The obesity epidemic is accepted far and wide as laying the groundwork for a major global health crisis in the near future. Obesity tends to be identified with wealthy countries, such as the United States. However, it also has a pronounced effect on the developing world too, where 115 million people suffer from obesity-related health problems, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This is despite the fact that poorer countries house 98% of the world’s 795 million people who go hungry. India is caught in this paradoxical situation.
A study published in the Lancet earlier this year reported that India has 30 million obese people – the third highest number in the world, trailing China and the U.S. The three countries collectively account for 28% of the world’s obese people.
India currently ranks fifth in terms of obese men, with 9.8 million, and third in terms of obese women, with 20 million. Numbers have multiplied exponentially since 1975, when India had 800,000 obese women and 400,000 obese men., The Obesity Foundation India predicts that this figure will double in the next five years.
The number of obese people is relatively small when taken as a percentage of India’s billion-plus population. The CIA World Factbook calculates an obesity prevalence rate of 4.7% in India’s adult population, compared to 35% for the U.S.
The small proportion should not engender complacency in addressing the issue. India’s obese adults may seem to constitute a small fraction of its people. Some might even question a focus on obesity in a country which ranks near the bottom of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) and has the highest number of underweight people in the world.
The health effects of obesity are well documented, however. They include a higher risk of several types of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and dying young. If India’s 30 million obese are added to the millions already in dire need of treatment for conditions including HIV, malaria, pneumonia and tuberculosis, India’s heavily burdened, understaffed and underfunded healthcare system cannot be expected to be cope.