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Taller, fatter in Calcutta

The economic boom and the easy availability of packaged food combined with reduced levels of physical activity have made adolescents as well as adults more susceptible to obesity. A recent study based on school-going boys in Calcutta has thrown up some interesting facts: the average height, weight and body mass index (BMI) have increased over the last two decades, while stunting and thinness have declined. The findings were reported recently in the journal Economics and Human Biology.

India, along with many other countries, is experiencing a developmental transition, thanks to the new liberal economic policies of the early Nineties. So among other things urbanisation has rapidly spread, socio-economic disparity has increased and malnutrition and obesity coexist. The researchers predict that 20 per cent of Indian females and 16 per cent of males will be overweight by the year 2020. The incidence of chronic diseases, too, may rise, akin to the obesity and overweight levels in most western countries.

The researchers collected data during 1999-2002 from 1,187 boys in Calcutta’s Scottish Church Collegiate School which caters to students from predominantly middle class Bengali families. The boys were aged between seven and 16 years. A comparison was drawn with data from a previous Calcutta Growth Survey (1982-1983).

While the boys in the second survey were found to be taller and heavier than those in the first, it was also seen that the prevalence of the least educated group (below matriculate) declined greatly for both mothers and fathers. Also, mothers’ education had a significant effect on height, body weight and BMI. Maternal education was positively associated with physical growth and a decline in the prevalence of stunting and thinness. Another factor found to be strongly related with positive changes is family expenditure.

Information on dietary frequencies, especially the intake of protein foods, was also analysed in relation to the per capita family expenditure. It was seen that 50 per cent of the boys in the 1982-1983 survey consumed fish more than five days a week, while this was the case in only 8.8 per cent of the boys in the second survey. This indicated a marked overall decrease in fish consumption.

“The changes are somewhat conspicuous,” says Dr A.B. Das Chaudhuri, professor of anthropology, University of Calcutta. “Urban lifestyles are affecting genetics such that the genes for obesity, height, etc. are now becoming more expressive.”

While the reduction in stunting and thinness can be considered an indicator of better health and nutrition, the increase in weight and the emergence of obesity is a less favourable development, the researchers write.

This urban-based study has thus underlined the typical characteristics of societies undergoing transition because of modernisation — the coexistence of decreasing levels of stunting and thinness with increasing levels of obesity.

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