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Dubai’s Dubious Weight Loss Plan for Kids

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Occasionally, I come across something that renders me truly speechless. Several days ago, just such a thing happened.

I was sent a Time.com article about a program in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai designed to get children to lose weight. Dubbed “Your Child in Gold,” the government initiative offers two grams of gold for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) a child drops. Adults are also rewarded for losing (one gram for every kilogram), but kids get double. Each gram of gold is worth around $42, so that means a child “earns” around $85 for every two pounds he sheds.

Rather ironically, Dubai recently launched “Your Child in Gold” during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, noting: “Ramadan is the most appropriate season to launch such initiatives as it reminds us about many health benefits of reducing weight and encourages us to take strong steps to change our bad lifestyles.”

According to a 2012 health study, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the sixth most obese nation in the world, but based on a 2014 Reuters report, it’s not even in the top ten. The #1 spot goes to — you guessed it — the United States, with 34 percent of adults classified as obese.

Regardless of statistics, Dubai officials see cause for concern and drastic action to curb obesity, blaming an overabundance of fast food and absence of physical activity in schools as major culprits. Clearly, obesity is a health risk that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but here’s the part of Dubai’s plan that makes my blood boil: “…if a family has a child over 2 but under 14 years they can participate.”

That’s right: The government is encouraging children as young as 3 or 4 to lose weight! Grade school-age kids like mine who are growing, changing, and coming to terms with their bodies are being offered money to drop pounds quickly. To participate, a child must lose at least 2 kg (4.4 pounds) in just eight weeks — which is where I find myself (almost) at a loss for words.

While four pounds may not sound huge to a grown man or woman, it’s substantial for a child; and while money is clearly a great motivator (last year, Dubai’s program paid out over $760,000 to slimmed-down adults), the whole premise raises serious questions about the methods and lasting impact of any loss.

As a mother, I would never encourage my kids to “lose weight.” I would (and do) educate them about nutrition and food preparation, tell them why protein is important, prepare lots of veggies, motivate them to get outside and play, sign them up for sports and weekend kickball games, and work physical activity into family life as much as possible. No diets. No payouts. Just healthy, conscious living that will stay with them as they grow into strong, confident teens and adults.

My husband and I don’t pay our children for eating well, getting good grades, or other personal achievements. When they accomplish something, the sense of pride and self-worth is reward enough and you can see it in their beaming faces.

I’ve never visited Dubai, and as a parent I try my hardest not to be judgmental — but sometimes it’s hard. I have to believe there’s a better way to encourage health (not weight loss, dieting, or eating disorders) in youngsters. Over 300 children and 600 families have signed up to participate in “Your Child in Gold” which extends through September 15.

All I can say is, hopefully there’s a silver lining to it.

What do you think about the Dubai government’s plan to encourage kids to lose weight?