Expert blames schools in child obesity row

A leading Saudi paediatrician is calling for a crackdown on schools in the Middle East, in a bid to halt juvenile obesity

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By  Joanne Bladd Published  May 8, 2006

A leading Saudi paediatrician is calling for a crackdown on schools in the Middle East, in a bid to halt the wave of juvenile obesity sweeping the region. Dr Sahar Al Dossary, director of paediatrics and neonatology at Saad Specialist Hospital, Saudi Arabia, is appealing for governments across the region to take action, after statistics showed that 11.5% of children in the Middle East are obese. She said: “ Schools are a major contributor to the epidemic. The meals served in school canteens are 45 to 50% fat and the amount a child exercises is reducing year on year due to the number of sedentary hours spent in front of the television. We are sending our children mixed messages; we tell them to eat well, but we feed them badly.” Dr Al Dossary is hoping schools will introduce new measures including returning compulsory physical education to the curriculum, improving the nutritional value of canteen food and adopting a system of ‘health report’ cards for students, to help monitor their weight. She said: “If we are not successful in this endeavour, the spiraling costs associated with childhood obesity will have a devastating effect on our public and private healthcare institutions. If a child is obese at 15, he or she is highly likely to become an obese adult.” Poor nutritional and exercise habits are compounded, Dr Al Dossary added, by the amount of television children watch. She said: “A survey in Saudi Arabia showed that children spend an average of five hours a day in front of the television. Remember that advertisers target our children – obesity is linked to sedentary consumption in front of the television.” These findings are echoed in the results of a new study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that establishes, for the first time, the full impact of television on children’s diets. The study ‘When Children Eat What they Watch’ found that watching television for an hour can increase a child’s dietary intake by 167 calories (9% of their daily intake), adding more than a stone to their weight over a year. The study also showed that children were eating significantly more of the snacks, sweets and fast food that were advertised most frequently on television. “Children should be playing outside for at least one hour a day,” Dr Al Dossary said. “Allowing your child to sit in front of the television or playstation is not healthy.” When questioned about surgery for morbidly obese teens, Dr Al Dossary called it “a last resort”, saying: “It is not acceptable to offer surgery to pre-adolescents.” Dr Al Dossary was speaking as part of the international conference on problems of obesity in medical practice, held in Abu Dhabi. The conference, organised by Al Noor hospital, gathered speakers from around the world to discuss techniques to improve obesity prevention and management. Conference president, Dr Kassem Alom, said the conference was one of a number of initiatives instigated by Al Noor hospital, aimed at promoting health awareness: “The hospital also holds nutrition clinics for members of the public. We bring in groups of people and teach them about diet and exercise and this year, we hope to take the clinic into schools," he added. With juvenile obesity rates at an all-time high, local governments are facing increased pressure to put diet and exercise guidelines in place for schools. Dr Abdul Ghaffar Abdul Ghafoor, assistant undersecretary for curative medicine in the UAE Government, told Healthcare Middle East that governments need to gather data before taking steps. He said: “The UAE government is beginning a survey in June to monitor the level of obesity and diabetes in schoolchildren. We did a study in 1995 to get statistics on the problem, and the number was very high. The new study will see if the numbers are less or more and then we will put our plans in place.” Speaker Dr Samir Ouasis, consultant in endocrinology and diabetology at Northeast Medical Centre, Texas, stressed the need for government intervention, telling delegates: “We have the first generation of children who will not live as long as their parents. We need the support of the parents, the schools, the Government and the country to stop this.”

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