Seventeen-year-old Karan Sharma admits to a daily craving – a packet of chips; a bowl of Maggi noodles. He insists upon the little treat when he returns from school and will eat lunch only afterwards. Lunch can be rice or roti with dal and curry. Reema, his mother, says he clearly longs for something “that gives him instant gratification and energy.”
Likewise, Shreyas Srivastava. The 11-year-old raids the kitchen when he returns from school. Even though Manju, his mother, has a balanced meal ready for him, Shreyas always “asks ‘what will I eat with lunch?’ and it normally means biscuits or namkeen or even chips on a lucky day,” she says.
Karan and Shreyas belong to a generation that doesn’t think home-cooked tiffin is ‘cool’. For this generation, pasta from the school canteen is worth eating. Both boys’ mothers admit they are on “the heavier side” but certainly not fat. Whatever the terminology, Karan and Shreyas clearly belong to a pudgy generation addicted to empty calories.
A 2009 study by the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation (N-DOC) found that 34.5% of children in the 14-18 age group at private school in Delhi were overweight or obese. More worryingly, it’s not just the national capital that’s losing the battle of the bulge. Dr Priyali Shah of N-DOC says the adolescent waistline is expanding across urban India. N-DOC’s study covered 20,537 schoolchildren in six cities and found 25.3% overweight and 8.6% obese in both private and government schools.
This can be better understood as follows: Every third child at a private school in Mumbai is overweight or obese. This is probably because they are from upper middle class families and have spare cash to spend on junk food. They are also more likely to lounge for hours in front of the TV, the computer or at a PlayStation.
Right now, girls are more likely to be overweight but boys are not far behind. A major reason for the snowballing crisis is the so-called ‘nutrition transition’ underway in urban India. This means that a wide variety of affordable convenience foods, high in fat and sugar are increasingly available and there is a perceptible decline in the consumption of traditional foods that are low in fat, rich in fibre and micro nutrients. Add this change to a more sedentary lifestyle, energy-saving devices and fatter wallets and the result is an increasingly pudgy young India.
So what, if anything, are parents doing about this? see Bios Life Slim presentations
Manju, Shreyas’ mother, admits the force of children’s pester power. As a working mother she says it is “difficult to monitor his lunch from my office – he often eats just a little of the prepared lunch and binges on snacks – but I try to enforce some discipline at dinner time.”
The snack binge generally means loads of saturated fats. Dr Priyali Shah points out that “the label on a packet of bhujia will say one serving contains so many calories. But nobody ever eats only a serving; you eat the whole packet. A packet of bhujia contains 1,200 calories… while a 15-year-old’s daily need is only 1,800 calories.”
Tulsi Patel, sociology professor at Delhi School of Economics, says she knows of parents “who try to dissuade children from eating junk, but people are caught up so much with the outside world that shrinkage of family time with children is being experienced.”
Children themselves are juggling school with tuition, activity classes with television and video games, so much so that have little, if any time or inclination to play. Reema, Karan mother, agrees. “He’s so busy with studies as he’s in class XII that he doesn’t have time to play cricket or football that he played for years. Till the age of 12, he was actually thin.”
Patel says pudginess is also a by-product of new urban living conditions, “small flats with no space for children to run around inside their homes; outside, disproportionate urban planning does not take into account that children need space to play.”
The big fat problem is compounded by an ugly truth – on average, Indians have a poor metabolic rate.
This can have huge consequences. As Dr Shah explains: “Take two children; same background, same body shape. They both eat 100 calories of food. But one of them has a higher metabolic rate, so he will turn 80 calories into energy. His body then stores the leftover 20 calories. The other child burns only 20 calories into energy and his body stores 80 calories…”
If the second child is unable to burn the extra calories, they will just pile up around his waist.
Even so, at least one primary school teacher in south Delhi insists “there aren’t more overweight children today than 20 years ago.” Shah dismisses this briskly. We tend to think an overweight child does not have a problem untill he can’t fit into his chair, she says.
Fortunately, Indian schools increasingly seem to agree with Patel’s argument and not the sanguine primary school teacher. Most schools now say that that the problem of obesity is not alarming but “cannot be ignored.” Usha Ram principal of Delhi’s Laxman Public School, says no colas are sold in her school and there is a Mother Dairy outlet on campus instead. “The children complained in the beginning but have now very happily traded in their colas for lassi,” she says.
But are schools doing enough? Or at least as much as they can? Abha Sehgal, principal of the national capital’s Sanskriti School says a 15-year-old in her school gets about two hours of physical exercise every week. Ameeta Mulla Wattal of Springdales says her students get about one physical education period in a week. “It’s difficult to do more with the amount of schoolwork that needs to be covered,” Wattal acknowledges.
CBSE guidelines say a child should get about 40 minutes of playtime every day. But Vineet Joshi, CBSE chairman, says he can’t enforce it “because when you make something compulsory, there is automatically a lot of resistance.”
Unsurprisingly, there are very real worries about the implications of the obesity epidemic. The first problems that generally manifest themselves are emotional and psychological. Increasing numbers of overweight and obese children may also increase India’s burden of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. We tom-tom about India’s demographic dividend, that more than a third of our population is below 18 – but what would it mean if a significant proportion of this segment were obese and prone to health problems as its slips into middle age?
ref: Tmes of India