Childhood obesity is a growing health concern in the world, especially in India. The World Health Organization (WHO) has termed childhood obesity as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. According to Narayana Health, India has the second-highest number of children suffering from obesity in the world, with 14.4 million obese kids. With its worrying upward trend and serious health implications, it is important to immediately shift focus towards it.
Addressing this issue is the documentary ‘What are we feeding our kids?’ in which doctor and medical researcher Dr Chris van Tulleken takes us through his month-long experiment of eating ultra-processed food and reveals its impact on children’s developing bodies. He explains how its consumption could alter the way a child’s body and brain works.
In conversation with indianexpress.com, Dr Tulleken defined obesity as a disease caused by ultra-processed food just like cancer is caused by tobacco. “Around the world, I feel, it is a more serious concern than coronavirus.”
“It a huge concern because of three reasons. Firstly, child obesity, at the moment, is incurable. Children do not lose weight and become healthy. They become adults with overweight who end up having enormously expensive chronic health problems. They live a difficult life as their physical and mental health suffer. This is also a huge problem economically because as children suffer, their education suffers too. Lastly, it is very bad for the environment because we cut down tropical forests to grow palm trees to make oil, and for other resources. So, it’s very damaging for the planet,” he added.
“Obesity also goes hand in hand with malnutrition. Many children who are overweight are also suffering from diseases that you normally associate with not eating enough food. Ultra-processed foods are very low in nutritional content,” he said.
Dr Tulleken revealed that while working on the documentary, he realised that ultra-processed food is the only reason for childhood obesity. “Any food that is marketed in plastic packets and has ingredients you don’t have in your kitchen is ultra-processed food. These foods surround us, certainly in the UK and increasingly in India as well. They are designed to be over-eaten.”
While it is widely believed that other lifestyle factors such as exercise also play a key role in childhood obesity, Dr Tulleken disagreed.
“Though exercise is very good for children, lack of exercise is not the reason for obesity. Food is the only reason for it. These food companies, very deliberately, aggressively market and sell foods that are designed to make you fat and are very unhealthy.”
Obesity is not just a childhood health issue but also leads to increased health concerns during adulthood. Type 2 diabetes, joint pain, increased risk of cancer and heart attack, depression and digestive problems are some of the common ways childhood obesity manifests itself during adult years. “Almost every known medical problem is made worse by obesity,” he said.
Obesity could, further, also hamper children’s mental growth. “These children not only find it difficult to sleep but also difficult to learn. The food has no nutrition in it so they don’t perform well. They also get badly treated and bullied by their peers, leading to poor mental health,” Dr explained.
With ultra-processed foods at the heart of obesity, a well-balanced healthy diet is essential to prevent obesity, according to Dr Tulleken. He said, “In India, a traditional Indian diet is very healthy consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses, grains, rice etc. It doesn’t matter if there is fat, oil or salt. The new western breads, cereals, candy bars, flavoured yoghurts, chips and convenience meals among others should be avoided.”
“Anything that your grandmother must have made is good. Traditional food is healthy for you. It is the replacement of Indian food culture with a corporate food culture that will drive ill-health. Ultra-processed foods are not really food, it’s just edible junk,” he concluded.
The documentary ‘What are we feeding our kids?‘ premieres on October 4 at 8 pm on Sony BBC Earth.