Obesity becoming a global menace

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has drawn attention to the alarming pace at which obesity is growing worldwide. The study, which was conducted in 195 countries over a 30-year period, reveals that around 10% of the world’s population is obese. Not only has the incidence of obesity grown over the past few decades but it has also doubled in 73 countries. With over a quarter of its population obese, the US leads the world in the incidence of obesity while Egypt with 35% leads with regard to adult obesity. Although India is not among the world toppers in terms of the incidence of obesity, the number of obese people is very high. Of particular concern it its large number of obese children. Of the world’s roughly 108 million obese children in 2015, 14.4 million were Indian. Indeed, India stands second to China with regard to the number of obese children. Obesity is “a growing and disturbing global public health crisis,” the NEJM article observes. Indeed, many countries are in the grip of an obesity epidemic. Its implications are grave. Obesity raises the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension and diabetes and contributes to over 7% of all deaths. In addition to its implications for human health and longevity is the financial burden it imposes on individuals, families and society.

Obesity deserves immediate global attention and intervention. A better understanding of this problem will help us tackle it robustly; myths surrounding it need to be busted. Obesity was long-thought to be a disease that afflicted those who ate too much and the rich, a problem that was of concern to economically advanced countries only. This isn’t the case. Obesity is growing rapidly in the not-so-rich countries too, including those with chronic food shortages. Again, a country can have a large number of underweight and obese people. India, which stands first and second with regard to the largest number of underweight and obese children, is a classic example. Studies also show that in addition to genetics, the kind of food rather than the am­ount one eats increases a person’s chances of becoming obese with sedentary lifestyles and lack of exer­cise contributing to obesity as well.

India needs to quantify the prevalence of obesity in terms of Indian body types and norms rather than the western ones. Importantly, we need to understand that quick solutions to obesity are not necessarily the best ones. Indeed, solutions such as bariatric surgery, which is growing in popularity for cosmetic reasons, should be resorted to only as the last option to deal with obesity. Instead, health authorities must encourage lifestyle changes as well as nutritious and balanced diets.

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