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India’s getting heavier, and this is a big problem!5 min read

June 9, 2022 4 min read

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India’s getting heavier, and this is a big problem!5 min read

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A new government study indicates that Indians are getting heavier, and this is a serious problem. Experts are warning about a health emergency, unless the growing obesity problem is tackled soon!

What is obesity?

Obesity is a complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern, it’s a serious medical problem that increases the risk of other diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers

Obesity was once thought of as a problem among those living in wealthier countries, but now, the disease has been spreading in other countries as well, and quite rapidly in India. In fact, in the past few years, India has become among the top five countries in terms of obesity!

One estimate in 2016 put 135 million Indians as overweight or obese. That number, health experts say, has been growing rapidly and the country’s undernourished population is being replaced by an overweight one.

The study

According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), the most thorough household survey of health indicators by the government, nearly 23% of men and 24% of women were found to have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more — a 4% increase for both genders over 2015-16. The data also shows that 3.4% of children under five are now overweight compared with 2.1% in 2015-16.

What is BMI (Body Mass Index)?

An approximate measure of whether someone is over or underweight, calculated by dividing their weight in kilograms by the square of their height in metres. The formula is BMI = kg/m2 where kg is a person’s weight in kilograms and m2 is their height in metres squared. A BMI of 25.0 or more is overweight, while the healthy range is 18.5 to 24.9. BMI applies to most adults 18-65 years. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a BMI of 25 or above is considered overweight.

“We are in an obesity epidemic in India and globally, and I fear it could soon become a pandemic if we don’t address it soon,” warns Dr Ravindran Kumeran, a surgeon in Chennai and founder of the Obesity Foundation of India.

Dr Kumeran blames sedentary lifestyles and the easy availability of cheap, fattening foods as the main reasons why “most of us, particularly in urban India, are now out of shape”.

But Dr Kumeran and many other health experts believe that for South Asian populations, it needs to be adjusted at least two points lower at each stage because we are prone to “central obesity”, which means that we easily put on belly fat, and that’s more unhealthy than weight anywhere else on the body. This would mean that an Indian with a BMI of 23 would be overweight.

School children indulging in some junk food.
Photo: Vikas Choudhary/ Down to Earth


“If you take 23 as the cut-off point for overweight, I think half the population of India — certainly the urban population — would be overweight,” says Dr Kumeran.

According to WHO, too much body fat increases the risk of non-communicable diseases, including 13 types of cancer, type-2 diabetes, heart problems and lung conditions. And last year, obesity accounted for 2.8 million deaths globally.

Dr Pradeep Chowbey, former president of the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders (Ifso), says “every 10kg of extra weight reduces life by three years. So, if someone is overweight by 50kg, they might end up losing 15 years of life. We also saw that mortality during Covid was three times higher for overweight and obese patients.

The government has been busy trying to control infectious diseases and their focus is on communicable diseases, they have very little resources for lifestyle diseases. But obesity is very difficult and expensive to manage, it puts a huge burden on the healthcare system.

Dr Pradeep Chowbey, former president of the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders

A few years ago, there was talk of a “sin tax” which would raise prices of unhealthy foods and drinks to discourage their consumption, but health experts say it never happened because of pushback from companies that market them.

What are some ways by which we can control the obesity issue in India? List down some ways and let us know in the comments below!


Sources: BBC, Down to Earth

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