In his brilliant book “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollan theorised that “people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than the people eating a contemporary Western diet.” A simple enough prescription for physical and emotional wellbeing, and advice I follow closely, adhering to many of my own traditional food traditions and attempting to keep them alive for future generations.
But overall it is a battle we seem to be losing, little by little, as many parts of the world experience a rapid shift towards urbanisation, and a rapid movement of people within and between countries. In India for example, large numbers of people are exchanging their traditional environments for life and work in the city, a traditional diet replaced with a much more modern appetite for the food of ‘the west’.
Families with working parents and little time to cook are eating out, getting take-away meals and putting on weight like never before. In Bombay, pizza, burgers, fried chicken, cheese and large desserts are highly sought after foods, populating the social media feeds of many popular Indian food blogs and accounts.
Companies like Nestle are investing heavily in India, with Maggi ‘masala flavoured’ instant noodles one of the nation’s most popular products. When testing of the noodles found unsafe lead levels leading to the product being banned for some months, uproar ensured. It returned to shops in November 2015 to great joy, selling out in record numbers. Nestle’s new managing director in India wants company revenue to double in the next 4-5 years, with over 20 new products in the pipeline from its global portfolio of chocolate, dairy and confectionary.
It is a similar story with the major fast food chains. McDonalds, where you can buy a McSpicy Chicken, McSpicy Paneer, a McAloo Burger or a Maharajah Mac, has just over 200 restaurants in India and plans to add 250 more by 2020. Burger King opened its 20th outlet last year, offering Paneer Cheese melts and Chicken Tandoor grilled burgers, Pizza Hut is opening a 100 new outlets this year and KFC, a leading chain in India, offers a selection of hot and crispy chicken.
Over the last 20-30 years, the rates of obesity and cancer, particularly amongst urban Indians has increased, as they leave behind active physical lifestyles and diets rich in natural, unprocessed foods. With the rise and increased wealth of the middle classes has come an appetite for more protein, more processed and fast foods, more convenience foods and above all, more sugar and fat.
International Diabetes Federation statistics show that there were over 69 million cases of diabetes in India in 2015, and around 1 million deaths. By 2040, this figure could rise to 123 million. The implication are staggering, given the economic and social cost of treating these chronic diseases. And the problem is only getting worse, given India’s large youth population and their predilection for fast and convenience foods. The proportion of children aged between 13 and 18 considered obese was 29 per cent in 2015, up from 16 per cent in 2010.
Add this problem to the ongoing poverty crisis in India, where 100s of millions of children remain undernourished, and malnourishment in general becomes a huge issue for the Indian public health system, with profound impact on the long term health, happiness and productivity of one of the world’s largest youth populations.
As an Ambassador for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, I am keen to share ideas about how to slow down this exponential slide towards chronic disease in countries like India. I am pleased to support organisations like SugarByHalf, which aim to assist the community reduce its sugar intake.
There is much we can do, through social media, through education, role modelling and good parenting, to reinforce positive eating habits and raise awareness of the impact of fast and processed foods on generations to come.