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School menus in the spotlight

UAE government reveals plans to monitor school canteens, in a bid to tackle soaring obesity rates

Plans to monitor menus at UAE schools have been laid out by a national nutritional advisory committee, in a bid to reduce the level of obesity and diabetes in children.

The committee has proposed an evaluation of the sugar content of the drinks and food offered to children. The move is part of a wider preventive plan, aimed at reducing the incidence of diabetes in the region.

Dr Juma Bilal Fairuz, a director of preventive medicine at the Ministry of Health, is a member of the committee. He said: “We’re tackling this because of diabetes. We’re not doing enough to educate and encourage a healthy diet among children. Inspectors go to restaurants, so why not include going to school canteens?”

Once the committee has issued guidelines, Dr Fairuz said, the responsibility of enforcing them would fall to the Ministry of Education. The body is also considering nutrition classes for students and increasing sporting activities in schools.

The problem of obesity in schools has been described by the World Health Organisation as “epidemic.” A recent study showed that the proportion of obese school-age children in Europe has risen by almost 50% since the late 1990s,and will nearly double to 6.4 million by 2010. According to the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO), the Middle East is on course for a similar surge, leading to a sharp rise in the number of children suffering from type-2 or ‘adult-onset’ diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

An educational scheme is already underway in UK schools and supporters are campaigning for a ban on the sale of fizzy drinks and snacks to students. Experts are supporting the move, arguing that children are not equipped to make healthy food decisions when high fat, high sugar options are available.

Professor Jane Wardle, founder of the leading charity Weight Concern, said limiting availability of these foods was a good way to tackle obesity but stressed parents must be supported and educated as well.

Dr Fairuz agrees, saying good nutritional habits begin at home. He is urging UAE schools to involve parents in preventive measures. “Schools should see parents and help them understand the importance of food,” he said.

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