Weigh up the ben­e­fits of a healthy life from a young age

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More than half of the pupils in UAE schools are classed as over­weight or obese. Weight prob­lems are even be­ing iden­ti­fied in in­fants. Warn­ings such as these are be­com­ing alarm­ingly com­mon and leave lit­tle doubt that child­hood obe­sity in the coun­try has reached epi­demic pro­por­tions.

These par­tic­u­lar find­ings come from a 2015 study by Mo­hammed bin Rashid School of Gov­ern­ment. As well as dis­cov­er­ing that 14 per cent of 15 to 18-yearolds are obese and 38 per cent over­weight, it found the fre­quency of youth obe­sity in the UAE is three times greater than rec­om­mended global lev­els. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion last year pre­dicted that by 2025 the num­ber of over­weight chil­dren in the Emi­rates be­tween the ages of 5 and 19 will soar to 448,736, if cur­rent trends con­tinue.

“An over­weight child is al­ways a con­cern as it sets the path for adult obe­sity,” says Dr Med­hat Abu- Shaa­ban, a con­sul­tant in pae­di­atrics and al­ler­gies, and med­i­cal di­rec­tor at My Pedia Clinic, Dubai.

“We are see­ing so many prob­lems in young chil­dren who are over­weight or obese: more in­ci­dents of Type 2 diabetes, asthma, joint prob­lems and de­pres­sion. Once they get older, there is a higher risk of things like meta­bolic dis­ease, hy­per­ten­sion and heart dis­ease.”

Some par­ents are re­luc­tant to ad­mit their child has a weight prob­lem, or are sim­ply ig­no­rant of the is­sue, says Dr Mirna Sab­bagh, a nu­tri­tion­ist and di­eti­tian at the clinic. “Many par­ents do not know their chil­dren are suf­fer­ing from obe­sity,” she says. “I even have pa­tients ask­ing me if their child is un­der­weight when they are, in fact, obese.

“For chil­dren un­der 3, there are WHO growth charts that health­care providers and par­ents can fol­low. They com­pare the child’s weight with the av­er­age weight glob­ally and will show if it is too low, ex­actly right, or too high for their age.

“More im­por­tantly, there is an­other chart that com­pares the child’s weight for their height, which de­ter­mines their body mass in­dex. In this way, a child who seems over­weight com­pared with the global av­er­age for their age may in fact have the cor­rect weight for their height.”

The di­ag­no­sis of obe­sity is based on this BMI and while there are many cal­cu­la­tors avail­able on­line, it is most ac­cu­rately de­ter­mined by a pae­di­a­tri­cian.

“For chil­dren over 3, we will take into con­sid­er­a­tion their waist and other bod­ily mea­sure­ments, as well as check­ing their mus­cle and fat mass,” says Sab­bagh. She and Abu-Shaa­ban ad­vise par­ents to mon­i­tor their chil- dren’s weight and height on a monthly ba­sis dur­ing the younger years, and ev­ery three to six months when they are older, to make sure there are no big weight in­creases.

“Con­trol­ling weight gain from the be­gin­ning is so im­por­tant, be­fore it cre­ates sev­eral meta­bolic changes that be­come harder to re­verse,” says Sab­bagh. Abu- Shaa­ban adds: “While child­hood obe­sity can be ge­netic, the ma­jor cause, I be­lieve, in our cur­rent gen­er­a­tion is the use of elec­tronic gad­gets such as com­put­ers, iPads and iPhones. Chil­dren sit and snack on un­healthy food and are not get­ting the phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity they need.”

A re­port by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion in the United States high­lights this trend, re­veal­ing that only 27 per cent of high-school stu­dents get 60 min­utes of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity a day, while 41 per cent played video games for more than three hours a day. Thirty-two per cent spent more than three hours watch­ing tele­vi­sion each day.

“This lack of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity is a huge worry,” says Claire Peir­son, a psy­chother­a­pist at Piv­otal Mind. She con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search into the sub­ject of chil­dren, phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and the link to men­tal well-be­ing as part of her master’s de­gree in ap­plied pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy.

“Chil­dren only need to move their bod­ies for an hour a day to help com­bat this. It doesn’t have to be a strong gym work­out – it just means get­ting ac­tive with sim­ple things like climb­ing the stairs or walk­ing.”

A gen­tle ap­proach to deal­ing with child­hood obe­sity is more ef­fec­tive than em­bark­ing on a strict diet or ex­er­cise regime, says Peir­son.

“I’ve worked with many young peo­ple with anx­i­ety, and who are bul­lied or lack con­fi­dence due to be­ing over­weight or obese,” she says. “Our ses­sions rarely talk about food. In­stead I look at their un­der­ly­ing prob­lems, such as low self-es­teem, first to help them start to think bet­ter about them­selves.

“Ex­er­cise shouldn’t be seen as a pun­ish­ment. If it is too hard or too am­bi­tious, chil­dren will feel like they are setting them­selves up for fail­ure.”

Get­ting chil­dren into a bet­ter frame of mind is cru­cial to help­ing tackle the prob­lem.

“En­cour­ag­ing the mind­set that they can ex­er­cise, that they’ve got time to do so and help­ing them to cre­ate that habit is so im­por­tant,” says Peir­son.

“Ask your child what they would like to do and help them turn ‘won’t’ into ‘will’ – for ex­am­ple, chang­ing: “I won’t ever lose weight” to “I will move my body ev­ery day.”

“Above all, en­cour­age your child to be­lieve in them­selves and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own health and hap­pi­ness.”

art­slife@then­ational.ae

Justin Sullivan / Getty Im­ages / AFP

Marissa Hamil­ton, 17, left, waits for a meal at Well­spring Academy, a school that helps teenagers to lose weight, in Reed­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. Obe­sity is a grow­ing global prob­lem but in the UAE, youth obe­sity is three times higher than the rec­om­mended level.

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