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.





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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.