In today’s Finshots, we explain why India’s obesity rates are rising and the problems associated with it.

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The Story

We’re in the midst of a national crisis no one’s talking about — obesity.

In 1990, there were only 0.4 million grossly overweight children aged between 5 and 19. But cut to today, that number has jumped to more than 12.5 million overweight children.

That means over 3.5% of children in the country are now overweight.

That’s what a rather alarming study published in the international medical journal The Lancet tells us.

And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these scary stats.

See, every 3 years or so, India conducts a National Family Health Survey (NFHS). It discusses things like sanitation, hygiene, household wealth, insurance coverage, domestic violence and education. But they don’t stop there. They even cover other inane items like the number of mosquito nets in use.

Yup, it’s one of the most comprehensive ways to figure out the health indicators at the ground level. So when the NFHS tells us something, we have to believe it right?

And the previous NFHS result revealed the same story about childhood obesity. And pointed out that even adult obesity rates are soaring.

Crazy, huh?

Now you’re probably thinking that this is solely an urban and a middle-class problem. After all, that’s the segment who’ve perfected the art of a sedentary lifestyle where we sit on a chair for 10 hours a day. Then we Netflix and binge-eat on food swimming in oil that’s brought to our doorstep with just a couple of clicks on the phone. We love processed and unhealthy food.

So if we look at rural numbers, things should be starkly different.

But unfortunately, that’s not quite true. While the problem is more prevalent in urban folks, over 19% of the adult rural population is overweight or obese according to the NFHS data. And this number was just 2% way back around 1990.

Now there might be a couple of reasons to explain this.

Some research indicates that as more and more towns emerge, the distance to villages has reduced. And with that urban proximity comes a change in dietary practices in these villages. They begin to consume more processed foods too. For instance, the latest Household Consumption Expenditure Survey revealed that while rural households allocated 4.2% of their expenses to beverages and processed food in 1990, that number is now higher at 9.6%.

And the end result is that for every reduction in kilometre between a rural and urban area, 3000 rural women might become at risk of obesity.

Unfortunately, our urban areas seem to be exporting obesity to the rural segments.

But here’s the other bit… even our public health policies might be to blame.

For decades now, the government has relied on a Public Distribution System (PDS) to provide rations to folks who need them. And typically, the food basket in the PDS is carbohydrate-heavy — wheat and rice. A significant part of our population can buy them at low prices or get them for free and they end up consuming more of these food stuff. And some research suggests that these refined cereals are linked to the obesity problem these days.

But you could look at how people source their calories. Unhealthy fats, sugars and processed food are extremely popular in the country because relatively healthy foods often tend to be more expensive. And the cost per calorie falls rather precipitously when you look at the unhealthier stuff.

As per an article in Bloomberg from a couple of years ago, if you decide to buy green leafy veggies, you have to typically pay 29 times higher to get the same amount of energy that you could’ve got from oil. Or the calories from a pumpkin or mango will cost you 10 times more than their equivalent in sugar.

So all this unhealthy consumption creates another problem too — hidden hunger.

What we mean is that we might satiate our appetite with enough calories, but we don’t meet the hunger needs for nutrition. Over 70% of Indians are believed to be protein deficient. And heck, even the nutrient content that we’re supposed to get from our rice and wheat has fallen drastically due to our farming methods. And as a result, our body remains deficient in vitamins or minerals like Zinc.

Obesity and nutritional deficiency — it’s a double whammy.

And this could have a significant economic impact on the country.

We’re already bearing a cost of 1% of our GDP. And if unchecked, some estimates say it will double in the next 3 decades.

Now if you’re wondering how the costs can be so high, it’s simple. There’s the direct cost, of course. This is the money spent on getting diagnoses and treatment either by the patients or borne by the government as subsidised healthcare.

But the indirect costs are often invisible and even greater — there’s time spent on seeking healthcare which would involve a patient and a caregiver; there’s reduced productivity at work, people calling in sick more often; there are the missing workdays; and even premature death that translates into years of potential productive life that the economy loses.

So yeah, maybe it’s time the country took the upcoming obesity epidemic quite seriously.

Until then…

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