More than 43 lakh children in the 0-5 age group were identified as obese or overweight last month, accounting for around 6% of the total children surveyed at Anganwadi centres across the country, according to official data.
The data collected from the government-run rural childcare centres also showed that the percentage of obese or overweight children was almost the same as that of severely and moderately malnourished children found in Anganwadis, which is 6%.
Out of the 7,24,56,458 children “measured” in the 0-5 years age category, approximately 6% or 43,47,387 children, were classified as obese or overweight, showed the data collated from the growth monitoring app ‘Poshan Tracker’.
Thirteen States and Union Territories, including Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal, exhibit obesity rates surpassing the national average of 6%, it showed.
Childhood obesity has exhibited a concerning upward trend in recent years.
There has been a notable increase in the percentage of children under five years of age who are overweight in NFHS-5 compared to NFHS-4, according to data from the NHFS-4 (2015-16) and the NFHS-5 (2019-21).
Before the 'Poshan Tracker', started in 2021, data was collected under the National Family Health Survey (NFHS).
In the NFHS-5, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir recorded the highest percentages of overweight children under five years of age, followed closely by Sikkim and Tripura. In contrast, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Andhra Pradesh reported the lowest percentages of overweight children under five years of age.
Every State, except Tamil Nadu and Goa, has witnessed an increase in the percentage of overweight children under five years of age in the NFHS-5 when compared to the NFHS-4, according to data from the surveys.
A global study published by the World Obesity Federation recently showed that childhood obesity is a grave concern worldwide, and India is no exception. The study warned that if not addressed promptly, childhood obesity in India could see an annual rise of 9.1 per cent by 2035.
The study pointed out that the risk of obesity for boys in India may surge from 3% in 2020 to 12% within the next 12 years. For girls, the risk, which was at 2% in 2020, may rise to 7% over the same period.
It is also estimated that around 11% of the Indian population will be obese by 2035, with an annual increase in adult obesity projected to be around 5.2 per cent between 2020 and 2035.
The study suggested that continued failure to address and manage obesity could result in a global economic impact of USD 4.32 trillion by 2035, equivalent to nearly 3% of the global GDP. The report indicated that the likely impact on India's national GDP will be close to 1.8%.
CEO of child rights organisation CRY Puja Marwaha has identified several key factors contributing to rising childhood obesity in India. These include shifting to unbalanced diets, increased consumption of highly processed and packaged foods and a sedentary lifestyle that limits the burning of excess calories.
She also underscored the shift in children’s dietary patterns, especially in urban and semi-urban settings.
Ms. Marwaha noted that the purchase of marketed snacks is increasingly influenced by children’s preferences, leading them to consume fast foods and sugary drinks, accumulating empty calories that their sedentary lifestyle does not allow them to burn off.
Highlighting another major contributor to dietary imbalance, she said that micronutrients are disappearing from the diet of the poor as traditional kitchen gardens are replaced by cash crops in villages.
She stressed that the cost of nutritious vegetables, fruits, and protein sources has become unaffordable for many low-income families.
When asked about how to tackle obesity, Ms. Marwaha said like other behavioural issues among children, addressing childhood obesity must begin with proper parenting. Raising awareness among parents about what constitutes a balanced diet is crucial.
Ms. Marwaha pointed out that in urban areas, children often consume minimal fresh vegetables and fruits, and working parents may resort to offering junk food to ensure proper behaviour in their absence.
This trend is not limited to urban areas, as even in rural settings, where both parents work as daily wage earners, children are sometimes given inexpensive packets of potato chips for lunch, she said.
Dr Jyoti Kapoor, founder and director of Manasthali, said obese children face an elevated risk of developing various health problems, including Type-2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea. These conditions can have immediate and long-term consequences on a child’s quality of life and life expectancy.
Ms. Kapoor noted that childhood obesity often persists into adulthood, further increasing the risk of chronic health conditions and early mortality.