The American University of Beirut and Nestle celebrated two years of cooperation in the “Healthy Kids Global Program – Ajyal Salima,” which so far has touched the lives of 2,389 children in 20 public and eight private schools in Lebanon, during a press conference and a luncheon at the Habtoor Hilton on June 27, 2012.
“This program is a crucial first step in a much needed effort by all concerned parties to tackle childhood nutrition and exercise habits in our country as they are the precursors of future troublesome health epidemics,” said Nahla Hwalla, AUB Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) Dean and Director of the program.
“International studies show that 30 percent of obese preschoolers, 40 percent of obese school children and 80 percent of obese teenagers become obese adults,” she added. “Our latest local data from 2009 tells us that 18.6 percent of Lebanese boys and 8.6 percent of Lebanese girls are now obese, up from 10.2 percent and 4.5 percent respectively in 1997, nearly doubling the obesity rate among our children from 7 percent to 13.7 percent during this period.”
More alarming statistics include the fact that non-communicable diseases are expected to afflict 69 percent of people in developing countries by 2020, up from 47 percent in 1990 and 56 percent in 2000. Metabolic syndrome, a constellation of cardio-vascular risk factors including obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, is already prevalent in Lebanon among an estimated 47 percent of children and 33 percent of adults.
The Nestle Healthy Kids Global Program aims to raise nutrition, health and wellness awareness of school age children around the world. It involves 12 educational sessions per round, including interactive learning and hands-on activities on nutrition, healthy eating and physical activity, as well as questionnaires developed to track improvement of children from pre- to post-intervention. Launched globally in 2009, this program runs in partnership with governments, academia and NGOs in over 60 countries around the world, reaching to date around 6 million kids.
“We know that increased obesity rates today mean higher rates of non-communicable diseases tomorrow,” said Nina Salameh, representing Fady Yarak, the director-general of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. “We support and help implement this program because we also know that school is the vital stage for promoting healthy eating habits and obesity prevention, and that education is the most powerful tool for ensuring that children understand the positive reflection of nutrition and physical activity on their health.”
Key highlights of a preliminary analysis covering children’s pre- and post- Program grasp of key healthy eating and lifestyle facts include students achieving more than 50 percent higher scores on knowledge tests, with an impressive 100 percent (a 40 percent increase) of children understanding that “water is the best fluid for my body,” and a striking increase in the percentage of children who recognize the need to eat five or more fruits and vegetables a day from slightly over 10 percent before exposure to the program to nearly 70 percent after.
In terms of dietary habit improvements, notable changes were a drop in chips purchases from 65 percent to 42 percent, a drop in soft drinks purchases from 28 percent to 19 percent, with students reducing their chips consumption from daily to “not every day” and students reporting an increase in their fruits, salad and cooked vegetables consumption with those eating once daily reporting eating twice daily.
“In light of these realities, Nestle Healthy Kids Global Program aims not only to teach 9-11 year olds what foods and exercise habits are good for them, but also how to incorporate them into their daily lives,” said Karine Antoniades Turk, Nestle Creating Shared Value Manager. “The Program is being sustained independently in at least 10 public schools thanks to the commitment of select teachers and administration officials and is expected to roll out in another 80-100 public schools in Lebanon with the help of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, as it also expands in a number of private schools nationwide and launches in other regional countries starting this fall.”
“Actual lifestyle changes did not yet shift significantly, though we anticipate more palpable results in coming years,” said FAFS Program Coordinator Carla Habib Mourad, shedding light on the program’s limitations, mainly related to sedentary behavior changes such as television watching and playing electronic games. “This is attributable to the short 3 month duration of each round which is not enough to induce and detect measurable behavioral changes, the easy access to less nutritious snacks and foods within school premises, limited parental interest and engagement in children’s nutritional and exercise routines, and generally low availability of free exercise facilities.”
“Key next steps should include early identification and management of children at risk as that allows for the reversal of cardiovascular damage and multi-component interventions addressing pediatric obesity,” concluded Hwalla, “including the leveraging of Nestle Healthy Kids Program to tackle multi-sectoral prevention initiatives requiring leadership and coordination among the government, private sector and NGOs.”
The event was concluded with a theatrical piece by some of the kids who had benefitted from the program followed by a luncheon.