India is often seen as an up-and-coming economic power still struggling with widespread poverty and child malnutrition, but by 2030 it will be known as the world’s diabetes and obesity capital.
Long a problem in industrialized countries such as the United States, obesity is now a growing trend in the less affluent India. The problem is not in evidence among the poor, who are still not getting enough to eat, but among the urban middle and upper classes.
Twenty percent of India’s population over the age of 30 and living in urban areas suffers from both diabetes and high blood pressure, according to a recent government study. Other studies suggest that the wealthy are more likely to be overweight. Obesity is common among families who earn 50,000 rupees ($900) a month, far more than the national average of 5,100 rupees ($83).
A lack of proper health education and a past in which chubby children symbolized good health and a family’s wealth make it hard for Indians to realize that they have to shed the extra pounds.
"I'm concerned about my health but I don't think… something [is having an] adverse effect as such, I think I'm good at the moment," 20-year-old Adit Shetty told the ABC. Despite weighing over 126 kilograms, he sees no problem with his large waistline.
In particular, obesity is a serious problem among young children who are at risk of developing diabetes later in life. The percentage of overweight schoolchildren between the ages of 14 to 17 years old has increased from 10 percent in 2006-2007 to 12 percent in 2009. Throughout India, obesity is twice as high among private schoolchildren compared to those in government-run schools, according to Anoop Misra, the chairman of the Fortis-C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology, in The Hindustan Times.
The main causes, Misra argues: inexpensive energy-dense foods, TV ads targeting young people, and junk food and soft drinks being sold in school cafeterias. Already, fast food and soda companies are moving into schools under the guise of health campaigns. That, coupled with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle among Indian children, is exacerbating the problem.
When BBC’s Anita Rani traveled to Mumbai, she found a growing and lucrative weight-loss surgery industry, a loosely regulated fast food industry, and wealthy Indians who were drawn to a lifestyle similar to that of a Western country. Indians also have an increased genetic susceptibility to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
As high economic growth brings more Indians out of poverty, the spread of Western fast food chains is very likely to hit the waistlines of the world’s second most populous country.