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Can diet remedy India’s health woes?

Diet plays a major role in the health of a nation. In India, considerable rates of malnutrition – both in terms of undernourishment and unhealthy diets leading to overweight and obesity – affect children well into adulthood. Could a focus on diet by the centre be India’s remedy to its numerous health issues?

Many Indians are embracing ‘westernised’ diets with an emphasis on junk food, contributing to higher rates of obesity in the country.

“The right kind of diet will help to reduce the disease burden in the country” said Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare while inaugurating the second edition of the ‘Eat Right Mela’ at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on December 26th. 

Vardhan expanded on this, addressing some of the key underlying concerns. “India,” he said, “on one side is suffering from undernourishment resulting in infirmities such as wasting and stunting…on the other side, there is another critical area of concern to be addressed (i.e. obesity), which is apparently the result of excessive consumption of junk food, wrong choices of food, overeating and lack of exercise. 

“At the same time, the rise of diet related diseases suggests that people are eating less healthy food than they were eating a decade ago. In this context, the movement of ‘Eat Right India’ started by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is a timely initiative”.

Indeed, a recent study published in the journal Obesity Reviews indicated that India’s food ranks among the unhealthiest in the world, with very low nutrient content compared to considerable levels of calories — often derived from high sugar content. The study notes a transition from traditional diets based on fruits, vegetables, unprocessed cereals and legumes to diets that are rife with processed, packaged food and beverage products that are filled with sugar, saturated fats and salt content.

Such transition is driving obesity numbers within the country. India is currently home to around 135 million obese people according to research published earlier this year. This burden is expected to increase substantially in the coming years and, with it, rates of diseases such as cardiac conditions, diabetes, and hypertension associated with obesity and the lifestyle factors which drive it such as unhealthy diets.

The example of heart disease is a salient one. Currently, forty percent of the world’s heart failures occur in India. In 2016, heart disease alone accounted for 28.1 percent of all deaths in the country. Diet plays a considerable role in this, as a healthy diet provides a notable protective effect on heart health. In contrast, a poor diet with excessive fat consumption can lead to arterial blockage through high cholesterol, inflammation in the blood vessels, and a number of other issues such as hypertension — all increasing the risk of cardiac conditions.

Seemingly in stark contrast to the rising rates of obesity, India still struggles with an overwhelming burden of undernourishment. The social ramifications of this can be perhaps observed nowhere better than in the impact on child health. In 2017, more than 1.04 million children under the age of five lost their lives. Of these deaths, malnutrition accounted for seven lakh — equating to around 68 percent of all child deaths.

As previously reported by Health Issues India, poverty is perhaps one of the biggest drivers behind malnutrition, and it is a cyclical problem. Many in India live below the poverty line. Those in this position are often unable to provide healthy meals for their children. This can result in conditions such as stunting and wasting which can have a lifetime of impacts on the child affected. Such conditions are relatively widespread in India. In 2017, wasting had a 15.7 percent prevalence in India and stunting had a 32.7 percent prevalence.

The resulting effects of malnutrition can cause developmental delays that cause the children to be far more likely to underperform in their education — resulting in lower grades and therefore decreased employment prospects. 66 percent of Indian workers experiencing lower wages owing to stunting according to some research.

Dr. Harsh Vardhan commended the efforts of the Eat Right Mela of FSSAI and noted that community engagement and education will be key in improving the diet of India. “Let the ‘Eat Right Melas’ be part of public gatherings like local melas, community programs etc., so that the citizens would learn about health and nutrition benefits of different types of food, dietary advice by experts, engage in dialogues and conversations with food visionaries and experts, relish the delicious street food, live demonstration of food recipes and have fun and entertainment.”

A combination of improved access to healthy foods, as well as improved knowledge regarding the importance of a healthy diet among the public could be a major improvement to India’s health. Such a holistic approach could prove to be the major stepping stone India needs to begin to curb the rising rates of noncommunicable diseases. In addition, reducing the incidence of malnutrition among children could set up the younger generation at present and the generations to come to enjoy a healthier and more successful life.

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