Alexander Chancellor

Diary - 21 February 2004

Notes on a visit to Hammersmith inspired India

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It had never occurred to me that India might have an obesity problem, but apparently it does. Just before leaving India this month to return to Britain, where I found an obesity panic going on — see this week’s cover story — I chanced upon a story in the Times of India headlined ‘Obesity costs India dear’. According to the article, 27 per cent of Delhi schoolchildren are obese, and the country has spent over £43 billion on treating obesity-related health problems over the past five years. Since we know that millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition, this seems very odd. But then it turned out, further on in the article, that the problem was confined to ‘affluent families’ in the cities, which contained only about 5 per cent of the country’s population but consumed 40 per cent of its available fat. Since India has more than one billion people, the vast majority of whom are very poor and couldn’t get fat even if they wanted to, obesity affects only a tiny proportion of Indians. But in India this ‘tiny proportion’ is equivalent to the entire population of a medium-sized European country, so the scale of India’s obesity crisis may not be so very different from our own. It’s a sign of the country’s growing wealth and sophistication that it worries about this kind of health problem and even possesses a Centre for Obesity Research. But it is still a long way from the point that has been reached in the United States, where thinness indicates wealth and obesity suggests poverty. In India the opposite still applies. One thing that is clear is that hardly anybody anywhere manages to achieve his ideal weight. Studies by the United Nations find people all over the world to be either overfed or underfed, but seldom normal. I think we should just concentrate on feeding the starving and stop worrying about people who choose to stuff themselves too much.

I went to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and was not disappointed. It didn’t ‘look like a biscuit box’, as Amanda, the heroine of No