44 million women, 26 million men in India were obese in 2022: The Lancet

Obesity rates in country increased to 9.8% in 2022 from 1.2% in 1990 for women and to 5.4% for men from 0.5% 32 years ago

There were 70 million adults living with obesity in India in 2022, with almost twice the number of women than men, at 44 million and 26 million, respectively. In children aged 19 and under, 5.2 million girls and 7.3 million boys were obese, a global study published on February 29 in journal The Lancet noted. The study also found drastic increases in obesity rates compared to figures from 1990.

“Hormonal and biological changes that occur during menopause and pregnancy led to more obese women than men,” Dr. Guha Pradeepa, study co-author from the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, told Down to Earth (DTE), warning that obesity could increase cardiovascular risk factors and diabetes.

Across the world, obesity rates crossed the one billion mark, with 159 million children and adolescents and 879 million adults living with obesity in 2022.

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From 1990 to 2022, obesity rates among children and adolescents worldwide quadrupled and obesity rates among adults have more than doubled. In India, the obesity rates increased from 1.2 per cent in 1990 to 9.8 per cent in 2022 for women and 0.5 per cent to 5.4 per cent in 2022 for men.

The prevalence of obesity in India ranked 182nd highest in the world for women and 180th highest in the world for men in 2022, according to the study conducted by network of health scientists NCD Risk Factor Collaboration along with the World Health Organization.

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The researchers used population-based data from 197 countries. More than 1,500 researchers contributed to the study, which looked at body mass index (BMI) to understand how obesity and underweight have changed worldwide from 1990 to 2022. Adults were considered obese if they had a BMI greater than or equal to 30 kilogrammes per square metre (kg/m2) and underweight if their BMI was below 18.5kg/m2.

Over the period between 1990 and 2022, rates of underweight fell among children, adolescents and adults, leading to obesity becoming the most common form of malnutrition in many countries, the paper said. In 1990, underweight was more prevalent than obesity in adults in several countries, but the trend has reversed.

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The same was true for India and reflected in the estimates. The underweight rate decreased from 41.7 per cent in 1990 to 13.7 per cent in 2022 for women and 39.8 per cent to 12.5 per cent in 2022 for men. The country had 61 million underweight women and 58 million underweight men in 1990.

For adolescents and children, the underweight rate in India decreased from 27.3 per cent in 1990 to 20.3 per cent in 2022 for girls and 45.1 per cent to 21.7 per cent in 2022 for boys.

Despite this fall, the prevalence of underweight in India ranked highest in the world for girls with 35 million underweight girls and second highest in the world for boys with 42 million boys in 2022.

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The researchers underlined the urgency of economic and agricultural policies that tackle poverty and improve food security. “There is an urgent need for programmes that enhance healthy nutrition, such as targeted cash transfers, food assistance as subsidies or vouchers for healthy foods, free healthy school meals and primary care-based nutritional interventions,” they said.

The shifting of the double disease burden from underweight-dominated to obesity-dominated, particularly with the age of obesity striking adults decreasing, was attributed to two reasons: Eating away from home and access to processed foods increased in school-aged children, adolescents and adults over three decades as well as the reduced burning of calories due to the mechanisation of work and transport.

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The researchers highlighted the “need for obesity prevention, supporting weight loss and reducing disease risk (via the treatment of the mediators of its hazards, such as hypertension and hypercholesterolemia) in those with obesity. Prevention and management are especially important because the age of onset of obesity has decreased, which increases the duration of exposure.”

Pradeepa, told DTE, “Obesity is a public health concern that needs to be addressed through policies that prohibit the advertising of sugar-sweetened beverages; restrict and regulate the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods to children; and insist on more clear nutrition labelling.”

“Limited accessibility to healthy foods and few opportunities for play and sports leads to inequalities in obesity treatment. While individuals can pursue a healthy lifestyle on their own, the government has to provide community space to exercise and walk. Without which, there could be a limit to the impact of policies that target unhealthy foods,” Pradeepa added.

Importantly, the paper also highlighted there are no generalised clinical guidelines to treat obesity as it varies between organisations and countries. Without established guidelines, new pharmacological treatments of obesity being evaluated are likely to have a low impact globally in the short term.

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