New Emissary

India’s Looming Health Issue

Recent Features

New Emissary

India’s Looming Health Issue

Obesity and diabetes are just some health issues that may be arising from India’s contemporary food landscape.

In this fifth in a series exploring food and identity in India, The Diplomat looks at the health issues that may be arising from India’s contemporary food landscape.

According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 1 billion overweight adults around the world, of which over a quarter are considered obese. So what’s behind this global trend? The WHO says: ‘The key causes are increased consumption of energy-dense foods high in saturated fats and sugars, and reduced physical activity.’

Indeed, according to a 2008 BBC report based on questions asked of 9000 people in 13 countries across five continents,‘the largest number of respondents blamed the food that was now available’ for obesity—40 percent of the total interviewed pinned the blame on simply eating what was available.

Indians Increasingly Obese

Compared with countries like the United States, there’s been little attention paid to obesity in India. But this is changing. According to an article in the Hindustan Times last week for instance, if the number of Indians currently choosing to get weight-loss surgery is any indication, ‘obesity is a rapidly ballooning problem in India.’ Apparently, the number of Indians undergoing operations to lose weight has risen by more than 2000 percent in the last four years, ‘from just 150 cases in 2006 to 3,500 cases by the end of November 2010.’

And even more alarming is that, according to the report, ‘at least 2.6 million people die each year’ in India ‘as a result of being overweight or obese.’ India also has the world’s most diabetics, with 50.8 million people living with the disease, according to the World Diabetes Foundation.

Also published last week was an engaging article in The Guardian on the topic by Nina Martyris which pointed out that the problem has also begun to affect the nation’s children, with reportedly now one in every three schoolchildren in one Delhi private school, for example, being obese. Martyris asserts, ‘Childhood obesity in India is an urban, post-lib plague fuelled by too much couch, too many snacks and an addiction to apples that are flat, shiny and digital…Aggressive fast-food multinationals have localised flavours and chutneyfied their advertising hustle to successfully colonise the Indian gut. Children have a special place in their hearts.’

Indeed, while some of the younger Indians I consulted for this series had concerns about foreign fast food companies such as MacDonald’s and KFC having a growing presence in their country, many others see their food offerings as harmless.

Martyris added that it’s ironic that whereas in the United States, it’s the poorer classes who consume more junk food, in India it’s ‘affordable only to the well-off. Burgers and pastries are beyond the purse of the bulk of the population, who, to put it darkly, are insulated by their poverty in the same way that Burma is insulated from KFC and McDonald's by sanctions.’

India’s Looming Health Issue

As India continues to modernize, it seems adverse health effects from the changing food landscape won’t be going away any time soon—unless some dramatic changes are made.

Family Meals, Ayurveda, Contemporary Beliefs

The topic of health came up when I spoke to Madhu Gadia, who’s both an Indian food expert and nutritionist. Gadia, a native Indian, is currently based in the United States, where she’s working as a wellness director for a food service that provides cafeteria settings for different organizations, overseeing operations so that there’s healthy food on the menu.

She told me that she’s‘very disappointed’ in the eating habits of people in the United States: ‘Family meals are so important in terms of the raising of the child and families in America are running in every direction, children so over-scheduled that the family doesn’t even sit down together and eat anymore; the mother and father are working.’ And while Gadia sees that the importance of a home-cooked family meal is still valued more in India, she acknowledges that things might be changing there as well. ‘In the newer (Indian) families you’re seeing the same kind of thing. Husbands are not coming home until 8 or 9 at night and then they’re so stressed out…’

Meanwhile, author Manpreet K. Janeja suggested that a key problem with governments and other institutions trying to implement healthy food policies to combat diseases such as obesity has been in part their failure to see the ties between food and identity. She even sees this oversight causing problems in food aid programmes: ‘Many food policy failures and food aid programmes aren’t as successful because they don’t quite take into account this sort of multi-dimensional role of food and they’re not sensitive to that extent to the cultural dimensions,’ she explained to me. ‘Food isn’t something that just satisfies biological hunger. It’s something way, way beyond.’

The complexity in the way people approach their food may be demonstrated in Indian society through its historically-rooted but still prevalent Ayurvedic schools of thought, which according to author Colleen T. Sen, author of Food Culture in India, as ‘a whole medical system is very food based.’

She explained that in India, those who’d go to an Ayurvedic physician would have a special diet prescribed to them, to promote optimal mental and spiritual well-being. ‘I think Chinese civilization is like that as well—they both take food seriously for mental and physical health. It may officially have died out, but people in India have very deep-rooted ideas convictions about what they should be eating,’ she told me.

Sen cited as an example the types of beliefs commonly accepted and practiced in Indian households today, like that ‘you should eat certain foods at certain times of the day’ or that yogurt should be consumed at the end of a meal.

Gadia also cited similar examples of Indians often saying roti (whole grain flatbread) should be eaten with meals because ‘it won’t gum up in your tummy’ or that beans should be eaten for protein. However, in her opinion, being healthy is so ingrained in Indians’ approach to food that often, ‘you don’t analyze it.’

It’s clear that India’s looming health issues, especially in light of the changing food landscape as the country continues to rapidly modernize, is troubling and unlikely to go away any time soon without significant institutional measures.

Next, I’ll touch on the future of India’s dining scene, and what further implications this might have for its society and people, as I wrap up the series.


Images: Jon Connell (top), Cory Doctorow (bottom).