HOW SWEET IT ISN’T: On December 1, the UAE government enacted its first-ever tax on sugary drinks. And on January 1, many people will vow once again to change their eating habits for good. That’s why livehealthy.ae is taking a closer look at scientific and anecdotal evidence telling us that the sugar we love to eat is hurting our health.
In my work as a physical education teacher and health promoter, I see two of the worst unhealthy habits on a daily basis: children coming to school with no breakfast and lunch boxes lacking even the basics of nutrition. This is beyond alarming – it’s actually heartbreaking. I see lunch boxes filled with sugary drinks, packaged snacks and desserts, alongside pure, processed carbs and packaged foods – all devoid of anything substantial, never mind protein or vegetables. One day I was so appalled, I took a series of pictures and posted an Instagram story about it.
Healthy lunch boxes and snacks for children are important not only for their physical health but for their mental health, too. Good daily nutrition which provides all the energy needed for a day packed with learning and activities helps children stay alert and focused, so they do better academically. When they eat sugar and carbs with nothing nutritious, they are wired and grouchy. Children today already have an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, spending more time in front of screens and less time playing and running around outside. The combination of a sedentary life, school and easy access to fast food have contributed tremendously to obesity and health problems in children.
We are starting to see in them illnesses that were considered to be adult problems, such as heart conditions and diabetes. Our children are also facing an increasing number of diet-related problems including fragmented eating habits, poor food choices, eating disorders and many more.
There isn’t much in the way of statistics on this subject in the UAE. In a 2009-2010 Health Authority-Abu Dhabi survey of students, 9.9 percent of preschoolers were found to be anemic; half did not eat breakfast and 42 percent of those who did eat before school had carbonated drinks with their breakfast.
While research is mounting about the negative impact of sugar on our health, the message is not getting through to parents. Even worse, foods that contain sugar come with a number of added chemicals that can contribute to hyperactivity and other health problems in children.
They include preservatives called benzoates as well as tartrazine, ponceau, sunset yellow and carmoisine. Regulation over those chemicals is poor and they are not required to be listed by name, falling instead under the vague description of ‘artificial color’ or ‘natural flavor.’ Studies have shown that these chemicals cause hyperactivity and other problems. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a policy statement on food additives, warning that any chemicals in food have a greater impact in children due to their smaller size.
And even though some companies have started removing them, they are still added to many of the processed foods children commonly eat, such as packaged cheese, candy, macaroni and cheese, chewing gum, soda pop, colored yogurt, jam, jelly, canned soups and cake mixes. Chemical additives are just one more reason to keep your child away from anything packaged.
With the increasing awareness of the need for healthy, balanced meals, the lunch box issue is becoming ever more important. We need to start thinking more carefully about what we feed our children and what our children are munching on.
Packing a healthy lunch box means offering your child a variety of healthy foods from the five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, meat and alternatives and dairy products.
If you are like many parents, the thought of making homemade healthy lunches seems like just another chore in a day already filled with tasks. So here are some easy tips to follow when packing your child’s lunchbox:
- Get your child involved. Research has shown that children who have a hand in making their food are more likely to eat it. Get them to wash their fruits and vegetables, help with making their sandwiches or even cut their fruits and vegetables if it is safe to do so.
- Resist the temptation of sending your child to school with the same old sandwich, day in and day out. They need a variety of nutrients.
- Teach your children about the importance of healthy eating
- Brain storm lunch box ideas with your child and let them choose the food they would like to snack on away from any junk or packaged food.
- Presentation is everything for children, so add colors and try to make the lunch box more fun and appealing.
Here are some items that you can add to your child’s lunch box:
- Sandwiches with wholegrain bread
- Avocado sandwiches
- Nuts and butters
- Mashed beans
- Dips such as hummus and beetroot alongside crackers and vegetable sticks.
- Chickpea salads, Greek or quinoa salads
- Fruits of your child’s choice or dried fruits
- Make your own muffins or healthy cakes
Make sure you choose foods that are simple and easy to eat. Avoid the temptation to add in sugary treats: Your child is more likely to eat the healthy food in the packed lunch if there are no other options.
If your family is vegetarian or vegan, you can replace meat with tofu, beans, or tempeh, while dairy products can be replaced with soy, coconut, almond or other nut milks. It is always a good idea to pack a bottled water. Avoid fruit juices and packaged drinks, as they too are high in sugar.
Packing a healthy lunchbox from home might take a little more time than simply throwing in some pre-packaged snacks, but it means that you are giving your child the variety of nutrients they need and most importantly, you are giving them a good healthy start in life.
Nura Arabi is change maker. She is a physical education teacher in Abu Dhabi with a health promotion background who passionately advocates for parents and children to be involved in taking steps towards a healthier lifestyle. Through radio appearances, her profession and through her writing, she wants to change the world for children’s health one healthy tip at a time.