Crisis Within A Crisis: Malnutrition, Obesity On The Rise In India, Shows NFHS-5

India suffers from a serious level of hunger. There is all likelihood for people to die of hunger than the coronavirus in the wake of the lockdown.

India suffers from a serious level of hunger. There is all likelihood for people to die of hunger than the coronavirus in the wake of the lockdown. This is linked to the high rate of stunting and the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.

Malnutrition has been identified as one of the principal causes limiting India’s global economic potential (Copenhagen consensus, 2012). The remaining socio-economic inequalities have stifled more equitable growth and subsequent economic expansion.

To provide robust data on the shifting conditions of both undernutrition and overweight and obesity, the Ministry of Health conducted the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) to collect a comprehensive set of data on the nutritional status of Indian children from 0–19 years of age.

This survey was the largest micronutrient survey ever implemented globally. Also, the survey used gold standard methods to assess anemia, micronutrient deficiencies, and biomarkers of NCDs for the first time in India.

Child Under-Nutrition Has Worsened In Many States

Malnutrition refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients. The condition encompasses both undernutrition and overweight and obesity.

The dual burdens of undernutrition and overnutrition are becoming more apparent within the same community, household, and among individuals who can be concurrently overweight, stunted, and/or micronutrient deficient.

Globally, three key indicators are used to measure child under-nutrition:

  • stunting (a lower-than-expected height for age)
  • wasting (lower-than-expected weight for height)
  • underweight (lower-than-expected weight for age)

Despite substantial economic growth in India over most recent decades, chronic malnutrition (stunting) in children under five years of age reduced by only one-third between 1992 and 2016 and remains alarmingly high, with 38.4% of children stunted in the country.

The fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) contains detailed information on population, health, and nutrition for India and its states and Union Territories.

The share of stunted, wasted, and underweight children has grown in the majority of states for which data have been made available.

Rates of stunting have risen in rich states such as Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Himachal Pradesh, all of which had lowered their rates of stunting in the previous decade.

There’s a drastic rise in obesity among children under five years of age in 20 of the 22 states where the study was conducted, with experts attributing it to lack of physical activity and unhealthy food habits.

According to the NHFS-5, several states and Union Territories, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Mizoram, Tripura, Lakshadweep, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, have registered several folds increase in the percentage of obesity among children below five years of age in comparison to NFHS-4 conducted between 2015 and 2016.

Healthcare experts have attributed the rise in obesity to unhealthy food choices and lack of physical activities among children and even adults.

Sheila Vir, a public health nutrition expert and founder-director of Public Health Nutrition and Development Centre, said there is also a lack of awareness on what are good food habits.

Also, high-fat and high-sugar foods are easily available and so there is higher consumption of it, she said.

“We have a double burden of undernutrition, malnutrition, and overnutrition occurring together. So, I think what to feed a child is what we are going wrong in,” Vir said.

Way Forward

Covid-19 led to economic decline, and existing poverty can lead to food insecurity for India. Food security programs in India have been affected due to the lockdown.

Achieving food and nutrition security is a priority. One of the key routes to achieving a resilient and improved food system requires a reorientation of relevant policies.

The data show an expansion in access to toilets in most of the surveyed states but the government should immediately direct more resources towards social protection schemes. POSHAN Abhiyaan targets to reduce stunting, under-nutrition, anemia (among young children, women, and adolescent girls) and reduce low birth weight.

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