With the popularity of social networking and texting threatening to turn thumb gymnastics into a competitive sport, schoolchildren are getting less activity with each passing day. The result is one in three teenagers weighing more than they should, a number that grows by an average of 1% each year.
Now there's linear data to prove it. A comparison between 14-17 year olds across one dozen private and government schools in Delhi shows that obesity in teenagers is up by 2% over four years, with rich children in private schools recording an over 5% jump, from 11.6% in 2006 to 15.9% in 2009.
For the study, 3,493 teenagers were surveyed in 2006 and another 4,908 in 2009. "To make it representative of the middle and upper middle classes, we tracked kids in private and government schools using the same researchers, yardsticks and schools. This study is indicative of trends across metros in India," says study author Dr Anoop Misra, who also heads the Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Centre at Fortis Hospitals. The study appeared in the international journal PloS last month.Overweight children as young as three are visiting dieticians, who say under-15s account for 15-20% of their clients. "I recently treated an 8-year-old girl who weighed 68 kg, when the healthy weight for the age is 30 kg, and a 12-year-old who weighed 104 kg and could barely walk. But very few parents are ready to accept that their child has a problem," says Rekha Sharma, president, India Dietetic Association.
With most children either weighing too much or too little, the term ‘healthy weight' seems to have been expunged from popular consciousness. Few parents know that the Body Mass Index (BMI) is the best indicator of their healthy weight. In Indian adults, a BMI of 23 or higher is considered overweight, but the index varies in children depending on their height, gender and age. As a thumb rule, BMI decreases during the preschool years but gradually goes up over the teens.
Children's diets need even more attention than adults because their bodies are developing, and nutritional deficiencies leading to disorders such as osteoporosis. Too much weight has its own pitfalls. "Overweight kids are not only at higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, polycystic ovarian disease and metabolic syndrome as adults, but they also get these quite early, at times in their thirties only," says Misra.
"Children eat the wrong kind of food, which is high in calories and low in protein, essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. Most eating binges happen at school, where they succumb to peer pressure and go for cafeteria staples such as calorie-laden colas and deep-fried snacks," says Sharma.
The World Health Organisation has declared obesity a global epidemic. and the American Academy of Pediatrics has already issued a policy statement saying all children should have their BMIs evaluated annually.
But India is yet to wake up to the magnitude of the obesity problem. "Indians suffer from Syndrome X, a clutch of metabolic disorders that makes them prone to developing bellies, diabetes, low good cholesterol, high bad cholesterol, high blood pressure and high triglycerides, all of which are risk factors of heart disease and diabetes risk," says Dr Misra.
By the time they are adults, the health problems have already set in. One in three teenagers between 13 and 18 years in Delhi is likely to have high blood pressure (hypertension), shows data from the Indian Institute of Nutrition. "You can't do much about your genes, but you can eat healthy and be more active. The fall in activity is in both girls and boys," says Dr Misra.
Only, at the end of the day, the thumb rule for most teens is that thumbs rule.