In the olden days, India often made it to the international news for widespread poverty, malnutrition, and diseases. Even though situations gradually improved and poverty rates declined, starvation reduced to an extent; how did India manage to become one of those countries with the highest percentage of obese and overweight people?
A study revealed that the number of obese men and women in India has increased twice in the last one and half decades up to 2015-16. This number is rising so steeply that by 2025, India will have become the country with the highest number of obese and overweight people.
This drastic change could probably be attributed to the socio-economic and cultural changes brought in by industrialization in India. Studies have shown that, even though obesity is prevalent in the low-income sections of society, higher rates of obesity are seen in educated households with higher levels of disposable income, older people, and people from urban areas.
Reasons for This Rise in Obesity in India
The main reason that obesity or weight gain happens is when the calorie intake is higher than the number of calories that one burns. While in the olden days, work involved more physical labor, working in the fields, walking for miles to fetch water, laying bricks, walking up the stairs, walking back home instead of riding a vehicle, times have now changed.
Lifestyles have become sedentary, and desk jobs have become common. The most amount of exercise many people get these days is when they get up from their desk to attend a phone call and walk while talking.
People no longer walk for miles to fetch a pail of water. In fact, they use their cars to go to the lane next to their house to buy a packet of milk.
The consumption of fast food has increased manifold, and the number of fast-food outlets is multiplying exponentially by the day. While people still consumed a small amount of junk food in the past, the portion sizes were smaller, and the options were relatively healthier.
These days, the go-to food options are pizzas, burgers, pasta, and pastries, which provide zero nutritional value but tonnes of empty calories. It has not only led to an increase in the number of obese people but has also led to a rise in nutritional deficiencies, especially those of micro-nutrients like minerals and vitamins.
Surveys have shown that more than 30% of high school students these days are obese or overweight. While at the same time, about 40% are underweight. It can be attributed to the lifestyle habits on two ends of the spectrum.
Earlier, playtime was something that took up the majority of a child’s time every single day. But now playtime has become more of a luxury. Curriculums have changed, and students have started spending more and more time in front of computer systems. The situation we are referring to goes way back even before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
With two earning parents in the house trying to make ends meet, if a kid sits quietly watching TV or spends time playing a video game, exhausted parents would rarely try to ask them to go to play.
Previously, after playtime, snacks would mostly comprise milk, bananas, corn flakes, or something similar. However, today it has been replaced by TV time snacks like choco pies, burgers, chips, ice-creams and aerated beverages.
Children are becoming “couch potatoes” day by day and are putting on extra weight at a very early age. It could have very serious repercussions on their health in the future.
According to the WHO, there is a higher risk of blood pressure, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some types of cancer, depression, and arthritis amongst those who are undernourished at a younger age or are obese.
Now, let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum where fast food from KFC and McDonald’s is a privilege that not everyone can afford. What causes this (often) underfed population to gain excess weight?
Studies have revealed that obesity in such populations can be due to something that is termed as the “thrifty phenotype,” or the “thin-fat” Indian structure. The condition occurs due to poor nutrition while in the womb, which causes the children to become obese as they grow into adults.
The Indian diet comprises mainly of white rice, rotis, and some other forms of flatbread. These are high in carbohydrates, which also have a high glycemic index. Indian children have carb dependence from a very early age, where they are fed more cereals and less of other whole foods.
Thus, even if people from both strata of society may receive a sufficient amount of calories, these calories are majorly empty calories or high in one macro-nutrient but extremely low in others. While it might be easy to keep a check on protein, carbs, and fiber intake, how easy is it to track magnesium, zinc, iron, and cholesterol?
Cause of Nutritional Imbalance in India
The answer would probably be the lack of education about nutrition and its importance. Studies have shown that less educated and uneducated women and men are at a higher risk of becoming obese these days.
Most people do not know what a well-balanced diet is. While some believe that rice gives them a round belly, others believe that a glass of hot water with lemon and honey could make them magically lose weight, irrespective of all the other things they put into their stomach.
While the obesity pandemic has posed threats to life for so many, gyms and bariatric surgeons have multiplied and flourished. There’s a gym on almost every corner, and the number of fitness trainers and instructors has multiplied.
Alongside, body image has become a subject of discussion, and obese people are getting ridiculed. It has added to another very serious issue of mental health problems, lowered confidence and self-esteem, depression, and others.
People are trying almost every measure to loose weight, getting carried away by fad diets and trends, staying hungry for most of the day, overdoing their workouts, following random fitness regimes posted on the internet, and more. All of this is just affecting their mental health and their immune system.
How Can Obesity Be Cured?
Our answer would be to educate people and incentivize them to lose weight.
When people know what a holistic and balanced diet is, only then are they in a better position to evaluate their current diet. Once people know that their diet is far from ideal, they will also be capable of judging what has to be replaced. They will be equipped to consider the options available to them according to their budget and will be able to identify food options that will provide them with all the nutrients that they require.
Previously where schools had dedicated play hours, PT sessions and other activities like physical education were held diligently. The physical activity sessions should become mandatory again. If exercise becomes a habit early in life, it becomes relatively easy to carry it to the future.
It is ideal to have healthy food in schools and canteens.
Many schools and colleges abroad have completely removed any form of junk food from their canteens.
We could also learn from what other countries have done to tackle this problem of rising obesity in their country.
Measures Were Taken by Other Countries to Reduce Obesity:
- Michelle Obama was appointed as the Health Champion during her years in the White House, where she aimed to reduce childhood obesity. She launched the campaign ‘Let’s Move’ in 2010 and was able to produce very desirable results.
- Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, removed junk food-filled vending machines from schools and ordered cafeterias to serve only healthy food.
- Patriotism even tried to use patriotism to target the rising obesity problem where the message was that, if you are a true Korean, you will consume only Korean food and boycott all foreign fast foods.
- Finland offered free access to fitness centers and also offered free transport to the centers.
- Some other common measures that have been implemented by many countries are imposing high taxes on sugary items, tobacco, alcohol, and all other things that the governments want people to consume less.
In a country like India with such a huge population and lack of infrastructure to provide free access to every citizen, education and awareness could probably be the way to get started. Like history and geography, nutrition should become a mainstream subject right from childhood and not just a specialization in college.
While the problem here in hand deals with weight, our suggestion is to promote healthy lifestyles and cleaner eating habits rather than targeting weight reduction. Once some major lifestyle changes are made, a healthy mind and body will automatically follow.