Defusing the ticking time bomb called diabetes
In June 2023, a joint study by the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the Union Health Ministry unveiled a concerning reality – 11.4% of India’s population, roughly 10.13 crore people, grapple with diabetes, while an additional 13.6 crore individuals, constituting 15.3% of the population, are pre-diabetic. Furthermore, 28.6% of the population falls into the category of obesity as per Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements.
Examine the critical health challenges posed by diabetes, pre-diabetes, and obesity in India as highlighted by recent research findings, and discuss the role of ultra-processed foods in exacerbating these issues. How can policy interventions address this growing public health concern? (150 words)
Dimensions of the Article:
- The Ultra-Processed Foods
- Obesity, Diabetes, and Their Cascading Impact
- The Food Industry’s Role
- The Urgent Need for Policy and Regulation
- The Call for Legal Framework
The Ultra-Processed Foods:
- The consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages stands out as a major culprit in the rising diabetes and obesity rates. These products, including carbonated drinks, instant cereals, snacks, sugary beverages, and more, are aggressively marketed, often overshadowing traditional diets.
- Scientific evidence underscores the health risks associated with diets rich in ultra-processed foods, notably their potential to lead to diabetes.
- A mere 10% increase in daily ultra-processed food consumption elevates the risk of type-2 diabetes in adults by 15%.
- The damaging effects of ultra-processing lie in its ability to distort the structure of food while introducing cosmetic additives, colors, and flavors that encourage overeating, weight gain, and ultimately elevate the risk of diabetes and other chronic ailments.
Obesity, Diabetes, and Their Cascading Impact:
- Obesity and diabetes represent not just individual health issues but also significant risk factors for heart diseases and mortality. Research has linked excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods, especially sugar-sweetened beverages, to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular mortality.
- This situation underscores the severity of the public health crisis and its potential to deteriorate further if not addressed promptly and effectively.
The Food Industry’s Role:
- The food industry, faced with declining sales of sugar-sweetened beverages in high-income countries, has shifted its focus to low- and middle-income countries like India.
- Billions of rupees are poured into marketing and advertising these unhealthy products, contributing to increased consumption, particularly among vulnerable populations. While the food industry tends to blame individuals for making poor dietary choices, it is the pervasive marketing environment that often dictates consumption patterns.
- This aggressive marketing, targeting the younger generation and the burgeoning middle class, makes it challenging for individuals to make healthy food choices. Additionally, tactics such as the use of cartoon characters, incentives, gifts, and celebrity endorsements heavily influence the dietary decisions of children.
The Urgent Need for Policy and Regulation:
- In light of the escalating public health crisis, policy and regulatory actions are imperative. However, the food industry resists restrictions on marketing, often proposing partnerships and citing economic development as ‘stakeholders.’
- These partnerships hinder the implementation of robust regulations that could curtail the consumption of ultra-processed foods and beverages. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s response to the crisis has been tepid, with slow progress on the introduction of front-of-package labeling.
- While physical activity is important for health, it must complement regulatory policies aimed at restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages and incorporating warning labels on such products.
The Call for Legal Framework:
- To shield the public from the manipulative tactics of the food industry, a legal framework, or even an ordinance (Article 123 of the Constitution), is imperative. Such legislation should focus on reducing or halting the consumption of ultra-processed foods and can include defining ‘healthy food,’ mandating warning labels on unhealthy products, and placing restrictions on the promotion and marketing of these items.
- Ensuring public awareness of the risks associated with such foods is a crucial element of this process. Importantly, this endeavor need not involve partnering with the food industry, which bears responsibility for public health challenges.
- Effective Regulation: The government must consider implementing legal measures that prioritize public health over commercial interests. South Africa, Norway, and Mexico have taken similar actions, setting an example for India.
- Public Awareness: Launching public awareness campaigns to educate individuals about the health risks of ultra-processed foods and the benefits of a balanced diet is vital.
The recent revelations about the prevalence of diabetes, pre-diabetes, and obesity in India underscore the urgent need for intervention. Ultra-processed foods and aggressive marketing strategies by the food industry play a significant role in this health crisis. Policy and regulatory actions, including legal measures, can help curb the consumption of unhealthy foods and safeguard public health. This is an opportune moment for India to take decisive action and demonstrate its commitment to the well-being of its citizens.