UAE: A sizeable number of Emirati parents do not consider their overweight or obese children as fat, according to a study based on these perceptions that suggests that despite a targeted, government-backed approach to tackle the issue of obesity, health messages may actually not be sinking in.
Being overweight is culturally and traditionally perceived in Arab and Mediterranean countries as being a sign of good health and of financial success. However, the first-ever national study done on parents’ perceptions of their children’s weight in the UAE also found that over 50 per cent of the parents of underweight children did not recognise that their child had weight issues.
The findings from the year-long study point out what some experts already believe, in that despite the presence of a number of government-backed strategies to combat the ‘obesity epidemic’ in the UAE, the effect is not as expected.
Titled “Parental Weight Perceptions: A Cause for Concern in the Prevention and Management of Childhood Obesity in the United Arab Emirates”, the study was published in the online international journal PLoS ONE in March this year.
The study found that of the 945 nationals (6-19 years) and their parents who consented for the study, 33.8 per cent misclassified their children’s weight status. Of these, 63.5 per cent of the parents of overweight and obese children did not recognise the true extent of their child’s weight while 55.1 per cent of the parents of underweight children had the same problem.
Carried out from January to December 2011 in Abu Dhabi, the study highlighted “that the first step to involving parents in helping their child lose weight would require parental recognition of their child’s weight status, i.e. they should be able to recognise an ‘obese child’ as such.”
The study made it clear that parents’ education, financial status or sex of the child did not affect their perception of their child’s weight which also meant certain targeted health warnings were being ignored.
A senior health official from Dubai Health Authority who is involved in drafting policies to tackle the ‘weighty’ issue ‘from the roots’ said that awareness and education was the key to getting parents really involved.
While commenting on the outcomes of the study Dr Fathia Hatim Mohammed said: “We are dealing with parents directly and we have noticed that there is definitely more awareness in the community.”
Dr Fathia who is Head of the Health Promotion Section at the Dubai Health Authority and has actively backed the recently approved Physical Activity at School Policy for the emirate, said that parents need to be repeatedly told of the risk factors involved with obesity.
“When children spend so many hours inactive at home, it is the responsibility of the parents to provide such an environment that will support what we do at schools,” she said.
According to the 2010 Global School Health survey, 40 per cent of the UAE children are overweight and 15 per cent are obese, ranking the country among the top 10 fattest nations in the world.
However, the UAE’s big fat problem may still need extensive working before parents understand that they may be making their obese children, the overweight adults of tomorrow.
During the 2010 Fat Truth campaign run by Unicef, obesity was considered an extremely sensitive topic. The campaign was run for the purpose of changing the exceedingly challenging perception of ‘what is a healthy weight and what is overweight and obese.’
“We need a multi-sectorial approach to tackle the issue,” said Dr Fathia: “Schools are already working and supporting parents by informing them of the right food choices etc and by helping them exercise as well,” she added.
She also said that other measures directed at parents are being taken as well: “We can conduct household surveys, visit their worksites while media can also play their part.”
The study was co-authored by Dr Abdulla Al Junaibi from the department of Paedatrics at the Zayed Military Hospital in Abu Dhabi and Dr Abdishakur Abdulle from the department of Internal Medicine at the College of Medicine at UAE University in Al Ain.
The authors suggested that the results regarding parental failure to recognise the weight status of overweight/obese children is of concern, especially given that the prevalence of childhood obesity here is one of the highest in the world.
“Underweight status is an indication of under-nutrition and may adversely impact on the overall children’s health. Even more worrisome, is the fact that some of these children were severely underweight, yet parents failed to recognise ‘underweight’ as a plausible health problem.”
“We conclude that the majority of parents of overweight/obese children either overestimated or, more commonly, underestimated children’s weight status,” said the authors.
“Thus, parents having an incorrect perception of their child’s weight status may ignore otherwise appropriate health messages.”
The study suggests developing culturally appropriate interventions and awareness programmes to specifically target incorrect parental perceptions.The study suggests developing culturally appropriate interventions and awareness programmes to specifically target incorrect parental perceptions.
© Khaleej TimesApr 2013