India Sounds Alarm on Rise in Obesity Cases

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In India, which has more undernourished people than any other country in the world, a new problem is emerging: urban, middle-class obesity, especially among children. Experts warn that diabetes and heart disease could rise dramatically in the next 25 years unless the government tackles the problem. And that, in turn, could overwhelm India's already over-burdened health care system.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

India's population is growing and not just numerically. The people there are actually getting bigger. India does have more hungry people than anywhere else in the world, but obesity is rising so fast that some doctors call it an epidemic. India's health minister has warned that unless the issue is addressed with the utmost urgency, the cost to the country could be enormous.

Mandy Cunningham reports from New Delhi.

AMANDA CUNNINGHAM: Goroff Joshie(ph) is a newly qualified software engineer. He's on the threshold of what he hopes will be a happy and lucrative career. But he has a problem that can undermine everything even before his working life begins.

Mr. GOROFF JOSHIE (Software Engineer): Firstly, I am overweight. I'm very much overweight, so I want to get rid of that because I'm facing a lot of problems because of obesity. At the age of 23, I have a high blood pressure problem. That's not good. And my whole family is treated for diabetes also. I don't want to get into all those thinks.

CUNNINGHAM: Goroff is one of millions of middle class Indians suffering from obesity. He says he needs to lose 40 pounds. That's why everyday he comes here to one of a crop of new health clinics that have sprung up in New Delhi specifically to address the problems of the new consumer age, such as stress and obesity. The clinic is run by Dr. Shika Surma(ph). She says that in large cities, 30 percent of adolescents are obese, an issue which needs to be taken seriously.

Dr. SHIKA SURMA (New Delhi Health Clinic): Even people who had tropical diseases and undernourished and from being undernourished we, instead of becoming healthy, we are becoming malnourished. That is bad nourished.

CUNNINGHAM: Unlike in the United States, obesity in India is mainly a problem for the urban middle class. People who can afford to patronize shopping malls like this one where you can buy take away pizza for a dollar, guzzle sodas or fill yourself up on mountains of fabulously tasty but curry packed Indian sweets.

The statistics are worrying the country's health officials. A study by the Nutrition Foundation of India found that in New Delhi's high income group, half the women and more than a third of men were overweight. Experts say children are at the greatest risk. Indian kids now spend more time watching cricket on TV than actually playing it.

Their eating habits have changed, too. Dr. Anut Mishra(ph) is head of the department of Diabetes and Metabolic Disorders at Delhi's Fortis(ph)Hospital.

Dr. ANUT MISHRA (Fortis Hospital): Nowadays both parents are working from morning to evening and children come home and eat whatever they want. They order from fast food joint. They deliver at home. Plus there is a part of Indian mentality of making a child eat and if a child is normal they just say well, he's very weak so the mother will make him eat more until he's chubby. They say well now child is healthy. They don't know the ills of obesity.

Mr. MISHA SUMIA(ph) (India resident): I can't tell you how many times I've been told that fashion isn't for me or if I want clothes I should go to the men's section, but I do not want men's clothes.

CUNNINGHAM: That's Misha Sumia. She's been overweight for years. A few years ago she got so fed up with being treated like an outcast every time she went shopping, she decided to open a store selling fashionable clothes for large women. It was a good move. She now has a chain of such shops.

Yet Misha says too much attention is now being paid to India's growing waistline. She thinks the real issue is the exact opposite, the pressure that India's changing society now places on women to look like supermodels.

Ms. SUMIA: If I think of the actresses in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, none of them were skinny. In fact, I might go to the other extreme of saying I think anorexia is on the rise. Because when I was in college or I was in school there were never that many thin girls with navels showing, tight clothes. I do not remember seeing so many perfect bodies as a child.

CUNNINGHAM: But statistics pouring in from doctors in cities all over the country suggest that the obesity problem is real enough. India already has the world's largest number of diabetics, some 30 million. The World Health Organization says this is likely to more than double in the next 25 years.

Dr. Anut Mishra again.

Dr. MISHRA: The problem is that this is not being recognized enough. Now there's increasing exposure in the media, but still if you go to those who decide the health policy, they still say well, they have other priorities, different other priorities. But actually this is taking a whole lot of health budget, because a person becomes diabetic and they are diabetic for their whole life and (unintelligible) for the whole life.

CUNNINGHAM: Doctors fear that unless the issue is tackled immediately, India will see a huge rise in diabetes, hypertension and heart disease cases. In a country where nearly half the toddlers are undernourished, it's hard to see how the already inadequate health system will cope.

For NPR News, I'm Mandy Cunningham in New Delhi.

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