40% children in Pakistan are obese or overweight – Research

A colossal 40% of children in Pakistan are either overweight or obese, mainly due to a sedentary lifestyle, excessive screen time, and an unhealthy diet, the latest studies and health experts say.

According to the most recent study by the state-run Pakistan Health Commission (PHC) in 2018, over 11% of children in the country were overweight and more than 5% were obese.

However, several hospital-based studies and surveys paint a grimmer picture, with findings that 40%-50% of children in the South Asian country are either overweight or obese.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency ahead of Friday’s World Obesity Day, Dr. Musarrat Riaz of the Institute of Diabetes and Endocrinology, Baqai Medical University Karachi, cast doubt on the PHC statistics, calling them “underestimated.”

Read more: Growing diabetes in Pakistan: National research groups formed to tackle the issue

Riaz, who has been part of such hospital-based and clinical studies on obesity, said the actual figures range between 40% and 50%.

“These studies have shown really alarming numbers,” she said, warning that the number of children who are obese or overweight is rapidly increasing.

Rising childhood obesity is causing a slew of diseases and health complications, she said, fearing that the number of children with obesity issues was likely to rise in the coming years if current lifestyle trends continue.

“A good number of young people aged 20 to 25 years are developing early age diabetes, apart from hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and many harmonic issues because of obesity,” she added.

Bleak forecast

According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), Pakistanis suffer from the world’s third-highest prevalence of diabetes, with one of every four adults living with the condition.

Abdul Basit, a member of the IDF Atlas Committee in Pakistan, warned that if Pakistanis continue to live their current lifestyle, “things may get worse” over the next five years.

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Citing a recent study by the Pakistan Health Research Council (PHRC), an official research body, he said that nearly 60% of the country’s 210 million people are obese.

Two cutoffs were used in the countrywide study — Global and Asian.

The World Health Organisation figures show that 58.1% of Pakistanis are overweight, with 43.9% obese.

However, according to the Asian cutoffs that are not yet globally recognised, 72.3% of Pakistanis are overweight, with obesity affecting 58.1% of the population.

The idea behind the Asian cutoffs, supported by various health organisations including the IDF, is that Asians, despite having a lower body mass index (BMI), are at higher risk of stroke or cardiac arrest than Europeans and Americans, owing to differences in lifestyle.

According to the global cutoffs, a person with a BMI of 25 kilograms per square meter is deemed overweight, whereas a BMI of under 27 kg/sq. meter is considered obese.

However, the Asian cutoffs recognise 23 kg/sq. meter as the standard overweight BMI and 25 kg/sq. meter for obesity.

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Covid-19 and obesity

Basit cited genetic issues, birth weight, early years’ nutrition, catch-up growth, post-natal nutrition, and high calorie condensed food among other factors behind rising obesity in Pakistan.

Riaz observed that the Covid-19 pandemic has “significantly” contributed to the rise of obesity-related issues in the country over the past two years.

“The pandemic is a key reason behind rising obesity cases across the country over the past two years,” she said.

“Lockdown restrictions, schools and gyms closures, and limited sports activities have further reduced the physical activities in general, especially in the urban areas where an unhealthy lifestyle has already resulted in the rise in obesity,” she explained.

Increased screen time due to the online classes, as well as food delivery chains, have also contributed to the spike, she added.

The two health experts recommended daily exercise, a healthy diet, and avoidance of sugary drinks and dining out as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate the risk of obesity.

“We have to bind our schools and colleges to increase sports time and make it mandatory for children to take part in sports activities if we want to save them from being obese,” Riaz said.

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