BEIRUT: Lebanon’s schools will be required to incorporate healthy eating lessons into the curriculum, as the country struggles to combat rising child obesity rates that are the fifth worst in the world among boys.
“Child obesity rates have doubled in Lebanon over the last 10 to 12 years,” said Lynn al-Khatib, a nutritionist and media relations manager with Nestle’s Healthy Kids Program – Ajyal Salima.
Statistics like this one have inspired the Education Ministry to incorporate a 12-unit healthy-living program into the health studies curriculum at Lebanon’s public schools aimed at teaching children between the ages of 9 and 11, effective starting Wednesday.
Although the program began a trial phase in certain schools around Lebanon four years ago, the need for its implementation was highlighted by a May report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on global child obesity: Lebanon was ranked fifth for obesity rates among boys under 20.
Unhealthy snacks such as potato chips and candies are still widely sold at school cafeterias across the country. Another challenge to instilling healthy eating habits among schoolchildren is the presence of several merchants selling fattening snacks on carts parked outside school campuses.
The initiative also comes in the wake of a national food scandal that has tainted the brand names of some of Lebanon’s most popular restaurant chains and fast-food outlets. Ultimately though, the driving force behind initiating this program seems to be the concern over the rising obesity levels in Lebanon in recent years.
“Childhood obesity is estimated to have doubled in Lebanon in the past decade,” Sonia Najem, director of the Health Education Unit at the Education Ministry, said at the program’s launch Wednesday.
“We know that preventive measures should start early in life and that schools are an important environment to promote healthy behaviors,” Najem said.
The new curriculum was developed by the American University of Beirut based on Middle Eastern community issues and children’s nutritional habits and requirements. The curriculum includes “classroom educational sessions consisting of interactive learning and hands-on activities, healthy eating, and physical activity, parental involvement and interventions at the school,” according to a press release.
“As of today it has been adopted and is now part of school health program curriculum,” said Karine Antoniades, Nestle’s Healthy Kids Program manager for the Middle East. “The program will be applied in all the governorates [in Lebanon].”
Lebanon was the first country in the Arab world to test the program, and according to Khatib, the pilot has “scientific results” that show a change in healthy living and eating. It has reached over 140 schools and 11,000 students across the country in the past four years.
After the program is incorporated into a school’s curriculum “children eat twice as many fruits and vegetables,” Khatib said.
Khatib said they would follow up with the children to see whether or not they continued to apply the lessons of the program after the classes cease at age 12.
While the curriculum of public schools is the only immediate change, Khatib said that the Education Ministry has plans in place to eventually alter foods offered at school cafeterias.
During the program’s launch this week, three schools from vastly differing areas of the country – Tripoli, Nabatieh and the Bekaa Valley – performed songs and skits about healthy living and eating choices.
Enforcing certain criteria nationwide is often a difficult task though, if some ministerial employees are to be believed.
Ministerial decrees often are enforced by local governorates filled with political appointees who are often not held accountable by superiors. Such a situation could cast doubt over the program, but Dr. Carla Habib-Mourad, the program’s scientific coordinator and a nutritionist at the American University of Beirut, assured this wouldn’t be the case.
“We are not speaking into the wind,” she said, addressing the crowd that had been invited to the Education Ministry for the program’s launch. “It is very important that we are not working alone and that we bring everyone to work with us from every school.”