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Shock findings

Diabetes on the rise among India’s southern poor

By RJ Whitehead , 25-Jan-2013

A countrywide screening programme on diabetes trends in India makes for startling reading, no least for those in the south who live in slums.

Rightly concerned about the prevalence of diabetes in India, the country’s health ministry has been closely following the disease among the population, and the latest study was conducted under the National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, CVD and Stroke (NPCDCS).

Its figures highlight two highly unexpected and alarming trends. The first is that the south, which has traditionally and positively led the country in most health indices, now also leads the way in the prevalence of diabetes. The second trend is that the disease has seen a dramatic increase among slum dwellers and the poor.

Rich man's disease

Diabetes is traditionally considered by Indians to be a rich man’s disease, and medical experts blame increasingly poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles for the rise of diabetes among the urban poor.

Indeed, the latest findings suggest that one in every four people living in the urban slums of Chennai suffer from diabetes—a figure over three times higher than the national average of around 7%.

"It is a false belief that only those eating burgers and pizzas can get obese and develop diabetes. High consumption of fried items such as kachori, samosa and gulab jamun can also led to the onset of diabetes," Dr H P S Sachdev, senior consultant pediatrics at Sitaram Institute of Science and Research, told Times of India this week.

Experts say that the possible reasons for higher prevalance of diabetes in the south could be an overdependence on rice and coconut oil, which are high in carbohydrates and saturated fat, respectively. 

"Coconut oil, which is often used in the south of the country, is high in saturated fat. Increased intake of this oil can cause obesity and the risk of diabetes," said Dr Anoop Misra, director of the Diabetes Foundation of India. 

Also white rice, which according to research by the Harvard School of Public health can significantly increase the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes, is also much more widely consumed in the south than in the north. The study found that those who ate three to four servings of rice a day were 1.5 times more likely to have diabetes than people who ate smaller amounts. 

On the increase

Diabetes in India affects a figure fast approaching 40m people, and this is expected to reach 70m by 2025. Currently, the country accounts for around 15% of the world’s diabetic population. 

According to an in-depth study by nutritionist Karen Siegel, India is going through a nutritional transition from simple, traditional foods to heavily marketed foods that are high in calories, sugar and animal fat but low in vitamins and minerals derived from fruits and vegetables. 

Although this transition is playing a part in reducing malnutrition, it has increased the risk of diabetes across a wider population.

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