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Obesity Among South Asians

Aug/13/2023 / by Sweta Vikram

Measures to counter the new epidemic

South Asian woman in sports wear running outdoors with headphones around her neck
Photo via Shutterstock

A few days ago, I did a podcast interview with a host based in India. We had a fun conversation about Ayurveda, mindful living, creative writing, healthy lifestyle, and many other topics. Towards the end of the conversation, she asked if I had any suggestions for the young people in India to adopt a healthy lifestyle. She and I grew up in times where you rarely saw overweight people in India. But today, India is the third most obese country in the world after the United States and China. Now prevalence of obesity in India is 40.3%. Childhood obesity in India is likely to see an annual rise of 9.1% by 2035. 

Understanding Obesity in India

Families have more money and a variety of domestic help with house management, cooking and childcare. Better standards of living mean both adults and kids have access to materialistic comforts, which has translated to becoming inactive. 

The American-style malls, where kids hang out, offer unhealthy junk food and fast-food options, which are addictive but positioned as cool. Plus, South Asian culture is still focused on good gradesand physical health isn’t given as much importance. South Asians around the world put immense performance pressure on their children. In turn, the youth depend on social media and video games, instead of physical activity, to blow off steam.

My father’s driver in Pune told me that people are cooking less at home in India. There could be a plethora of reasons for that. It could be a show of affluence, boredom, paucity of time, or a shift in culture. Studies also show Indian men don’t help much at home, which means most of the burden falls on the women. They go to work, take care of the home, offer caregiving to the elderly, bring up children, and a million other things. They might not always have the time to cook. 

A Much-Needed Paradigm Shift for South Asians

You may be thinking why should you care about the rise of obesity in India if you don’t live there? Here’s the thing. According to the National Library of Medicine, South Asians, in general, have higher body fat and lower skeletal muscle mass at the same or lower BMIs. This means South Asian populations in general are more prone to obesity. While obesity in India is on the rise, it doesn’t just impact the urban well-to-do populace. Researchers have found that obesity is a serious problem in Indian villages too where majority of the country’s population lives. We are all vulnerable.

Life in the U.S. is extremely demanding with little to no help, which means you might be making choices that aren’t conducive to your health. For instance, you may be ordering in take-out often. Going for a stroll in the park while cribbing about the in-laws doesn’t count towards exercising. Playing golf and following it up with a beer brunch isn’t a representation of balanced life. Watching newscasters scream on television and spewing political and religious hatred at 11pm is damaging for anyone’s mental wellbeing. Sending forwarded messages on WhatsApp at 1am and waking up sleep-deprived is doing more damage to your digestion and sleep than you realize. Our mind and bodies are connected.

Steps to Counter Obesity

Importance of Movement

Sedentary lifestyle contributes immensely to obesity. Be it rain, or snowstorm or heat wave, make your daily 10,000 steps non-negotiable. In Ayurveda, there is the concept of shatpavali. It’s basically defined as walking 100 steps after every meal. This stroll is proven to do magic for digestion. Instead of using the elevators, use the stairs (unless you have a knee or ankle issue). Take a yoga class or join the gym.

Cooking At Home

Eighty percent of the body is made in the kitchen. You can have the best exercise schedule in place or access to the swankiest gym, but if you eat unhealthy, weight gain will be inevitable. Frequently choosing to eat out versus at home has become a symbol of wealth for many people.

Shortage of time is a legitimate reason to not cook at home. Indian hospitality is centered around food and overfeeding so that adds to the stress. Try to simplify how you eat. Can you cook one-dish meals that don’t take much time but are packed with taste and nutrition? Think pasta packed with veggies (and animal protein if you eat meat) or khichdi with spices and veggies, or pulao, or any simple meal in the oven. 

Get Your Sleep Hygiene Together

Can you get in bed by 10pm? The later we are up, the more we tend to snack. The body doesn’t get the chance to clean out the toxins, heal, and replenish. Late nights, phone scrolling, TV watching can lead to excessive stress. Cortisol, our not-so-favorite stress hormone, can lead to weight gain.

The Impact of Obesity

According to WHO, too much body fat increases the risk of non-communicable diseases, including 13 types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart problems and lung conditions. Last year, obesity accounted for 2.8 million deaths globally.

Obesity is also linked as a factor in neurological condition such as Alzheimer’s disease. If existing health conditions or your DNA and genetics make you vulnerable to being overweight or obese, that’s a whole other conversation. But if that’s not the case, the small changes you make today will have a significant impact on the future of your health. 

“Shrinking someone’s stomach to the size of a walnut with surgery is one way to battle obesity and diabetes and may be lifesaving for a few, but it doesn’t address the underlying causes.” ~ Mark Hyman, M.D.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. The information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional. If you are looking for advice from a trained yogi and ayurvedic practitioner, contact the author here.

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