Dubai is rewarding two-year-olds with gold for losing weight. Bad idea.

Keep the kids out of this.
Keep the kids out of this.
Image: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah
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Skip the baklava, win some gold. Many in Dubai will be encouraging their kids to pass on the the traditional Eid-al-Fitr feasts to participate in the emirate’s “Your Child in Gold” weight-loss initiative. But doctors warn that the prize could do serious damage to children’s health.

The program, run by Dubai Municipality, rewards participants one gram of gold, currently worth $41.92, for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) lost. If you’re registered as a family and have a child aged between 2 and 14, you’ll get double the amount of gold.

The campaign is an effort to curb the rise in obesity in the city-state. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, is the sixth-heaviest nation in the world, according to a 2012 survey published by BMC Public Health journal. A recent report from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization shows that a third (33.7%) of UAE adults are considered obese, defined as a body-mass index equal to or greater than 30.

Last year, the municipal authorities encouraged adults to slim down, and distributed 2.8 million dirhams,  or $762,340, in gold. This year, the focus is on children. Some 25,000 people have signed up for the chance to win gold prizes–almost three times the number who entered last year’s competition. It is not yet clear how many of the applicants are children.

To be eligible for the reward, each child must lose at least 2 kilograms in one month. But doctors worry this is the wrong way to to address the country’s obesity problem. The campaign, they say, promotes short-term weight loss, rather than a transition to a healthy lifestyle.

For some children, sudden weight loss can be dangerous: extreme dieting can hinder muscle growth, weaken the immune system, reduce energy and concentration. Dieting at an early age also has an impact on children’s mental and emotional health. Obsession with body image and weight can be detrimental to a child’s self esteem, and introduce an ongoing pattern of yo-yo dieting and increase the risk of eating disorders (paywall). Some studies suggest dieting while very young can result in obesity problems at an older age. The best way to keep kids at a healthy weights, experts say, is by setting healthy examples.

With the final weigh-in slated for September 15, many Dubai families will have their eyes on the shiny—and valuable—prize. The message from their doctors: a healthy lifestyle is worth more than its weight in gold.