How government policies are putting our hearts at risk

How government policies are putting our hearts at risk

The food we eat poses the biggest risk to the heart, yet the processed food industry is allowed to sell food high on fats, salt and sugar without hindrance

Know Your Heart: The hidden links between your body and the politics of the state. by Dinesh C Sharma. HarperCollins Publishers India, Rs 250/-

Heart diseases have become common place in India. Even the young and people living in rural areas have not escaped the curse. So far, the changing lifestyle has been blamed for this upsurge of heart diseases. Dinesh Sharma’s latest book explains this increase in terms of our exposure to the risk factors of the disease – food high in salt, sugar and fat, consumption of tobacco, and lack of physical activity. He then goes on to explain how Indians have become victims of government policies that increase our exposure to these risk factors. Sharma posits that our health is a victim of growth.

The book begins by putting lifestyle diseases in perspective for Indians. It talks about the risk factors and how they affect Indians who are anyway considered to be more at risk of lifestyle diseases due to their genetic makeup. It cites global and Indian studies to substantiate the claims that salt, sugar, fat, lack of exercise, tobacco and alcohol are behind the epidemic of heart diseases in India

Onslaught of processed foods
The biggest exposure to these risk factors is from the food we eat. We are no longer dictated by our likes and dislikes but eat what is made available to us in the markets. As there is no profit in selling cabbages (or any other vegetable, for that matter), industries now prefer to sell processed foods. Study after study has shown that these products are harmful in ways that cabbage can never be.

The book explains how processed foods came to become a big part of our diet. For instance, soft drinks, the brown revolution as Sharma puts it, became a household commodity in 1984, when American company PepsiCo decided to enter the market. The policies governing foreign investment prevented its entry but it managed to enter by forming a joint venture with a government venture called Punjab Agro Industries Corporation. In return, they were to help the state process fruits, vegetables and food grains. It took the company four years to get the proposal cleared as it had to go through 14 inter-ministerial panels. To fast track future projects, the government set up the Ministry of Food Processing Industries in 1988. In 1991, liberalisation brought in many more investors to India. Their unhealthy products rich in fats, oils, salt and sugar became common in markets and replaced the healthy diet of Indians. Toothless government agencies, such as those that monitor health and nutrition claims of the products or their advertising, failed to save the country from the tsunami of processed food products.

Policies that aid inactivity, tobacco consumption
Similar details of government's role in increasing the risk from physical inactivity and tobacco, too, are provided. For example, government policies have aided physical inactivity through its inability to provide public transport and safe walking spaces. Aid to small car manufacturers was just another nail in the coffin. In case of tobacco, the government continues to support cultivation, saying that it helps farmers and that they need the revenue provided by sale of tobacco products. Inability to curb surrogate advertising is making the situation worse. The three sections in the book dealing with food, physical activity and tobacco make gripping reading.

In the foreward to the book, K Srinath Reddy, an eminent heart expert and president of Public Health Foundation of India, calls the book "a seriously researched piece of scientific writing" written with "stylistic simplicity".

The book ends with a call for policy changes that curb the use of unhealthy food and tobacco and increases physical activity to improve heart health. An aware public can do wonders in bringing about this change. The book is scheduled to be released on September 29, the World Heart Day.

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