As countries develop it is more than just their GDP that grows; it is also their waistlines. For India this growth could be more harmful than elsewhere as traditional factors clash with the new prevalence towards fashionable, imported food and drink.
The problem of Indian childhood obesity is particularly alarming with some estimates putting the growth from 2011-2016 as 16% to 29% amongst 5-16 year olds. The condition has severe consequences for children as it leads to the early onset of serious diseases normally associated with adulthood (high blood-pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease) at a time when the body is ill-equipped to tackle. Indeed if the current trend continues the number of overweight or obese children across Asia could grow from 15 million today to 70 million by 2025. There are a number of key Indian factors behind this growth that can roughly be divided into internal and external forces.
The model that many economies strive towards is that demonstrated by the United States of America; famous for many things including, most relevantly, obesity. Although Indian levels are still far off those exhibited by the U.S., the lifestyle that is championed by the world’s largest consumer is certainly here to stay as demonstrated by two key market indicators; soft drinks and fast food. Soft drink sales within India have been growing around 30% per annum for the past three years and have been touted to continue at this rate for another four. Meanwhile the fast-food market is on course to double between 2013 and 2016 and, equally alarmingly, mothers are also moving away from the famed “old-fashioned” home cooking in favour of pre-packaged ready meals.
And then there are the factors unique to India. The key factors affecting childhood obesity are considered stress and lack of exercise. In a country as populous as India there is fierce competition to attend the highest educational institutions meaning children are placed under huge amounts of pressure from their parents to achieve success at school. Couple to this to the lack of playing facilities offered at many Indian schools, to let off some of this steam as well as exercise, it creates a dangerous combination where comfort eating is, unsurprisingly, often the result.
Furthermore, there has recently been a physiological link established between Indian genetics and weight gain; known as the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis. This proposes that the relatively rapid change from food scarcity to food paucity has resulted in a metabolism ill-equipped to efficiently process the highly-calorific sustenance that has become common-place. Champions of this theory describe the Indian body type as smaller and flabbier than those found elsewhere after generations of constrained diets and thus resulting in higher likelihood of obesity linked diseases when exposed to a more affluent environment.
The factors and implications laid out above demonstrate that India could be worse at dealing with the change in household diets than other developing nations. It is surely a sign of its significance that this problem has reached the ears of Indian policy makers who are drafting legislation that will curb the TV advertising of foods rich in non-esterified fatty acids (fast foods)and sugar-rich drinks during the hours that children are exposed. There is also talk of imposing special taxes on such goods however, for the time being this is just talk. These are both promising signs but must be brought to fruition if the world’s fastest developing nation is to avoid a long-term health catastrophe emerging at the same remarkable rate.