Low and middle income countries of the Arab region are undergoing a rapid nutrition transition with increases in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among young and adult populations, accompanied by a rise in diet-related non communicable diseases (NCDs). Although children's food choices and dietary behaviours are early risk factors for the development of NCDs, research on factors that influence these behaviours remains scant in the region. School and neighbourhood environments mediate the effect of societal forces on children's diets. Little is known however, about the drivers of children's food choices within these environments, and their potential to be used as levers for intervention.
With the aim to better understand the influences of these drivers on children's dietary behaviour, and in order to be able to develop evidence-based policies aiming to reduce the risk of NCDs in the Arab region, the Center for Research on Population and Health (CRPH) at the American University of Beirut (AUB)' Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) in partnership with the Tunisian “Institut National de Nutrition et de Technologie Alimentaire" (INNTA) is launching a new research project on “School and community drivers of child diets in Arab cities".
Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), “this project aims to inform context-specific interventions targeting childhood overweight in the urban settings of Greater Beirut and Greater Tunis, and ultimately to foster the development of food environments that enable healthy eating among children and their families", stated CRPH Director and Principal Investigator of the study Dr. Hala Ghattas.
The research uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to assess individual diets and the contextual factors that influence children's food choices. Innovative locally relevant tools will be developed to describe and map food environments and food choice paths experienced by children at the level of families, schools and communities.
During the process, the team which includes Dr Jalila El Ati from INNTA, Drs Ali Chalak and Jad Chaaban from AUB' Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences (FAFS), and Dr Shady Elbassuoni professor at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), will develop innovative methods and tools that measure and assess food environments as perceived by children, and the contextual factors that influence dietary behaviours. By describing the environments that influence children's food choices at the level of families, schools and communities, the team will identify intervention points in the daily routine of children, including school and community food policies that represent threats to, or opportunities for healthier eating. Throughout the different phases of this project, and in collaboration with the K2P Center at FHS, public policy actors (national to municipal), public and private school authorities, and civil society will be actively engaged in discussion about the research findings, and the potential policy and multi-level interventions for influencing children's food behaviours and diets.