Schools for health

Schools to teach kids healthier food habits


ABU DHABI //Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) has launched a programme to instil healthy eating and exercise habits in children and adolescents in efforts to reverse a disturbing trend towards obesity in schoolchildren.


Eat Right and Get Active got under way last month in 30 public and private schools in the emirate.


Dr Jennifer Moore said the programme was designed to teach children what it meant to eat healthily and be physically active. The section head of family and school health at Haad, Dr Moore said the goal was to get the children to spread the habits to the rest of the community: teachers, staff, peers and parents.


Last year, a Haad survey of the body mass index levels of 7,000 students from private and public schools in the emirate found that 30 per cent were either overweight or obese - a high percentage of obesity compared to international standards.


Sixty-three per cent of the students had healthy weight levels, while 7 per cent were underweight.


Recent studies conducted by the World Health Organisation put the global obesity rate at 10 per cent. However, Haad's Weqaya data, which screened 95 per cent of Emirati adults in Abu Dhabi, found that 70 per cent of those surveyed were either overweight or obese.


"We want the 63 per cent of students to learn how to maintain their healthy weight so there is no weight increase as they move towards adulthood," Dr Moore said.


Dr Arwa Almodwahi, the senior public health officer at Haad's family and school health section, said the authority had worked closely with the Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority to create the Food Dome, which was based on the food pyramid pioneered by the US, as part of the programme.


"Already schools have gym classes and there are canteen guidelines in place that disallow soft drinks, junk foods and all the empty calorie items that should not be part of a child's diet," Dr Arwa Almodwahi said.


"The Food Dome will take it a step further by letting kids know if what they are eating does or does not fall among the five food groups of the dome, so they understand what it means to eat healthy."


A Food Dome chart that offers a list of healthy foods - one for pupils aged five to 13 and another with more details on food portions for those 14 and older - is among the materials distributed to each of the 30 pilot schools.


The Eat Right and Get Active administrators plan to employ as many components as possible in the quest for health - from showing schools how to determine if students are packing healthy lunches to encouraging different kinds of physical activities, such as father-son football matches.


Eating habits were another focal point, officials said.


"We want kids to know how important breakfast is in their day - studies have shown that students who skip breakfast are more likely to visit the school clinic, complaining of lethargy, or fatigue, or stomach aches," Dr Almodwahi said.


Portion size - how much cooked rice constitutes one serving of grain, for example - is also taught to the older children, who will, it is hoped, inform their parents and help families become healthier, Dr Moore said.


"Research has shown that when addressing healthy weight, isolated interventions are not as effective as getting parents and the community involved, which is what we hope to achieve with the Food Dome."


By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, Haad hopes that all schools in Abu Dhabi will be using the Food Dome to teach the methods of healthy and nutritious eating to students, staff and parents.