26/03/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Obesity Takes An Extra Toll On Indian Women

Lee Bennett/Flickr

US President Barack Obama touched a nerve when he raised concerns about the worldwide epidemic of obesity. During a joint radio address in India on 27 January 2015 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he expressed interest in partnering with countries working on issues related to health and lifestyle.

According to a WHO study, the worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, with scales tipping slightly more towards women. Supporting the same conclusion, another study by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) and the National Institute of Nutrition stated that prevalence of truncal and abdominal obesity in India is significantly higher in women. With more than 23% of women in urban India either overweight or obese, it is no wonder that India is catching up with US and China to be the third most obese country in the world.

Add those numbers to lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol that are hitting every second woman in metropolitan cities of India and it seems like Indian women are piling on the pounds faster than men. Overweight women run a higher risk of health problems and disability, and those risks rise sharply when overweight becomes obese.

"For most Indian women, health is never a priority. Indian wives, more often than not, are encouraged to put the health of their families first, and others' needs above their own."

For the longest time, roundness in India had been a sign of prosperity and good health. Having a paunch meant you were well-loved and cared for or prosperous enough to afford a lot of good food. That connotation is now under serious scrutiny thanks to a string of studies that have consistently warned us of the rising rates of obesity in India, especially amongst women.

When you stand in front of the mirror, cursing the extra kilos you've put on, understand that obesity isn't just about your inability to squeeze into your favourite dress. It's a multi-faceted and highly complex medical condition. The terms 'overweight' and 'obese' describe weight ranges that are above what is medically accepted as healthy. A sobering topic that is now very much a growing concern in our country, obesity arises from lifestyle habits that are slowly backfiring on the bodies of Indian women.

There are a number of factors that pre-dispose Indian women to obesity--sedentary behaviour, imbalanced diets, postpartum weight gain and other lifestyle choices. For most Indian women, health is never a priority. Indian wives, more often than not, are encouraged to put the health of their families first, and others' needs above their own. In this chaos of managing a family, most Indian women tend to simply push aside their own health. For working women, work pressure and stress add up and exacerbate a damaging lifestyle. Despite managing multiple roles, it's ironical that many constantly ignore their own well-being. According to a survey by ICICI Lombard, only 39% of women are covered by health insurance. Additionally, for most women in India, health takes a backseat after pregnancy and childbirth. It is no surprise then that women in the 35+ age group are the most overweight or obese.

"Did you know that prolonged low-grade stress is a major contributing factor for the increasing health problems of Indian women?"

We're all too familiar with our grandmothers and mothers reminding us that no matter how stuffed we might be, we still have room to pack in more food. That, coupled with the barrage of fast-food 'family friendly' restaurants that have cropped up at every imaginable corner, and you've got the perfect unhealthy recipe. That's not it. Did you know that prolonged low-grade stress is a major contributing factor for the increasing health problems of Indian women? Not to mention the long sedentary hours on the couches at home or at office desks, accompanied by deep-fried snacks.

A huge threat in itself, being overweight or obese has also been tied to a greater risk of health problems. Compared to people with a healthy weight, obese and overweight women have an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. They also run a higher risk of being diagnosed with menstrual disorders, knee osteoarthritis and lower back pain. Grappling with weight management could also pose psychological problems that not only affect eating habits but also lead to insomnia and depression. Obese women are also at higher risk for multiple cancers, including breast cancer, cervical cancer, endometrial cancer, and perhaps ovarian cancer. Of the 40,000-odd women who visit VLCC Centres every month, hardly 30% are even aware of an underlying medical condition: high BP, high cholesterol, hypertension, PCOS, gall stones or even diabetes.

Grim reports and scary numbers aside, obesity can be controlled with a few easy and preventive steps. Making your home as healthy as possible is perhaps the easiest thing to do. Focus on yourself and your family, opt for healthy food choices and make your home a place where healthy behaviours are followed by habit. Reduce screen time at home and opt for stepping outside the house for entertainment. Make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Exercise is not only good for weight loss, but it also serves as a great stress buster!

So, when you notice those extra pounds piling up, instead of visiting the tailor to loosen that extra inch, try heading to a nutrition expert for a consult. Recognising obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue. It's about time we stopped tiptoeing around the size issue and kidding ourselves that obesity is not one of the biggest health problems women face. We need to tackle it for the global epidemic it's starting to become.

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