Tackling India’s Obesity Crisis

Obesity, India
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India is one of the obesity centres of the developing world, despite having the most number of starving children on earth.

India is fast growing into one of the obesity centres of the developing world. This, even as the country has the most number of starving children on earth.

The fourth National Family Health Survey of 2015-2016 reveals a doubling of obesity figures since 2005 – with up to 30% of the adult urban population found to be overweight in states like Andhra Pradhesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Puducherry.

A 2015 study by the British medical journal Lancet found India to be the world’s third most obese country. Much has to do with the diet, although genetics also play a part.

The problem of being overweight has led people to focus on losing weight – often through unhealthy and unrealistic means. Seldom does a day goes by without a weight-loss method being mentioned in a headline, or a dieting technique being endorsed by a celebrity. The slim look is marketed on a massive scale – with advertisers holding up the ‘size-zero’ image of the stars.

The government, civilians, corporations and ad agencies have all taken it upon themselves to tackle this problem. Taxes are implemented on junk foods, sometimes-fatal diet pills go in and out of fashion, companies market their wares as the latest health product and the ad agencies make hay – selling everything with a pinch of salt.

As India tackles a growing obesity menace, nutrition experts increasingly call for a return to the sustainable staples – the rural superfood diet.

superfoods, millets, healthy
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Ragi is one such food. A millet crop, its nutrition value is higher than all other cereals, and it grows in various climates, through rain or drought. It’s the kind of sustainable food that’s healthy for both planet and consumer. Lakshmee Sharma, an American India Foundation Clinton Fellow, has written extensively of Ragi’s nutritional value and recommends it for weight loss:

It has this effect where it lessens your appetite and you won’t binge eat…And since it’s so nutritious, you won’t be losing out on a healthy meal.

It is popular in South India, where it is often consumed in the form of ragi balls.

Ragi, jau (barley), rice and ghee, are some of the foods nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar recommends in her book ‘Indian Superfoods’ – where she argues against diet fads based on trends, and for the adoption of traditional Indian foods tempered by common sense. As she says to the Hindustan Times, “There is such diversity in the food of our own country — grains, legumes, pulses — but are overlooking it”. Rujuta advocates reasonable consumption mixed with exercise and yoga for best results.

Big Business Fills the Wellness Market

The ‘look fit’ business is a booming one – across India, gyms and fitness centres open up, only to be shut down later as customers stop being regular. In the meantime, the fitness and slimming market was estimated in 2012 to be worth $880 million, expected to grow at 18-22%. Four years since and the wellness market it is a part of is now worth over seven billion dollars in India, and up to $3.7 trillion worldwide.

Despite the big business, even companies that specialize in slimming services feel that customers need to shift their priorities from weight-loss to health.

“Aping celebrities and their fitness stories will not help you at all. One has to remember that there is no shortcut to fitness. The concept of size zero doesn’t exist in a country like ours and reaching the ideal weight should be the only goal. In fact, it is pointless to lose too much weight in too short a time. There is nothing like good food or bad food… Instead, make exercise a habit.”

An obsession on the self-image provokes quick fix methods for weight loss – but this ignores the underlying question of health. Obesity treads the line between insecurity and poor nutrition. The health risks are many – from heart disease to diabetes and a general lack of energy. However, the solution has much to do with our lifestyles – largely sedentary – and the solution lies in a combination of exercise and healthy diet. For both, one could turn to tradition as a solution.


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