grain crackers with cheese. That way, either choice is a winner.’
Dubai mother of two Mariam Hussein agrees. ‘While my kids usually hesitate at eating food that they are not used to, taking them to the beach or the park, or a place like Café Ceramique where it’s fun and there’s an activity involved, improves their appetite a lot,’ she says. ‘Eating right is all about balance,’ adds Annie McElroy-Arnaud. ‘I send my two boys to school every day with a packed lunch that includes a piece of fruit, some protein, a milk product, raw carrot sticks and a small treat. We’ve got it honed down to a fine art now.’
But with childhood obesity a growing problem, it appears that not all parents are aware of the dangers a diet high in sweets and soft drinks presents to their kids. As a result, the ICLDC launched its I Eat Right campaign, aimed at encouraging parents and children to take a critical look at what they are packing in their lunchboxes. Launched in November 2007, the ICLDC team visits schools around the UAE and uses fun activities to prompt kids to think about what they are putting in their mouths, teaching them to make up the ideal tasty and healthy lunchbox – without nasties like processed sugar and transfats present, of course.
In addition, a number of schools have also come on board to help with the nutrition of their pupils, with many only serving healthy food, while others have placed bans on children bringing junk food with them. Many canteens, however, continue to serve food with low nutritional content. The school that Mariam’s children attend, for example, has a very strict dietary policy for kindergarten students. ‘Fruit, vegetables, sandwiches, healthy snacks and juice is allowed,’ she explains, ‘but chips, sweets or soft drinks are banned.’ Unfortunately, it all changes after first grade, when the students are able to buy unhealthy food from the school canteen, such as hamburgers, French fries and pizza.
And how, apart from taking away a child’s pocket money, do you prevent them from indulging in their favourite kind of fast food? ‘The biggest issue for me when it comes to keeping my kids’ diet healthy is control,’ says Annie. ‘When I’m responsible for making their breakfasts, packing their lunches and cooking their dinner, I can make sure that they get a balanced meal. It’s when we’re out and we’re offered the kiddie menus that we run into trouble. The only thing that they ever offer is fish fingers, hamburgers, pasta and fries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fresh vegetables on the menu.’
According to the ICLDC, no regulations exist on what schools can serve children, which is why the healthy eating programme is becoming so integral. And, while you can come up with inventive and fun ways to get your child to eat healthily at home, if you’re concerned about what your child is eating at school, you should consider petitioning them to change the canteen menu. Your kids might not like you for it now, but they’ll be very grateful for it later.
For more information on the ICLDC and the I Eat Right campaign, visit www.icldc.ae.