You are what you eat – that is the message being delivered to hundreds of overweight children sent on tough boot camps this summer.
The initiative is part of the push to help eradicate obesity in the region by getting the message across at an early age.
Data published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in 2013 showed that more than three quarters of the countries in the Mena region had overweight and obesity rates of more than 50 per cent among men and women, with 79 million obese people living in the region.
Boot camp founder and education consultant Basel Shouly, 41, has conquered his own weight problems, losing 75 kilograms, and said teaching healthy behaviour to children was essential, because change becomes more difficult with age.
"Most of the children are curious about the calories they eat, particularly in fast food. They are shocked when they find out a milkshake has 700 calories in it."
“We want them to create good habits and understand what they are eating,” he said. “It is about them finding out what is going into their bodies and reacting to that. If they eat a lot for breakfast, they should eat less for lunch.
“We are watching what they eat all the time and encourage them to make healthy choices for themselves.”
The Centre for Strategic Healthcare Development in Dubai said a survey in Arab countries of 4,000 schoolchildren between the ages of 6 and 16 found that 25 per cent of them were overweight or obese.
At Etisalat’s training academy in Al Muhaisnah 2, about 120 children from across the region will take part in each three-week boot camp.
Organisers are keen to get more from the UAE involved because they are a minority among attendees in the programme, which was started in 2010.
The youngsters’ days start at 6am with a brisk 45-minute walk and healthy breakfast, before a visit to a dietician to monitor their progress.
They then take part in health science lessons and another academic subject of their choice, such as maths or English.
Children are encouraged to keep a food diary during their stay to get an idea of how much food they are consuming, take 10,000 daily steps and take part in fun sports and activities, such as football, badminton, volleyball and swimming.
“We are trying to create an environment that will teach the kids that even though they may be overweight or obese, they are not different,” said Mr Shouly, who insisted the camps are fun and said the children’s efforts during the day were rewarded in the evening with supervised trips to the cinema or shopping mall.
Fun they may be but they also have a serious message and that is what Rita Martins, from Portugal, is determined to get across.