I have been fascinated by Manuel Uribe’s story. For those of you who don’t know, Manuel Uribe is currently the heaviest man in the world, but is well on his way to losing weight having already lost half his body weight. I figured I’d see how obesity is in India, and found a table on Wikipedia that ranks the prevalence of obesity by state:
So Kerala, the state where my parents come from, ranks at #2. Punjab is #1. Goa rounds out the top #3…no pun intended. So why is this the case?
I’m not a nutritionist, and I’m not an expert on all the dietary habits of the people in each of these states, but I will try to draw some reasonable conclusions.
I love Indian food, that’s the understatement of the year. India is itself a culinary amalgam of different spices and styles. From the richer, dairy-heavy dishes of the north to the comparatively simpler, but no less flavorful dishes from the south, India is full of great cooking. Indians, also, have a genetic tendency to deposit fat around the waist. Yet India, like the rest of the world, is caught up in this need to urbanize and forego traditional physical activity obtained through biking or walking. Some areas are growing faster than others, and maybe that’s why some waistlines are growing faster than others.
So what makes the top few states special? Let me try to break it down as best I can. Punjab (God bless them and their awesome food) is home to possibly the richest food in India. Everything’s steeped in cream and clarified butter (known as ghee), and while that makes that unspeakably delicious, it also sets people up nicely for extensive weight gain. Combine that with less physical activity and voila! Obesity!
Now, my home state, Kerala. Ok I wasn’t born there, but it’s from where my ancestors hail. Kerala, while being the most literate state in India, is the second most obese. Why? Here’s my guess, one word: coconut. Kerala, besides being “God’s own Country” is also the “Land of Coconuts,” and those coconuts are put to good use. Between the avial, mezhukkupuratti, uperi, puttu, and every other dish swimming in some combination of coconut oil and/or grated coconut, we have enough saturated fat to cause heart attacks every minute of everyday. Yet gone are the days of the farmers toiling in the paddyfields, the fishermen hauling in a fresh catch from coastal waters. Here are the days of driving to work, school, sitting around at home, and watching TV serials.
Can we reasonably eliminate all the foods causing this problem? No, it’s a part of our cultural heritage. Can we tweak things here and there to render them healthier? Yes. Our family uses olive oil in place of coconut oil for a lot of recipes, making for a much lower saturated fat content. In addition, we try to stay away from the fried things as much (although murukku and pakkavada are staples in Kerala). Likewise for dosa we use oil instead of ghee, just to spare us those extra fat calories. They’re still delicious. Same goes for any other Indian food, maybe substitute oil for ghee, and avoid (if not eradicate) fried foods from the diet. Exercise is key, cliche as it sounds. Indians may not be known for their athletic prowess (Russell Peter’s sketch comes to mind…) but hey, we do what we can. I love to dance, so that’s my physical activity of choice. Bhangra, bharatnatyam, whatever. Just get up and move.
It is ironic to consider that obesity is even present at all in India, given the image of a predominantly starving country. Yes, poverty is alive and well (unfortunately) and that is something that needs to be addressed. However, obesity is being overlooked, and with a growing middle class and a growing economy, obesity is bound to follow.