New Delhi, Oct. 29: Diabetologist Anoop Misra has taken on a tall order — coaxing thousands of teenagers to replace their colas with coconut water, their pizza with sprouts and their ice cream with fruit salad.
Misra is going to lead a team of doctors and nutritionists who will spend the next three years visiting 30 schools in New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra to set in motion a campaign to change food habits among children and adolescents in India.
Through lectures, interactive discussions and pamphlets that highlight how to eat well and even how to cook well, the project will seek to stem what appears to be a growing epidemic of obesity among urban Indian teenagers.
Studies in recent years have shown that obesity levels in urban children between 14 and 18 years of age vary from 16 to 22 per cent. One study, two years ago, had revealed that 28 per cent of teenagers show insulin resistance, a signature of “syndrome-X”, a condition in which a person displays multiple risk factors.
“This 28 per cent is a strikingly high figure for young people,” said Misra, the principal investigator of the obesity prevention project. “Syndrome-X is a condition that is just one step away from diabetes and two steps away from heart disease.”
The obesity prevention project is aimed at reaching out to some 50,000 children and their parents and teachers in the three cities. “We’re trying to establish a model that could be replicated elsewhere in the country where obesity is a problem,” Misra said.
Several studies have suggested that growing levels of obesity among young people will spawn epidemics of diabetes and heart disease among people in their 40s and 50s, leading to massive health care costs and loss in productivity.
A recent study by doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, has shown that saturated fat is the most important dietary constituent associated with high levels of a substance called C reactive protein — which is a reliable predictor of heart disease in young adults. The study prompted doctors to suggest that saturated fat intake should be less than 7 per cent of daily calorie intake.
“We can’t blame western food alone,” said Daya Kishore Hazra, a doctor in Agra, and member of the project team. “Cooking practices and food habits have changed in India. Traditional fibre-rich foods have given way to refined and fat-filled foods.”
“Most parents do not have correct knowledge or the time to educate children. Healthy snacks are not prepared at home. Parents and teachers are themselves overweight or obese and indulge in unhealthy eating,” said Misra, an adviser to the National Diabetes Control Programme.
Doctors participating in the obesity prevention pro- ject will spend up to four months in each of the select- ed schools, discussing the virtues of fibre, fruits and vegetables, and getting rid of fat, as well as suggest ways to facilitate lifestyle changes.
“It isn’t going to be easy. Some studies outside India suggest that once food habits are ingrained, it is quite difficult to change them,” said Misra. “But even if five in a hundred children move away from the track of obesity, we would be happy.”
Under the obesity prevention project, doctors will also collect information about eating habits and the height and weight of several thousand adolescents, allowing a more refined assessment of the obesity problem in north India.