UN warning over India’s ‘alarming’ obesity rates

·3-min read
Food being eaten from a street vendor in Mumbai - Heathcliff O'Malley
Food being eaten from a street vendor in Mumbai - Heathcliff O'Malley

Obesity levels are surging in India, UN figures have revealed, risking “catastrophic” rates of diabetes and heart disease.

While childhood stunting and undernourishment have decreased in India over the past decade, an extra nine million people have become obese, taking the total to 34 million.

Cheap, unhealthy food spilling onto the market is to blame, experts have said.

The UN called rising global obesity rates “alarming” and said they will lead to an increase in non-communicable diseases including diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

India is already suffering a diabetes crisis, with an estimated 77 million diabetics – ranking second worst globally. The disease is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.

“India’s diabetes rates are catastrophic,” Prof Corinna Hawkes, who specialises in food policy at the City of London, told The Telegraph. “ It’s really bad – it leads to complications, amputations and costs a fortune to manage.”

Experts say all projections estimate India’s obesity rates will rise for years to come.

“The foods that lead to obesity are more affordable and available in the marketplace,” she said. “A lot of people in India get food from street vendors and restaurants. These are high in oil and often deep fried.”

Salty and sweet snacks have also become popular, and the country has seen a “noodle revolution” – readymade packets of which are filled with carbs and fat, she said.

“Our infant young child feeding practices are one of the worst in the world. Thus we set our children off at a disadvantage right from early days to get metabolically unhealthy and have non-communicable diseases earlier in their adult life,” Dr Shweta Khandelwal of the Public Health Foundation of India added.

Dr Khandelwal also blamed the “huge surge” of diabetes on a lack of concerted policy, saying the government has not aligned nutrition, health, agriculture, finance and development to work together and form coherent policies.

Heavy price for unhealthy diets

Meanwhile, the general population is “aware but not alarmed, aware but not taking action,” Dr Khandelwal said.

India is not an anomaly. Globally, adult obesity nearly doubled from 343.1 million in 2000, to 675.7 million in 2016. Yet at the same time, the number of people going hungry in the world has risen by 150 million since the start of the Covid pandemic and the number suffering from chronic undernourishment rose to as many as 828 million last year.

The UN warned that by incentivising modern agrifood systems, countries have seen a rise of low-priced foods of high energy density and minimal nutritional value. “The health costs of unhealthy diets are high – with diet-related health costs linked to mortality and non-communicable diseases projected to exceed USD 1.3 trillion per year by 2030,” the UN said.

Prof Hawkes warned that India’s health system is not fit to provide adequate care to the general population for widespread non-communicable diseases.

Government underfunding and the growth of private providers have pushed medical treatment costs up to extortionate levels, and over 17 per cent of Indian households now incur catastrophic levels of health costs annually, according to the WHO.

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