Hidden Hunger

Middle class children in Delhi are fat – and undernourished

By eating junk food, children are putting on calories but not gaining enough vitamins and minerals. Delhi is the child obesity capital of India.

In West Delhi, he goes by the name of Pepsi Kunal. Asking for Kunal might get you raised eyebrows, but prefix it with "Pepsi", and you will see eyes light up in recollection of the energetic man who walks in with an entourage of delivery boys unloading a truck full of Pepsi bottles. "Ah, Pepsi Kunal, of course!"

Kunal has been working with the logistics and supply team of the beverage company Pepsi for more than 20 years. From mega PR events to religious ceremonies, temple functions, jagrans or fancy birthday parties, he is the man summoned to supply stacks of Pepsi's aerated soft drinks.

Not only does Kunal swear by the goodness of the Pepsi, ever since his son Akash was born, it's the diet that he has fed him, second only to milk. As Akash grew up, he would typically fuss about eating breakfast, until a nonchalant Kunal would tell his wife to stop pushing the child. With the wave of a hand, he would say, "Chal koi nahin beta, Pepsi pi le." (No worry, son, drink Pepsi).

Akash is now a 15-year-old junk food addict and suffers from acute childhood obesity, weighing nearly 60 kilos.

He studies in a private school which closes for the day well before the government school where his mother teaches physics and mathematics. Coming home early, he pulls out a Rs 50 note from the household money stashed in the kitchen and runs down to the roadside dhaba to eat a greasy meal of dal makhni and butter naan, or paneer cutlets or rolls, or chowmein or aloo tikki, depending on his mood.

"I have told him not to switch on the gas stove when I am not home," explains his mother. "Since we don't have a microwave, I have to let him eat hot food outside."

Public health challenge

The World Health Organisation classifies childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, affecting the urban areas of low and middle income countries. Within India, Delhi tops the charts as the metro city with the largest number of obese children.

A survey released last year by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India on childhood obesity has claimed that one in every 10 schoolchildren in the National Capital Region between the age of 13 and 16 is overweight and therefore at risk of developing heart diseases.

“About 35% of the parents give Rs 40-Rs 100 to their children to buy food from school canteens and around 51% of the children spend Rs 30-Rs 50 on pastas and noodles, which could be building up to cause obesity,” the survey said.

Obesity is part of India's nutrition crisis. The International Food Policy and Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index, released in October 2014, while commending India for reducing the number of malnourished children by 13 percentage points between 2005-'06 and 2013-'14, draws attention to the prevalence of "hidden hunger" in the country in the form of severe vitamin and mineral deficiency.

An obese child also suffers from undernourishment due to wrong eating habits, the report says. "Hidden hunger is often hard to detect," it states, "but is potentially devastating, as it weakens the immune system, stunts physical and intellectual growth, and can lead to death."

The nutritionist

When Akash was in class eight, during one of his regular visits to his paediatrician at Paschim Vihar, he was referred to nutritionist Dr Manika Gupta, who has been treating young patients for 25 years, but has never been in greater demand.

"We develop taste. We are not born with it,” said Gupta, her voice rising above the sound of a whirring fan in her cool shady ground floor apartment in West Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh. The youngest patients she consults come with wobbly heads at six months of age. When their growth charts are traced, some babies show alarming weight gain tendencies. Even then, parents rarely consider it a problem. It is only when the monthly check-ups show the child’s body mass index as abnormally high that they are referred to Gupta.

“The stomach is like a sack," said Gupta. "The more you feed it, the more it stretches, making the child consume beyond its means.”

Gupta regularly sees babies weighing 6-7 kilos who are being fed large quantities of milk and processed foods amounting to more than 1,000 kilo calories a day. That's the calorie requirement of a child, usually one-year-old, who weighs 10 kilos.

The toughest part of Gupta's job is changing the-fatter-my-baby-the-better mindset that makes parents feed their baby at every given chance. The side effects might not show right away but the excessive feeding forces a child’s appetite to expand more than what the body needs. Years of consuming extra calories lays the ground for obesity and related illnesses. India is the world’s diabetic capital with 62 million people suffering from the disease.

Changing habits

The first step to stem the obesity tide is to change food habits. This is easiest done with babies. With adolescents, it gets tougher since it requires their cooperation and pro-active participation, both of which are difficult to win.

When I walked in one hot March afternoon to meet Akash and broached a conversation on food, he straightened his slouching body, looked up from his TV and disclaimed with some boredom, “I hate junk food.” His mother is clear that she has neither time to whip up fresh salads and juices for him nor the resources to hire cooking help. She is busy coaching Akash for the next three crucial years of high school as he enters his tenth grade. “I am thinking once he completes school, he will be more independent and can join a gym and easily lose weight. Don’t you think?” she asked, eager for reassurance.

Gupta claims that about 10% of her young patients refuse to put in the effort required to shake off bad habits. But the rest, she says, are keen to go the whole mile. Once they understand that a change in sedentary lifestyle is the cure, parents drive their kids for swimming lessons, aerobics, tennis coaching and karate classes to help them burn calories.

But in a city of extreme income inequality such as New Delhi, not everybody can afford this. Recent studies in America argue that obesity and poverty are linked. Poor American families depend heavily on processed foods that are low in nutritive value and cheaper to purchase. Finding extra-curricular activities for their children unaffordable, they are unable to mitigate the side effects of sedentary lifestyles. India might soon be catching up this trend.

A half-way solution, said Gupta, could lie in getting the food industry to produce vitamin fortified food. "The children are not going to stop eating junk food," she said. "The least we can do is make it more healthy to consume." What happens then if Lays makes multivitamin enriched chips? And Coca Cola makes an iron fortified Pepsi? It’s a moot question.

As I leave Akash's home, he is negotiating his snack menu with his mother. It is a tug-of-war between what he wants – the neighborhood chaat wala’s aloo papdi chaat – and his mother's suggestion of something homemade. While she sees me out, Akash shouts from the balcony, “Mummy please yaar, na meri na aapki, ek plate alu tikki la do!” (Mummy, neither of us wins, please get me a place of alu tikki!)



Some names have been changed to protect identities.


This is the second part in a series on the crisis of hunger among Delhi's children. The other stories can be read here


Shriya Mohan is a media fellow of the National Foundation for India and Save the Children and is researching urban malnutrition in Delhi.





Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

A special shade of blue inspired these musicians to create a musical piece

Thanks to an interesting neurological condition called synesthesia.

On certain forums on the Internet, heated discussions revolve around the colour of number 9 or the sound of strawberry cupcake. And most forum members mount a passionate defence of their points of view on these topics. These posts provide insight into a lesser known, but well-documented, sensory condition called synesthesia - simply described as the cross wiring of the senses.

Synesthetes can ‘see’ music, ‘taste’ paintings, ‘hear’ emotions...and experience other sensory combinations based on their type. If this seems confusing, just pay some attention to our everyday language. It’s riddled with synesthesia-like metaphors - ‘to go green with envy’, ‘to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth’, ‘loud colours’, ‘sweet smells’ and so on.

Synesthesia is a deeply individual experience for those who have it and differs from person to person. About 80 different types of synesthesia have been discovered so far. Some synesthetes even have multiple types, making their inner experience far richer than most can imagine.

Most synesthetes vehemently maintain that they don’t consider their synesthesia to be problem that needs to be fixed. Indeed, synesthesia isn’t classified as a disorder, but only a neurological condition - one that scientists say may even confer cognitive benefits, chief among them being a heightened sense of creativity.

Pop culture has celebrated synesthetic minds for centuries. Synesthetic musicians, writers, artists and even scientists have produced a body of work that still inspires. Indeed, synesthetes often gravitate towards the arts. Eduardo is a Canadian violinist who has synesthesia. He’s, in fact, so obsessed with it that he even went on to do a doctoral thesis on the subject. Eduardo has also authored a children’s book meant to encourage latent creativity, and synesthesia, in children.

Litsa, a British violinist, sees splashes of paint when she hears music. For her, the note G is green; she can’t separate the two. She considers synesthesia to be a fundamental part of her vocation. Samara echoes the sentiment. A talented cellist from London, Samara can’t quite quantify the effect of synesthesia on her music, for she has never known a life without it. Like most synesthetes, the discovery of synesthesia for Samara was really the realisation that other people didn’t experience the world the way she did.

Eduardo, Litsa and Samara got together to make music guided by their synesthesia. They were invited by Maruti NEXA to interpret their new automotive colour - NEXA Blue. The signature shade represents the brand’s spirit of innovation and draws on the legacy of blue as the colour that has inspired innovation and creativity in art, science and culture for centuries.

Each musician, like a true synesthete, came up with a different note to represent the colour. NEXA roped in Indraneel, a composer, to tie these notes together into a harmonious composition. The video below shows how Sound of NEXA Blue was conceived.

Play

You can watch Eduardo, Litsa and Samara play the entire Sound of NEXA Blue composition in the video below.

Play

To know more about NEXA Blue and how the brand constantly strives to bring something exclusive and innovative to its customers, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.