Tuesday, May 17, 2011


One single issue that dominates the health scenario in the world is the increasing population which are being adversely affected by wrong diets, loaded with calories, fat and salt, considered too high for maintaining good health. On an average a balanced diet is expected to deliver about 2000 kC, 50 gms of fat, 50 gms of protein, 30 gms of dietary fiber, less than 10 gms of salt, besides minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids. As against the above, populations in many affluent countries consume diets with 50% more calories, much less proteins than prescribed, rich in saturated fat, low in fiber, high salt and too much meat products. The result is there for all too see with the population of over weight and obese people predominating the landscape. The inevitable consequences include high mortality due to life style disorders like Cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases.

A substantial part of the health care budget in these countries is spent to treat these health disorders and governments invariably are finding it difficult to correct the distortions in the eating habits of their citizens. Campaigns and incentives do not seem to be having any effect on this unfortunate phenomenon while food processing industry is not responding to calls and pressures to change their product portfolio to include more balanced food products. Logically food industry cannot take the health quality of a product alone into consideration while investments are made because the economic viability of a venture depends largely on the degree of acceptance of the products by the consumer and the organoleptic quality plays a critical role in product acceptability. High sugar, high fat, adequate salt laced products with good mouth feel and high palatability will only sell in the market. Thus it is a pull between viability and social responsibility that confronts the industry and it is difficult to enforce any health standards for processed foods legally binding on the manufacturers.

According to a recent Global Obesity survey by Imperial College, London, rising levels of BMI
(Body Mass Index-Kg/m2), a measure of the over weight and obesity, is closely related to high economic wealth of a country and within a country this phenomenon is increasingly being noticed amongst rich people, though the countries such as Brazil and South Africa are still considered poor by world standards. What is disturbing is that between 1980 and 2008 the obesity incidence has doubled to 10%. Congo, one of the poorest countries in Africa can boast of an average BMI of just under 21 while the little known Nauru is the habitat for fattest people with average BMI of about 34! It may make sense that richer the people more would be the disposable income to buy foods which contribute to obesity. Look at the petroleum rich countries where people have relatively high BMI varying between 28 and 33. They include UAE, Qatar, Kuwait etc.

What about India? Though India is being praised for its economic development, especially after the launching of the 1990 liberalization regime which raised the GDP per capita substantially through the next two decades making people wealthier, it is the only country that has bucked the global trend of increasing the BMI of its population in parallel with rising income. The average national BMI in the US is 28.46 while the corresponding figure for China is reported to be about 23. Do these figures make any sense at all? Despite the above findings it is predicted that India will become the diabetic capital of the world within two decades in terms of absolute number of people affected by this disease called Metabolic Syndrome which is closely related to over weight and obesity. It is possible that those afflicted by obesity might be belonging to top income groups of people whose life style and eating habits can be comparable to average citizen in the US. This has to be elucidated by an India-specific study by the Indian Council of Medical Research of GOI.



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