As country grows richer, many suffer diseases wrought by junk food, sedentary lifestyles
NOT too long ago, the average Indian, at least in Western eyes, was stick-thin, bony and struggling with malnourishment. However, thanks to rising prosperity in recent years, Indians have filled out nicely and many of them are fighting the battle of the bulge instead. India has seen a rise in the incidence of lifestyle diseases, from diabetes to heart and respiratory problems.
Ms Ritu Singh, 45, had a well-paying job in the tourism industry, escorting affluent tourists on tours of India, until eight months ago. That was when Ms Singh, who suffers from mild asthma, developed respiratory problems so severe that she was forced to quit a job she had held for 18 years. “My biggest fear was that I might get an attack and there wouldn’t be any medical aid nearby. I just can’t take that chance,” she said. These days, Ms Singh, who is looking for an office job, is practising yoga, taking homeopathy medicines and eating healthy home-cooked meals. “I have got my respiratory problems under control now and am feeling much healthier,” she said.
A World Health Organisation report estimated that a combination of unhealthy diets and lifestyles would cost India US$236.6 billion (S$308 billion) in lost earnings by 2015, a huge jump from US$8.7 billion in 2005. Changing lifestyles resulting from longer work hours and more stress at work are making Indians more prone to diseases ranging from heart ailments to diabetes.
After a long day at the office, Ms M. Kakoli is hardly in the mood to cook a full meal for her family. “It’s just that I am so tired some days. I really don’t have the energy to cook. So I order in or make some instant noodles. It’s not an ideal situation but what can one do?” But the 35-year-old mother of a school-going son also remembers how eating out or ordering in was a rare event during her childhood. “We very rarely went out to eat. It was just not done when I was growing up,” she said. Dr K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India, said a sedentary lifestyle, which includes sitting in the office for hours on end, and poor food habits are causing a range of diseases.
“Sedentary lifestyles are a major problem. People are suffering from hypertension and coronary heart diseases; even some forms of cancer are related to lifestyles. Low intake of fruits and vegetables and physical inactivity are all factors. And it is a serious problem now in rural areas,” said Dr Reddy, who is also a former head of the department of cardiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
According to available government statistics, non-communicable diseases are the leading causes of death in the country. About 42 per cent of all deaths are due to non-communicable diseases, with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases topping the list. Around 25 per cent of deaths in the 25-69 age group are due to heart disease. In a country where malnutrition remains a challenge in some parts, obesity is growing into a big problem. About 20 million Indians are obese and around 20 per cent of school-going children are overweight, according to the National Family Health Survey.
To cater to bigger Indians, there is overweightshaadi.com, a matrimonial site which describes itself as being “for the large hearted”. This month, the Uday Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dealing with child rights and health, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court for a ban on the sale of junk food and fizzy drinks in and around schools. “On the one hand, children are taught in the classroom about nutrition and the value of a healthy lifestyle, but on the other hand, we continue to make junk food available to them,” Uday Foundation co-founder Rahul Verma said in a statement that was quoted in the Indian media.
According to the findings of a recent study done by the Diabetes Foundation (India), a private body, one in every three schoolchildren in Delhi’s private schools is obese. The Drugs Controller of India recently asked the government to ban the popular anti-obesity drug sibutramine, which is sold by a number of companies in India. The decision was taken after a meeting of experts and in the wake of reports that the drug could cause heart attacks, cardiac arrests and strokes. But even after the ban, reports in the Indian media said that the weight loss pill, which has also been banned in other countries, was still available and remained one of the fastest-selling anti-obesity drugs in the market.
Obesity is seen as a trigger for diabetes. Two years ago, Madam Devi Ramasamy, 58, was diagnosed with diabetes, which runs in the family. Her parents, brother and two aunts all suffer from the disease. Not wanting to take any chances, she is taking her doctor’s advice to walk for an hour every day and to try to stick to a strict diet. “It’s better to eat food that’s maybe not that tasty than suffer more from this disease,” she said. But she admits she cannot resist the occasional sweet or two.