Asians and obesity: newfound bedfellows

Updated: Apr 29 2006, 05:30am hrs
If you are reading this article, you are almost definitely born pre-1985. More likely, youre a 70s baby. Cable television was a part of your adolescence, not your childhood. When you think about overweight people, the first images that spring to mind are 40-something aunties and uncles. However, these days the picture is very different. It is not at all uncommon to see overweight teenagers waddling along the roads. Indeed, the aunties and uncles almost look slim in comparison.

And this is not only an India-wide phenomenon. It is the case across much of Asia. Its not unsurprising that the two main victims of obesity in Asia are also the two fastest growing economies, China and India. A combination of modernisation, dramatic change of lifestyles and an onslaught of packaged foods are taking their toll.

In China, the rate of obesity has doubled in the past decade. An estimated 60 million people are considered obese, with another 200 million qualifying as overweight. Together, this puts almost 30% of the population in the overweight/obese category. The number is almost double in major cities.

India is not too far behind. It is among the top 10 obese nations. Obesity in India is one of the key reasons why India has among the highest number of diabetics in the world an estimated 35 million. Every fourth diabetic in the world today is an Indian. This number is expected to increase to 40 million by 2010 and 74 million by 2025. The World Health Organisation forecasts that by 2030, China and India combined will account for half the diabetics in Asia.

One trend that has observers in both countries particularly worried is the high prevalence of child obesity. In China, the number of obese children is increasing by 8% every year. City children are often packed off to fat camps to help combat the problem. In major Indian metros, the rate of obesity can be as high as 20%. Who is to blame The forces of globalisation and the ensuing lifestyle changes Negligent parents Governments Junk food retailers

Well, its a little bit of everybody. Youve all heard the arguments about how TV has taken over the households concept of entertainment and how children have turned into couch-potatoes. Video games have replaced the playground and with both parents working, there is no one to supervise the childs diet and eating habits. All true. There is also the issue about adjusting eating habits in line with modern lifestyles.

Its all well and good for the older generation to say that this is how we used to cook food in our day, but they also didnt have air-conditioners, the extensive use of motorised transport and all the other luxuries of modern-day living. The older generation, being older and as the proverb goes, wiser, should understand and grasp these changes and point the right way forward, instead of simply reinforcing the traditional way of doing things.

Junk food retailers are equally to blame for this obesity problem. When you boil it down, they are pouring millions of dollars into convincing people that its cool to eat potato chips, and that drinking colas will help you become the next Aamir Khan or Preity Zinta. These manufacturers have to take responsibility for their actions. The same way tobacco companies have contributed to the rise of lung cancer, these consumer goods companies are among the culprits behind the obesity problem.

Finally, governments have also played a part. Politicians, so quick to block investments in steel plants and infrastructure projects, would be better off putting their efforts into boycotting companies selling junk food. I think they could convincingly make the case that these are a threat to national health. And while we are talking about responsibility where do celebrities get off endorsing junk food Dont they have a social responsibility to not mislead people and associate themselves with only quality products Unfortunately, an ayurvedic company cant dole out the megabuck pay cheques our stars are accustomed to.

Dont get me wrong. This is not about assigning blame as much as it is about taking responsibility. Each party in this food chain has to step up to the plate and not least of all, the individual. Eventually, the buck does stop with each one of us.