By Dr Nizar Kharma
It’s back to school time! This means that our beloved schoolboys and girls are back in action and need to stay fueled with foods and drinks. It is our responsibility as parents the food they get is tooth-friendly. While in many countries school children mostly rely on home-made packed lunches, the trend is quite different in Qatar’s schools.
It’s Maksaf Time!
In Qatar, particularly in public (government) schools, most pupils rely on maksafs (canteens), to fuel their day. Growing up in Doha and going to a public school myself, I remember how unhealthy the canteen foods could be. Twenty years later, canteens are controlled by the ministries of Health and Education, and far more organized. Food quality and packaging are far better, and health and safety measures are respected and implemented. However, the amount of sugar allowed in canteen foods isn’t well controlled. The most popular foods are sugar-rich crisps, chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks. Although measures have been recently taken to ban the sale of chocolate and fizzy drinks in canteens, many schools have yet to comply, and still sell items containing a lot of sugar. Moreover, many parents complain that healthier lunches tend to be too expensive when compared to sugary foods.
How Do We Reverse the Trend?
Although the number of studies confirming a link between canteen lunches and increased tooth decay is limited and almost nonexistent in some countries in the region, almost all studies concerning sugar show a clear association between these foods and tooth decay. When sugar is in direct contact with the tooth surface, bacteria feeds on the sugar and releases acid which begins to destroy the healthy tooth tissue and form decay. It seems clear therefore, that action should be taken to tackle the problem of sugar in canteen foods. There are many ways canteens could serve tooth-friendly lunches—here are a few suggestions:
- Involve nutritionists to research and set criteria regarding which foods should be allowed in canteens. For example, how many grams of sugar or fat should be allowed per 100g of food etc.
- Control the implemented measures: regular checks are vital to ensure school canteens are compliant.
- Making healthy canteen items attractive to children. This includes colorful packaging and appealing flavors.
- Affordability: healthy lunches do not have to be expensive. Prices should be kept within the average parents’ budget and if needed, subsidized by the relevant authorities.
What Healthy Foods Should we Expect in the Canteen?
- The right kind of fruit: it might surprise you to know not all fruits are equal in terms of health. Some fruits are better for your teeth and body than others. For example, bananas and apples are filling and contain little sugar, plenty of high potassium and a good amount of fiber. Grapes, on the other hand, are extremely high in sugar.
- Plenty of vegetables: cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes are filling and extremely low in sugar. Potatoes, however, are best eaten in moderation as they are high in carbohydrates and calories.
- Milk and cheese: these are generally ok as long as they are low in fat and sugar.
- Water is the best drink: just like adults, children should not get their calories from drinks. Fruit juice, even if it’s 100% natural, is not recommend due to its high sugar content. Water is the best drink a child can have. You can flavor it naturally with fresh mint, raspberries, lemon or watermelon to make it more appealing.
More steps are needed to ensure school canteens provide food that cares for our children’s teeth and body health. Measures taken by health and educational authorities are extremely important but need to be complimented by a healthy lifestyle at home. This positive cooperation between home and school will greatly improve our children’s oral health and ensure a happy and dentally healthy academic year.