First, the old bad news: being obese is unhealthy. Then, the new bad news: obesity is bad for economies. The World Health Organisation has always had the knack of getting its message across, if not with the voice of maternal concern, then with a paternal finger wag. If tobacco consumption had to be deterred, the WHO war meant fighting it on all fronts — individual and societal. If fat people don’t care a damn that their hearts make choke up because of their dietary habits, they are now being told that obesity and its accompanying ailments divert precious money in healthcare that should be spent elsewhere. WHO estimates suggest that there are thrice as many obese people in the world today than there were 20 years ago. The other end of the dietary spectrum, malnutrition, has been the traditional worry for countries. The World Bank has it that about 2-3 per cent of the GDP is siphoned off into mechanisms to counter malnutrition in highly-affected countries. It turns out that about the same budgetary expenditure is needed to battle obesity and obesity-related illnesses in some countries.
Europe, for instance, has been forced to sit up and conduct damage control measures. Fifty-three European Union countries approved the world’s first charter to fight obesity earlier this week. And it isn’t just the welfare of their citizenries that has made the authorities get serious about dietary guidelines and urban planning (that will allow regular physical activity for more people). Obesity is responsible for up to 6 per cent of all healthcare costs across Europe. It also reduces life expectancy — something that could dangerously affect an already ageing and dwindling labour force in Europe.
For countries like India, the danger lies on two fronts. The usual perception is that malnutrition is ‘our problem’, not obesity. The fact that we might have a population plagued by both ends of the dietary spectrum — too little food and too little nutritional food — could pose as a double whammy.
Diseases like diabetes and cancer have a strong correlation with obesity and both the illnesses are on the rise in this country. Awareness about the dangers of obesity is needed. Not only are we a society that is perilously apathetic about the nutritional quality of food that we consume, but we also do not have the luxury of falling back on a public healthcare system that works. Tackling malnutrition in 21st century India is difficult enough. Let’s not be oblivious to a new danger.