The poor nutritional literacy of the UAE population hinders efforts to promote healthier eating habits. One doctor said some guests “don’t even know what a calorie is.”
In a recent survey conducted by the University of Sharjah over the past two years, only a third of 1,279 adults understood the recommended daily energy intake, about 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men.
A similar study in the US found that 54 percent of people had sufficient calorie knowledge to make more informed decisions about their diet when eating out.
In 2020, voluntary labeling of calories in meals on restaurant menus was introduced in the United Arab Emirates. But experts said there are still wide gaps in knowledge about making better food choices for health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
While it is not yet mandatory for restaurants to list calorie counts on menus, Dr. Leila Ismail, associate professor at the Department of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sharjah, said such a commitment could reduce obesity rates in the UAE.
In each of the seven emirates, people were asked to complete online questionnaires via social media.
Although about half of participants said they didn’t know enough about energy needs to choose lower-calorie foods, they were interested in learning more.
A food calorie or kilocalorie is a measure of the nutritional energy obtained from consumption.
A particular topic was calorie literacy among young people: 54 percent of the study participants were under 30 years old.
Nearly 9 in 10 participants said they eat out at least once a week. And although 66 percent said they were familiar with calorie definition, only 37 percent knew the recommended daily calorie amount.
The majority of participants (76 percent) said they would prefer to see calorie and other nutritional information on menus.
A traffic light system introduced in the UK in 2013 has had some success in educating the public about the contents of food.
A red, yellow or green sticker identifies foods with high, medium or low fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content and also informs the consumer about the number of calories and kilojoules.
“Our study showed that many people didn’t even know what a calorie was,” said Dr. Ismail.
“To improve, we need to raise consumer awareness. We can do this by changing food labeling.
“We can tell people they want to know more about food, and the traffic light system does that.”
“One of the global goals is to eliminate the use of trans fat, as it is very dangerous to health and is often used in fast food.
“Food apps have a huge impact on consumer choices, and there aren’t many healthier options for them.”
Healthy eating strategy
The UAE National Nutrition Strategy 2030 aims to develop sustainable food systems to provide safe and supportive nutritional environments for all age groups.
The objectives include the development of sustainable and flexible food systems for healthy diets, as well as the provision of health systems and comprehensive coverage of basic nutrition measures.
Worldwide, more than 1.9 billion adults are now overweight and 650 million are obese.
In the UAE, obesity rates have doubled since 1989.
Since then, the UAE has introduced the Healthy Food School Box initiative, which includes several innovative awareness activities to promote food safety and healthy eating among children.
Meanwhile, the “Mutabah system” screens schoolchildren to identify those who are overweight or obese.
In 2019, a 100 percent sugar tax on energy drinks and a 50 percent tax on carbonated drinks were introduced to curb consumption of sweetened drinks.
“When we prepare food at home, we know the ingredients and roughly know what the total calories and proteins are,” said Pranita Gavankar, clinical nutritionist at Saudi German Hospital in Dubai.
“When we eat in hotels or restaurants, we don’t always have the same knowledge or information.
“You don’t know if it’s fresh or frozen or what’s been added to make it tastier.
“Food labeling can definitely be helpful, especially for people who need to adjust their diet due to a health condition such as diabetes.”
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Updated: November 21, 2023, 9:10 a.m