A school food policy should be made mandatory as part of a serious strategy to tackle the alarming rate of obesity in Maltese children, according to experts.

Times of Malta contacted medical experts and nutritionists following the publication of an EU-wide study last week showing Malta’s school food policy had no nutrient-based standards.

Malta’s school food policy dates back to 2007 but is expected to be reviewed this year.

Nutritionist and occupational therapist Daniela Cassola recommended that a revised strategy should be made mandatory, and be accompanied by information sessions for parents, carried out by State-registered nutritionists, on the preparation of healthy school lunches and meals.

She also recommended that nutrition be made a mandatory part of the curriculum and students be given hands-on sessions on how to prepare healthy meals.

Dr Cassola said schools should be provided with the services of a school nutrition and health service team which included doctors, nurses and nutritionists, while the marketing and sale of unhealthy foods should be restricted and healthy options made more available and affordable.

Locally, the weight problems are getting worse, with studies showing a 12 per cent increase in seven-year-old children who became overweight or obese over a span of two years, according to the Health Ministry.

At least 22 per cent of Maltese people aged 15 and older are obese, while 36 per cent are overweight.

Nutritionist Maria Ellul said no school provides the main lunch for students aged between three and 16, but childhood obesity in Malta topped international figures.

“On the positive front, childhood obesity is preventable. A serious strategy on Maltese children is no longer an option, but a must,” Ms Ellul said.

Paediatrician Victor Grech said the levels of childhood obesity in Malta were “alarming” and the problem had to be tackled on more than one front.

He called for a change of culture at home.

People come to visit me at the clinic and they have no inkling that their child is fat; they have no inkling how harmful soft drinks are

“I think this is the biggest problem. People come to visit me at the clinic and they have no inkling that their child is fat; they have no inkling how harmful soft drinks and commercial fruit juices are – it almost makes you give up,” Prof. Grech said.

He said children should eat more fruit and vegetables and less bread, pasta and rice. He expressed frustration with parents who told him children did not want to eat what was good for them.

“Well, I’m sorry, you’re doing something wrong in your parenting. We did not eat à la carte when we were raised – our mother put a plate of food at the table and everyone would eat from it,” Prof. Grech said.

Schools and parents should make an effort as the obesity problem was going to be a very expensive problem to tackle, he said.

Figures released by the ministry confirmed his point.

Malta’s obesity problem will eat up €35 million from the country’s coffers by 2020 if people do not change their lifestyles.

Estimates show that if 4.3 per cent of obese people lost enough weight to be classified as simply overweight within six years, the country would save €3 million a year in healthcare costs.

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