Research finds out a new phenomenon of obesity with the multiple burden of malnutrition in India

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

By Pramod Thomas

A new research has found out the ‘under-researched’ rare phenomenon of obesity and the multiple burden of malnutrition in India.

The study by Dr Chandana Maitra, an academic fellow in the school of economics at Sydney University, has investigated the ‘triple burden of malnutrition,’ – the simultaneous existence of overnutrition, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency in the same community or household, or even in the same individual.

According to Dr Maitra the rising obesity in rural residents in India is an area of particular concern.

Dr Chandana Maitra

“The problem of malnutrition in India is very complex. In one household, there can be both stunted children from under nutrition with mothers who are overweight from over nutrition,” she said.

“Obesity is more of a rich person’s problem, being more prevalent in middle- to upper-income households. In developed countries, we find the opposite to be true, with increasing levels of obesity in people from low income households. India has not reached the tipping point where the pattern reverses.”

A key feature of the project, which was funded by an India development fund award from the office of global engagement at the University of Sydney, was a workshop in Mumbai organised with India’s International Institute for population sciences.

Representatives from the ministry of health and family welfare, academics and NGOs have participated in the programme.

In 2015-16, only six per cent of women and five per cent of men in the lowest wealth category were obese, whereas 36 per cent of women or 33 per cent of men in the highest wealth quintile were obese, according to the workshop report.

Research by professor JV Meenakshi from the University of Delhi, one of the keynote speakers at the workshop, found that in 2015 – 2016 one-third of urban Indian households with a stunted child had an overweight mother.

Dr Maitra said: “It has opened up new lines of thought and posed new research questions, such as why we see obesity in richer households in emerging economies such as India, but in poorer households in developed countries such as Australia.

“More research is required on the potential causes of multiple burden of malnutrition, particularly in relatively affluent households. It is not caused by lack of access to food, rather inequality within a household in allocation of food might matter more.”

According to Dr Maitra coronavirus has resulted in loss of access to ‘healthy food’. The pandemic will exacerbate anaemia in women and wasting in children, she said.

“The loss of livelihoods driven by lockdown and reverse migration from city to rural areas, coupled with the loss of earnings, results in loss of access to food. More specifically, loss of access to healthy food,” she said.

“Potential risk factors for dual burden of stunted child and overweight mother in the same household, for example, could be shorter maternal stature, older maternal age, mothers’ mental health, sedentary lifestyles and inequality in allocation of food.”

She plans to continue her work by looking to design nutrition-sensitive value chain interventions to tackle the problem of triple-burden malnutrition in different countries, and by gathering evidence about the intergenerational consequences of malnutrition.

Dr Maitra has previously worked as a consultant to the UN and UNICEF.