The health of Qatar’s children has been in the spotlight this week, on the heels of an international pediatric conference being held here. In a three-part series, Doha News will examine some of the most pressing challenges facing kids in Qatar. We start with obesity.
Unless a major cultural shift takes place, Qatar’s childhood obesity epidemic could lead to many children dying years before their parents, a leading specialist in the field has told Doha News.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Excellence in Pediatrics conference at the Qatar National Convention Center this week, Julian Hamilton-Shield, Professor of Diabetes and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol in the UK, added that the roots of the obesity problem – and its cure – lie in the family home.
Last year, Qatar was named the “fattest country in the world,” with 70 percent of its native population considered to be obese. Furthermore, studies suggest up to 40 percent of children in Qatar are obese or morbidly obese, and Hamilton-Shield argues that while physical activity at school is important, exercise and diet outside of school time are even more vital:
“Children will generally do what they’re told to do at school, but lots of children do nothing when they get home. They don’t walk home, they get picked up, and then they sit in front of a computer until they go to bed.
One has to look at the people who are mainly responsible for their children’s health , and that is the parents. It’s the parents who control what their children do, especially when they’re younger.
Parents have to take control of what their children eat, and how much exercise they do. They have to be the arbiters of what’s right and what’s wrong. If the parents don’t do any exercise, why should the child do any exercise?”
In addition to what’s going on at home, Qatar’s kids must contend with more systematic problems, the doctor added, including the country’s wealth. This has led to an easy accessibility to food, and the combination of this fast-food addiction and a lack of physical activity is perpetuating the country’s weight problem.
Fitting in daily exercise is particularly hard here, because of a reliance on cars and the absence of sidewalks, he said.
Packed lunch problem
Hamilton-Shield also told Doha News that packed school lunches – which are a requirement at many of Qatar’s schools because they don’t have catering facilities – are also playing a part in the childhood obesity crisis.
“You’d feel that intuitively that you have more control over packed lunches, but what appears to happen is that packed lunches are full of rubbish,” he said.
“Actually, having a school dinner which is healthy – looked at by a dietitian – is a better way of doing it. Packed lunches are something that people do quickly – adding crisps and chocolate bars. If you spent an hour making it, you’d probably be fine, but most don’t have the time.”
When asked whether an advertising campaign to raise awareness amongst parents would help, Hamilton-Shield told us that he felt it would have little impact, as parents “have a fantastic habit of sticking their heads in the sand.”
Conversely, he believes that advertising food to children is very effective – and therefore, extremely damaging:
“Advertising campaigns work on children very well, which is why food manufactures advertise to children. Until 7 or 8, children have no sense that what’s said on the television isn’t in fact complete reality. So, I think advertising to children should be banned completely.”
Hamilton-Shield also recommends:
- Banning vending machines in schools;
- Holding healthy cooking lessons for children; and
- Exercising in the early morning and late evening during the country’s hottest months.
Qatar’s climate, he argues, is not an excuse for inactivity.
“Different countries have different environmental troubles – in Scandinavia, for example, it’s very very cold. But they still don’t have the same problems as here. So I don’t think it’s an excuse.”
Obese children have an increased risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), fatty liver and type 2 diabetes, the latter of which is recognized as a growing problem amongst Qatar’s young people.
Hamilton-Shield says Type 2 diabetes is now becoming a more dangerous disease for children that Type 1 Diabetes, despite the fact Type 1s rely on regular insulin injections:
“At the moment, we estimate that children who get type 2 diabetes will die earlier than children who get type 1. The evidence that’s coming out is that it (type 2) curtails your lifespan enormously. So there are huge implications for these children.
Many could die before their parents – but it is within people’s power to reverse that.”
Currently, about 16 percent of Qatar’s population (both adults and children) have diabetes, and its been forecast that the total number of patients could double by 2030.
Surgeons in Qatar are now regularly performing weight loss surgery on young people – a sign, according to Dr. Michel Gagner, visiting bariatric surgeon at Hamad Hospital, of an “obvious problem:”
“They are ridiculed at schools and cannot participate in any activities which makes them withdrawn. Then they spend more time on television and computers, with less and less time for exercise, creating a vicious cycle,” Gagner said.