The Government Policy and the Nation’s Health
Obesity is considered as one of the greatest problems affecting both children and adults in the 21st century. Thus, the Dubai Health Authority has recently reported that over 33% of Dubai’s children are overweight (Simpson, 2015). Being overweight may be medically different from being obese, but for this paper, the two conditions will be considered as the same. An individual is declared obese if their body mass index is above 30, while overweight people have their body mass index above 25 (Simpson, 2015). Both conditions involve having a body weight that is above the average one based on age, sex and height. This study seeks to establish whether the UAE government policy is the reason for this high prevalence of childhood obesity in the UAE or it can be blamed on the habits of the local society. The research will attempt to find out whether the government’s actions have benefited the situation, or conversely have worsened it or even contributed to the problem of obesity amongst UAE’s children. The government policy should be responsible for addressing factors that endanger the nation’s health, and thus a failure to do so amounts to being part of the problem, if not its greatest cause. While the UAE acknowledges obesity as a threat, the state must enact commensurate measures to eradicate childhood obesity.
According to a special report by Anam Rizvi that was published in The National in February 2015, obesity rate in the UAE exceeds the rate of overweigh people around the world almost twofold. This revelation means that while obesity has increasingly become one of the most common lifestyle diseases devastating both adults and children, its prevalence in the UAE is uncontrolled. Rizvi’s (2015) report clearly indicates the lack of an effective government policy on the problem in the UAE. From this special report, one can argue that the UAE’s greatest problem is public awareness of the problem at hand. People, namely parents in this case, are not paying enough attention to the health of their children, thus exposing them to childhood obesity that results in the staggering statistics.
Additionally, Wam (2016) discusses the problem of childhood obesity in the UAE with references to the DHA’s research. This article indicates that 33% of children in the UAE are obese at the moment, with the numbers likely to rise exponentially in the next few years if no measures are taken against the problem (Wam, 2016). Childhood obesity in this case refers to obesity in children of up to 19 years of age. Despite a common misconception that schoolchildren are the most active and thus least likely to be overweight, they constitute the greatest proportion of obese children in the country. In the UAE, schoolchildren are not doing enough physical activities.
Conversely, Junaibi, Abdulle, Sabri, Hag-Ali and Nagelkerke (2013) explored the prevalence and potential determinants of obesity among schoolchildren and adolescents in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. In their analysis, the authors randomly selected 1,541 schoolchildren between 6 and 19 years of age and investigated them for independent determinants of obesity. According to the result of the sample survey, 35% of the children were obese or overweight, and 8.3% of them were underweight (Junaibi et al., 2013). This statistics indicates that more than two-thirds of schoolchildren in the UAE are having issues with their weight. This fact cannot be ignored and accepted as a social norm even in a society where genetics are often blamed for most health issues. The government at this point needs to intervene so that children can have a healthy weight range as they grow.
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Furthermore, in his analysis, Zaman (2010) argued that the main reason for child obesity in the UAE is physical inactivity. It refers to the WHO report on obesity that states the determinants of childhood obesity based on an international survey. The current generation of schoolchildren spends more time playing on their mobile phones and in front of television screens. Their free time is spent playing video games, interacting with friends and family, watching movies or studying. None of these activities involves physical exertion, thus limiting the amount of calories that they can burn. Therefore, there is a need for policies that will get the children out of their homes and classes into the playground where they could get physical activity.
According to Katsaiti and El Anshasy (2013), a number of factors, including physical inactivity and junk food consumption, contribute to the escalating levels of obesity in the UAE. These authors present new evidence that indicates fast food consumption and limited physical activity are not independent determinants when it comes to childhood obesity. There are far more other determinants of the body weight of an individual, including genetics and ethnicity. Currently, the cultural context of the UAE is almost similar to that of the rest of the world, which is due to modernization and globalization. With the exception of Halal, most cuisines in the UAE are characterized with sugar and fat content similar to cuisines in the western countries. Moreover, children in the UAE are exposed to as much junk and processed foods as their peers in any other part of the world. Genetics, however, appears to play a bigger role in determining the norm in terms of acceptable BMI. Therefore, there is a need to fully understand the context of the UAE population in relation to body weight so as to derive relevant metrics for the country’s citizens.
Novak and Brownell (2012) examined the role of the government policy when it comes to dealing with the obesity epidemic. These authors concluded that environmental defaults greatly affect people’s behavior. Therefore, if healthy lifestyles are the default, it would be more likely for the population to be healthy than when a healthy lifestyle is just a choice. Governments are able to create social defaults through law and policy. Thus, if the government creates a policy that makes it a default for parents to feed their children right and give them the time to indulge in physical exercise every day, children will be healthier than they are now, in the absence of these policy interventions. This scenario means that the obesity epidemic is still in reality mainly because the government has not responded adequately to the situation. If the government actively involves in the issue, there is a chance that the prevalence of childhood obesity will be reduced significantly.
Frieden, Dietz and Collins (2010) further elaborate what the government can do in order to change the current situation. The authors emphasize the need for strict food policies that would create a healthy-eating norm for children and adults as well as for an improvement of programs meant to increase physical activity amongst children both in school and at home. It can be noted that these policies would be tasking to craft and implement, but they are necessary if the nation is to avoid an impending health crisis. Children with weight problems often develop a myriad of other health related problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as muscular problems that could render them inhibited in economic contexts.
This study relied on reports, surveys and researches conducted within the UAE and beyond in order to come up with answers to the stated research question. Since the study is based on secondary sources, it was mainly a content analysis directed towards establishing the extent to which the UAE government should be involved in the fight against childhood obesity. The secondary sources used in the study were mainly retrieved from various online databases and websites.
The UAE government has taken no measures to remedy the issue of childhood obesity in the UAE, which contributed to worsening of the situation. It is widely believed that the government’s inactivity is the greatest contributing factor in the alarming rate of childhood obesity within the UAE. This means that while the government policy may not be to blame for high prevalence of childhood obesity, lack of action with regard to this problem is a contributing factor to the current desperate situation in the country. Using the UK government as an example, the government is fully capable of determining the health context of the UAE citizens and addressing the problem at hand with a focus on sustainable solutions and not momentary triumphs (Ng et al., 2011). For example, a policy that helps parents pay medical bills for children with obesity is not likely to contribute to eliminating the problem at hand. On the contrary, provided that parents get such support, they will allow their children become obese. It is thus important for the government in the UAE to choose the right strategy for involvement in the fight against obesity. The UAE should make the government respond to the situation such as the childhood obesity epidemic. A 33% prevalence rate is the major cause for alarm. The government is responsible for creating policies that will help the citizens to deal with a number of challenges. In this case, the government should work towards eliminating or at least drastically reducing the rate of childhood obesity to below 10% within the next few years.
Unless any remedial measures are taken by the government to minimize the rate of childhood obesity, the problem of obesity may soon engulf all demographics in the UAE. By the time the government reacts, the health of the nation will have suffered significantly. Childhood obesity will cost billions of US dollars in management of complications as the children grow older. Thus, the current 33% of children will translate to over 50% of adults with obesity if nothing is done to curb the situation (Al-Shamsi & Jackson, 2008). To effectively respond to this problem, the government has to consider two policies after effectively establishing the determinant factors in childhood obesity in the UAE. Studies have so far indicated that nutrition and physical activity are not the only determinants; thus, there is a need for further investigation on the subject. Meanwhile, the government needs to create a new norm or social default as related to healthy living of both children and adults. This will enable the citizens to maintain their freedoms as humans and decide on what to eat and whether to exercise or not. However, the government needs a number of programs that will encourage the nation to eat right and exercise frequently. This implies developing policies that will be beneficial to the population in relation to the issue of childhood obesity.
First, a food policy must be constructed and implemented with consideration of the nutritional energy needs of schoolchildren. Schoolchildren are generally very active and thus may have a higher energy requirement than normal. However, it must also be noted that without parental control, the children would gladly live on processed foods with a high sugar content (Katsaiti & El Anshasy, 2014). This means that the government must be willing and able to regulate access to processed foods. Although it is impossible to directly stop parents from feeding their children with unhealthy foods, the government can influence their choice by imposing higher taxes on processed food, making it more expensive than healthy products. Parents often opt to feed their children with cheaper foods due to economic constraints, and at the moment, most processed foods are cheaper than the healthier alternatives. A pack of chip, for example, is cheaper than a pack of cereals, and a parent can give the child chips for breakfast instead of giving them a bowl of cereals. Also, most of the processed foods are ready to eat, whereas healthy fresh food often needs to be prepared first. Most parents would rather spend less time and money and get the ready to eat foods. The proposed food policy will encourage parents to buy healthy alternatives, thus limiting consumption of unhealthy foods.
Procurement by the government should also favor healthy foods so as to encourage the farmers to increase production and meet the anticipated growth in demand. Schools that provide lunch for children should also be procuring fresh products instead of processed foods. For example, in place of processed foods as snacks, the school can be providing fruits and nuts. These are equally refreshing and very rich in nutrients that the children need for growth and development. Also, they do not contain salt, sugars and fats. In addition, instead of providing frizzy drinks for refreshment when children are out on a trip, fresh fruit juices can be procured. Primarily, fresh products and unprocessed foods should be encouraged by all institutions, starting with the government and any other public or private institutions that deal with children or families in general. Increased production will then translate to lower prices for healthy foods. This is because the growing demand will mean better market conditions for the farmers, after which the prices can be negotiated as the farmers will increase production to meet the growing demand. It can also be expected that the growing demand will attract more farmers to food production with a focus on healthy foods that will improve the health status of the nation.
Misunderstanding or lack of awareness of obesity and its causes is another contributor to the obesity problem in the UAE. While most people in the UAE are relatively educated, it can be inferred that they have limited understanding of the issue of obesity. Additionally, there exist too many myths and traditional ideologies related to weight, and it becomes difficult to change the mindsets of the majority, especially in relation to obesity. It is important at this point to note that people need more information on health related issues and especially on matters pertaining to weight management. Since the current epidemic is attributed to lack of understanding of the condition, the government must take action to fill this information gap. The UAE government should also introduce a law making it mandatory for restaurants to provide detailed information about the ingredients and nutritional content of foods that they serve so that parents could order meals able to satisfy the energy needs of their children. Furthermore, health education in the school curricula should feature the subject of obesity with a focus on how to prevent it through healthy eating and physical exercises. Teenagers should especially be taught the importance of eating healthy food and exercising as they approach adulthood.
Apart from the food policy, the government will need a policy on physical activity. It is also plausible that the government cannot force parents to ensure that their children get enough physical exercise. However, it is the role of the government to ensure that physical inactivity does not become a hindrance to the national development. This implies seeking a way to encourage parents to get their children to exercise on a regular basis. Most children are not exposed to enough physical activity because they are too busy exploring modern technologies. With computers, laptops, tablets, play stations, TVs and mobile phones, children are constantly engaged in mental activities, thus remaining physically inactive for prolonged periods of time. Although it may be difficult for the government to implement a policy regulating the time children spend indoors and the time they can use to play and get some physical exercise, this objective is achievable (Al-Haddad, Little, Abdul, & Ghafoor, 2005). First, physical fitness should become a mandatory part of the school curriculum. In addition, children should also be required to spend some time outside while at home. For instance, the government could make it mandatory for children between the age of 6 and 19 to be outdoors every day between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., whether at school or at home. This will ensure that every child gets an opportunity to exercise. The government can also ensure that there are no cartoons or children’s TV shows on any channel during the designated time so that children are not lured to stay indoors watching TV. Parents and guardians can then be educated on the significance of adhering to the policy on exercising in order to ensure their cooperation.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Currently, the childhood obesity statistics in the UAE is alarming. Nonetheless, the government has not done anything to address the situation so far and can thus be held accountable for the high prevalence of childhood obesity. At this point the UAE government needs to intervene in order to remedy the situation and thus avoid alarming expenses that will arise from aggravation of the problem, especially in relation to health care. As a remedial measure, the UAE government must enact workable policies that will not only regulate the nutrition of children but also make it mandatory for them to play outside for at least two hours a day. While schoolchildren need much energy for studying, they have to eat healthy meals and exercise so as to burn some of the calories that they consume, strengthen their bodies and thus to ensure healthy adulthood. The government must play a key role in reversing the social default settings in the UAE to solve the problem of childhood obesity effectively. This will bring about a change in the nation’s cultural context as related to healthy living, thus requiring a more authoritative and sustainable approach. The changes may take time to produce tangible results; therefore, great patience and resilience are needed for their implementation and assessment.