Results from the Feeding Infants and Toddler Study (FITS) and the Kids Nutrition and Health Study (KIDS) have revealed that children in the United Arab Emirates have inadequate intakes of micronutrients – namely vitamin D and calcium. In addition, a relatively low percentage of children get enough potassium, vitamin K, and fiber in their diets.
These inadequacies stem from children under-consuming fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, according to the research that was kicked off in 2019 and finalized in 2020, covering 1,215 infants and children in Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi.
Intake of sugary foods and beverages exceeded guidelines from the very beginning of complementary feeding, and the incidence of overweight and obesity among children studied ranged from about 7% among the youngest, to over 40% among those over nine years old. Approximately 18% of children under five years old were also found to be at risk of becoming overweight.
Sixty seven percent of participants in the studies (n= 814) were Emirati nationals, with the remainder (n=401) expatriates from Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Sudan.
“As pediatricians, we regularly address the nutritional challenges of infants, toddlers and children who face the issues highlighted in these studies,” said Dr. Khaled El-Atawi, Consultant Neonatologist, and President of the Arab Neonatal Care Group & Conference. “This latest evidence will help us boost our collective efforts and support the government develop clear policies that encourage healthier eating and lifestyle habits from infancy.”
“The evidence from the FITS and KIDS studies on the eating habits of children in the United Arab Emirates will help us and our partners hone our efforts towards contributing to and guiding healthier diets in childhood,” said Dr. Emma Jacquier, Head of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, Nestlé Research, Switzerland. “In addition, these valuable findings support product research and innovation, allowing us to better meet local and regional nutritional needs through our products, and to shape the information we provide to parents and caregivers.”
Professor Ayesha Salem Al Dhaheri, Associate Provost for Students Affairs, United Arab Emirates University, stressed that such studies are essential to understanding nutrition and dietary habits of infants and children, adding that the current findings will guide the UAE towards further multisectoral collaborations that will help formulate evidence-based interventions and nutrition related policies to shape healthier lifestyles for tomorrow’s adults.
The FITS study, covering infants and children up to four years old, revealed a high incidence of the triple burden of malnutrition including stunting, wasting, obesity, and suboptimal dietary practices such as low consumption of fruits, vegetables, dietary fiber, vitamins A and D; coupled with a high intake of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
The KIDS study, covering children 4-13 years old, found that 24% (of 4-8-year-olds) to over 40% (42% of 9-13-year-olds) of children in the UAE are overweight or obese. Added sugars intake was exceeded by 35% of children, sodium intake was exceeded by about 50%, and Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA) intake by almost 90% of those studied. A wide range of inadequacies was also detected, with the list increasing with age. These include calcium and vitamin D. A low proportion of kids met the requirements for fiber, vitamin K, and potassium. The inadequacies list grows among 9-12-year-olds to also include vitamin A, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin B12. Average intakes of milk/dairy, fruits, and vegetables were also found to be well below dietary recommendations.
The full results of the studies were first unveiled at the 2021 International Pediatric Summit in Dubai, during a specific FITS KIDS Symposium entitled “Nutritional status and dietary practices of children (0-13 years old) in the UAE: Findings from the FITS/KIDS study.” Similar studies have recently been conducted by Nestlé and local partners in many countries around the world, including China, Lebanon, Mexico, and the United States.
The studies were conducted by United Arab Emirates University, the University of Sharjah, and Tathqeef Health Treatment Undertakings Services, in partnership with the American University of Beirut; and Nestlé Research which designed the methodologies and covered financing.
One of Nestlé’s key published commitments to society is to further provide nutritionally sound products designed for children, with more than 40 offerings in that range currently available in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Feeding Infants and Toddler Study (FITS):
The Feeding Infants and Toddler Study (FITS) is a dietary intake survey of large cross-sectional samples of parents or caregivers of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The objective of the FITS is to learn about the nutrient intakes and nutritional needs of infants, toddlers, and young children and to understand what foods are being consumed at different ages when the diet of young children is rapidly changing.
The Kids Nutrition and Health Study (KIDS):
The Kids Nutrition and Health Study (KIDS) is a largescale research that provides snapshots of eating patterns, nutrient intakes, child lifestyle and behavior factors, and healthy weight indicators of children 4-13 years old.
FITS KIDS in the Middle East and North Africa:
In 2016, Nestlé Research in Switzerland and the American University of Beirut completed the micronutrient landscaping research, which studied key micronutrient deficiencies affecting 0-13 year-old children in the region.* The review was conducted for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Jordan. Its findings provided insights on gaps and challenges in nutrition and dietary intake, and demonstrated a triple burden of malnutrition, where overweight, under nutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies co-exist.
As deeper understanding was required for the Middle East and North Africa region, Nestlé Research initiated in 2019 a large-scale nutrition study for the UAE, leading the methodology and investment required.