Obesity in India has become an “impending tsunami” as a groundbreaking new study has found hundreds of millions are suffering from the condition.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) published details of its report last week which found that nearly 13 per cent of the 1.2 billion population could be suffering from obesity.
Experts are warning that the condition, which can cause diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and strokes, could soon become the number one killer in the country.
They say a rise in affluence in the country and lifestyle choices are responsible for the epidemic, and have called for greater awareness regarding diet and exercise and healthy food options for youngsters at schools work places.
The India Diabetes Study (INDIAB), spearheaded by the ICMR, found that 153 million Indians, comparable to the half the population of the US, could be suffering from abdominal obesity or what is also known having a large paunch or a “pear-shaped body”.
The main causes for expanding waistlines in India has been put down to increasing urbanisation, reliance on cars, consumption of fast foods, long hours of watching TV, and intake of energy dense but nutrient poor diets, the landmark study found.
Dr Rajendra Pradeepa, from the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai, and lead author of the study, said: “The longer the waist belt, the shorter is the lifetime. This is a wake-up call. The take-off age for obesity has reduced to the 25-34 age group, which is very worrying.”
Dr Gautam Ahluwalia, from the Department of Medicine, Dayanand Medical College in Ludhiana, said obesity was like “an impending tsunami”.
He added the study found that “less than 10 per cent of people in India performed recreational physical activity”, which is the root cause for many of the lifestyle related health problems.
Ahluwalia added that India was being confronted with the “phenomenon of double burden of disease” such as infectious illnesses on the one hand and “non-communicable diseases” – lifestyle-related problems on the other.
“The increasing trend of obesity with increasing education status is paradoxical. Possibly higher education with its increasing economic sovereignty results in higher consumption of obesogenic foods and a sedentary lifestyle,” he said.
The 16-member team of researchers at ICMR surveyed some 16,000 individuals in the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chandigarh. They have published the results of the first phase of their work in the latest issue of the well-regarded Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR).
When the entire study is completed in three years, the sample size would jump to 124,000 people, making it the largest study of its kind ever to be undertaken.
The sample includes residents from both rural and urban areas. So far, it has found the prevalence of obesity to be higher in urban populations compared to rural regions.
In the study, a man was considered to be obese if his waist circumference was more than 90 cm (36 inches) and a woman was obese if her waist was more than 80 cm (32 inches).
The findings suggested that as many as 88 million people could be overweight and become obese with time, meaning almost a fifth of Indians are carrying more weight than they should.
Along the same lines, a new study published in the latest issue of The Lancet on health risks finds “fewer Indians are having health loss from ailments associated with childhood undernutrition and unsafe water sources, but more are suffering from diseases attributable to high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol”.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in six people in the world are obese and some 2.8 million individuals die every year because of the condition.
“Metabolic risk factors that include high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, along with unhealthy dietary habits and smoking are responsible for about 5.2 million premature deaths in India every year,” Dr K Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India in Gurgaon, said.
He added: “This trend will continue to increase unless effective prevention strategies to address these risk factors are implemented in India rapidly.”
Leading Indian diabetes specialist Dr Ambrish Mithal, head of the Endocrinology and Diabetes division of Medanta Hospital, Gurgaon, said: “The big challenge India faces is the burgeoning epidemic of childhood obesity. Linked to greater affluence and urbanisation, obesity fuels an epidemic of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
“The exponential increase in diabetes, especially among the youth, with its attendant complications, can be directly attributed to increasing obesity. We need strategies like greater awareness regarding diet and exercise and, even more importantly, availability of healthy food options for youngsters at schools and their work place.”