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Monday, May 16, 2011

India's bane-malnutrition, America's pain- obesity..

India's bane is malnutrition. America's pain is obesity. The United States is home to the heaviest people in the world. India has the most undernourished populace. Between these broad generalisations lie stories, heartening and disheartening, of changing culinary mores and dietary habits tied to income and awareness, tradition and modernity.

Let's take the US first. A staggering one-third of American adults are now considered obese. Obesity among adults has increased by 60 per cent within the past 20 years and trebled among children in the past 30 years. Obesity-related deaths have climbed to more than 3, 00, 000 a year, second only to tobacco-related deaths. The fat are truly in the line of fire. Corpulent folk are huffing their way to join smokers in the public doghouse.

The reasons for US "fat-ricide" aren't far to seek - it's close to the couch. It was on supine display last weekend on Super Bowl Sunday when Americans were reported to have consumed an average of 2, 769 calories - more than a day's requirement - in a single four-hour sitting. A hundred million pounds of chicken wings, thirty million slices of pizza, 25 million pounds of chips and pop corn, 8 million pounds of guacamole and other dips, all went down the hatch, washed down with copious amounts of beer and wine. Burp re burp.

Okay, so it was an exceptional day, next only to Thanksgiving in terms of gluttony. But American daily habits aren't any better. A sedentary lifestyle topped with fastfood, microwave dinners, grub that is refined, processed, packaged, preserved, and replete with salt, sugar/starch, hydrogenated oils, and preservatives, is the norm. Fewer Americans cook than ever before;fast-food and take-out are mainstream;and food is manufactured, distributed, and sold on an industrial scale.

Urban India is following suit. Shining India is now dining out India. Fast food restaurants, supermarkets lined with packaged foods, sedentary lifestyle...heard that before? We are embracing the American lifestyle with much the same ardour - and results. Worse. Because while the American routine is inviting heart disease, hypertension, diabetes etc, turns out we Indians are genetically pre-disposed to these diseases, even without the excesses. (Meanwhile, Americans indulged in a feeding frenzy for a day on Super Bowl Sunday;we'll do it over the next several weeks during World Cup Cricket. )

The sorry part here is that the poor and the underprivileged of America are the biggest victims of this obesity epidemic - unlike in India, where it is the rich and ignorant who are waddling down this route. Fat accomplices come from poor states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Blacks have 51 per cent higher prevalence of obesity, and Hispanics have 21 per cent higher, compared with whites. That's because mass-manufactured fast food and packaged food distributed on an industrial scale is the cheapest. Fresh food is hideously expensive in comparison.

So relatively wealthy Americans, homing in to locally grown, organic foods, are hung up on healthy, even as the nouveau riche in India (and the poor in America) are on the fast track to obesity. Rich Americans are now discovering exotic, fibre-filled, nutrient-rich grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi) - grains which much of India has forsaken because they are considered food of the poor. In the US, local farmers' markets are flourishing, patronised by progressive, enlightened, and typically welloff Americans. More and more Indians are lining up before McDonalds, Pizza Hut and sundry fast food haunts on their march to portly prosperity.

All these developments come at a time when a number of studies have shown that eating sparingly can extend life span and slow down aging. In fact, while there are gluttonous Americans who consume 6, 000 calories a day, some rich faddists have dropped down to a 600 calorie intake in search of eternal youth. In India though, prosperity is still linked to eating copiously. Food security is two square meals (do waqt ka khana) a day.

But health experts are unanimous that between too much food and too little, both of questionable nutrient value, India is now an unhealthy country. The poor are battling malnutrition as their traditional diets based on nutrient-rich whole grains and fresh vegetables are being upturned. The rich are courting lifestyle diseases such as heart attacks and diabetes by imitating Western habits and eating poor quality food. A recent World Bank report noted that eliminating heart disease, diabetes and other noncommunicable illnesses could add between 4 per cent and 10 per cent to India's GDP. Alas, we seem intent on producing a different kind of Gross Domestic Product.

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