Obesity—we keep calling it a lifestyle disorder, even when there is a building consensus and scientific evidence to prove that there is more to it.
Obesity and the non-communicable diseases (NCD) that it brings—diabetes, heart disease, cancer—should be seen from the economical, ecological, political and commercial angles. To reduce them to a personal choice is to trivialise the health disaster staring us in the face.
Globally, the burden of NCDs will lead to a cumulative loss of 47 trillion dollars by 2030 with low- and medium- income countries (LMIC) like India, among the worst affected. NCDs take away from the joy and productivity of our daily lives and the medical costs of treating them bring many families to the brink of poverty.
Currently, two-thirds of all global deaths are on account of these preventable NCDs. Our kids, the most vulnerable segment of our population, are the second most obese in the world, just after China.
Many things lead to this epidemic, but it’s time that we understand how apathy, inertia and inaction at the policy level make us obese, weaker and sicker.
In 2017, India hosted a three-day conference dominated by junk food companies. The official line was that obesity is not really a big concern, that packaged food was not all that unhealthy, and finally that the consumer just needs to be conscious while buying. This attitude puts the blame and responsibility of staying healthy entirely on the individual.
The Maharashtra FDA came up with a new regulation that will enforce all restaurants to display the calorie count of the dishes they serve. More recently, the BMC did a campaign called “Ek chammach kam”, meaning, one spoon less of salt, sugar and oil.
While these two interventions seem nice, they sound more like the advice of a concerned elder than a policy intervention.
The truth is that governments can and must do more. In Chile, for example, there are laws against the easy availability of junk food.
Here is a short list –
Picture for representation only. Source: Pexels
1. If governments want to encourage us to eat healthy food, then they should enact laws regarding pricing, promotion and placement of ultra-processed food products or junk foods. We don’t need the government to tell us that a burger is unhealthy, but we do need government interventions to ensure that the burger companies don’t go after our children with toys, ads and glitzy marketing. Also, junk food consumption is just one of the many expressions of ‘nutrition transition’, the globalisation of western diets and the shunning of native foods.
2. Push for the local food systems to get more resilient. The Andhra government’s move to launch zero-budget natural farming to six million farmers in eight million hectares by 2024 is a commendable and much-needed step in the right direction. It will ensure that native crops get a boost, intercropping (growing more on the same land) thrives, reduce water wastage along with minimal chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
If this is followed by cleaning up the food environment where local vegetables and fruits are sold, it will be even better. Imagine walking into a clean mandi with your cloth bag in hand, talking to your sabzi wali about her child’s class 10 exams.
Wait, it wasn’t that long ago when we actually did this until we lost our cities and souls to our relentless pursuit of development. We should certainly aspire to replace Shanghai or Singapore, but remember to remain true to our roots and our soil.
3. Ensure that FSI for new buildings is not granted unless there is a compulsory open green space for children to play and for the elderly to walk. Restrictions on the number of cars bought or parked per flat can also be considered so that residential areas have more space for free movement.
4. Make public parks safer and more accessible for adolescent and teenage girls.
5. Include farming and agriculture as a compulsory part of primary education. The current curriculum of health advisors, be it doctors or dieticians, doesn’t even make a passing reference to land use, farming or regional/local foods. At the least, start with updating existing food and nutrition syllabi.
Lastly, the narrative of health needs to shift away from the narrow view of looking at food groups – carbs/protein/fat/calories and towards the broader view of food systems – climate, crop cycle, soil health, agricultural practices, subsidies, local economy, global ecology. This puts the onus on policymakers and governments and makes everyone responsible for public health.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)