All schools and their food suppliers in the UAE must follow healthy nutritional guidelines issued by the authorities from this academic year or face fines, said a top Dubai Health Authority (DHA) official on Thursday.
Dr Wafa Ayesh, Director of Clinical Nutrition at DHA, said during the live DHA Twitter Clinic that the guidelines will help tackle the problem of childhood obesity by ensuring children have access to nutritional foods in an environment where they spend several hours per day.
“The DHA has been a part of the ‘UAE School Specification for Healthy Foods Committee’ that has worked extensively to implement guidelines across schools in the UAE to ensure nutritional food is provided in school premises. From this academic year – September 2014 – all schools in the UAE must ensure they follow detailed guidelines to ensure both suppliers and school canteens provide healthy foods for school children."
She added that schools and food suppliers that provide meals in schools must follow these guidelines and those that do not are liable to face penalties.
"The move is to ensure all children across government and private schools are provided with nutritious food that is needed for their growth and well-being and so that children inculcate healthy eating habits early on."
She said the specifications are detailed and include guidelines such as nutritional value of food, colour, additives, preservatives, wrapping, transportation and storage of food etc.
"We have put into place guidelines every step of the way- from the time the food is produced until it is consumed."
The guidelines also state that no child is allowed to substitute a physical training (PT) class with any other class, unless it is for medical reasons.
"Nutrition and physical activity go hand-in-hand and during the formative years, children need to adapt to this lifestyle so that they will grow into healthy adults who value the importance of exercise and nutritious eating."
She said, in 2013, DHA conducted a healthy lunch box campaign across 80 private and government schools in Dubai targeting more than 5,000 school children.
Ayesh added that the most important consideration for parents to consider while packing a healthy lunch box is safety and nutritional value of food.
"Firstly, I would highly recommend that parents use frozen icepacks while sending perishable food items to school so that food does not get spoilt. This is extremely important because of the hot climate we live in. Secondly, the more colourful the lunch box, the more nutritious it is.
For young children, parents also need to be cautious of choking hazards and pack food accordingly," added Ayesh.
Don’t send sick child to school
She also highlighted the importance of encouraging good personal hygiene habits to minimize the risk of children picking up infections.
She said: "Once school begins, children will pick up infections, encouraging hand hygiene is one of the best ways to minimise this risk. Children must learn to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds before eating. Moreover, parents should not send their sick child to school as their child needs rest and it prevents spreading infection among other school children."
She also focused on the need to ensure that children's vaccinations are up-to-date and that they are vaccinated against diseases such as chicken-pox which is highly infectious and leads to long absenteeism.
Addressing the issue of oral hygiene, she said: "The rate of caries is high in this region. So after your child eats a sugary food, they should gargle at school, if not, ask them to eat a cucumber or carrot or drink water to prevent teeth decay."
Dangers of carrying heavy school bags on shoulder
Soha Noufal, head of nutrition unit at Dubai Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre, said: "One of the fundamental mistakes school children make is carrying heavy school bags, some of them even carry it on one shoulder, this tilts the spine and ruins the posture. The rule of thumb is that your child's school bag should not be more than 10 per cent of your child's body weight. Parents should also sit with their children and clear out unwanted items from school bags and non-essential items can be kept in the school locker."
Noufal also focused on the need to inculcate good physical exercise habits among children from a young age.
She said: "It is a known fact that children imitate their parents, so as the new academic year begins, it's time for parents to set good examples by exercising themselves. Families can take part in exercise activities together, this helps create a positive association towards exercise and well-being."
Breakfast eaters have higher school attendance
Mariam Al Shamsi, head of nutrition education unit at the DHA, said: "Studies show that breakfast eaters tend to have higher school attendance. It is important to encourage them to have a sit-down nutritious breakfast every morning, even if this means waking up earlier. Breakfast on-the-go is a habit that should be discouraged."
She also said that it's important to provide your children with high energy snacks, especially if they stay back for after school activities.
"High energy snacks include whole-grain crackers, cheese, juices without sugar etc. One of the most important ways to encourage healthy eating patterns is to educate children about food and to take into account their likes and dislikes. An innovative menu every week that has been planned and reviewed with your children will make lunch boxes more fun. Taking them grocery shopping is a good activity and will create positive reaffirmation towards food."
The UAE School Specification for Healthy Foods Committee' comprises of experts from the DHA, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Dubai Municipality, Haad and some academic universities. From September this year, team members from the committee will carry out inspections in the emirate to ensure schools provide nutritious meals and snacks.