Junk life

Fast food and slow death

Published: Saturday 15 June 2002

Junk life

junk foodIndians are at great risk of lifestyle diseases. Inactivity alone claims two million lives globally every year, warns a recently-published WHO report. Indians, particularly the younger generation, are increasingly facing problems due to overweight, blood pressure, stress, high cholesterol and diabetes, all of which are a fallout of physical inactivity. Studies show that up to 80 per cent of coronary heart disease, 90 per cent of diabetes and about one-third of all cancers can be avoided through a change in lifestyle.

In the industrialised world, junk food like burgers, fries and pizza are extremely inexpensive, compared to green vegetables. The inherent subsidies to the meat industry means that poor people (especially the blacks and Hispanics in the US) predominately consume such foods. As a result, they develop obesity and many children suffer from attention deficit disorders. A survey by a restaurant association found that fast food companies prefer to open shop in poorer areas, rather than in an up-market area. The trend in India is, however, opposite. The prime targets for fast food joints are the rich and the middle class.

Studies conducted by the National Foundation of India (NFI), a non-governmental organisation, in Delhi have revealed that it is not the well off, but the poor and the underprivileged that are increasingly falling victim to sedentary lifestyles. One reason for this is the migration from villages to urban centres. Among non-communicable diseases, cardiovascular diseases caused by obesity account for the highest number of deaths. Of the 15 million deaths due to cardiovascular disease worldwide in 1990, 2.5 million occurred in India alone. Several studies in India have shown that changes in dietary patterns, physical activity levels, lifestyles associated with affluence, and migration to urban areas are related to increasing frequencies of obesity and the risk of diseases, such as coronary heart disease and diabetes.

The incidence of diabetes is the highest in India with 20 million contracting the disease that in 50 percent of cases can be avoided through a healthy lifestyle and diet. By 2020, the number of diabetics in India is expected to touch 58 million and around seven million will die of heart-related diseases, if they do not change their sedentary lifestyle, warns K Srinath Reddy, a leading Delhi-based cardiologist.

Another risk factor for heart disease striking early is low birth weight, a problem that is not uncommon in the country. Experts say that children with birth weight of 2.5 kg and less are prone to getting heart disease in early adulthood. Recent studies have, in fact, indicated that a mother’s poor diet may place the foetus at a higher risk of getting heart disease later in life. Such infants would not only be underweight but could also have a disproportionately large head or a narrow waist. These features, experts point out, indicate damage to the baby's organ systems and affect the way the body regulates cholesterol and blood clotting in adult life.

Another NFI study shows that malnourished populations in developing societies, particularly in Asia, have an increased predisposition to obesity and, more specifically, to abdominal obesity, largely during the foetus’ development period.

These changes, as a result of prenatal and postnatal malnutrition, increase susceptibility to obesity under the right environmental influences such as an increased intake of fat in the diet and reduced levels of physical activity. These environmental changes are now characteristic of economic development and urbanisation in these countries and will hence fuel the epidemic of obesity currently seen in these societies, says the study Another study conducted by NFI in Delhi found that the problem of obesity was found to be more prevalent in the upper-middle class than among slum dwellers.

Thus, as against the prevalence rate of obesity of one per cent for males and four per cent for females in the slums, the corresponding figures for the high-income group among the middle class were 32.2 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. More females than males have been found to be overweight in all age groups. Apart from dietary errors and excesses, the lack of regular physical exercise among urban middle class with sedentary occupations is a major contributor to overweight and obesity.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.