Obesity major public health concern: Experts

ISLAMABAD         -         Referring to ‘World Obesity Day’ which is observed every year on 4th March, health experts and advocates in Pakistan have raised alarm bells on the growing crisis of obesity in the country and called upon the government to take immediate policy measures to mitigate the situation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is a major public health concern and a leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. Over 2.2 billion people are now classified as overweight or obese. Trends among children are especially concerning. Worldwide, an estimated 340 million children aged 5-19 years are now classified as overweight or obese — a tenfold increase over the past four decades.

Dr Abdul Basit, Secretary General of the Diabetic Association of Pakistan (DAP) said that Pakistan is facing a growing obesity crisis that is affecting the health and well-being of its citizens. According to the National Nutrition Survey 2018, obesity and overweight collectively increased in women of reproductive age (WRA) from 28% to 38% from 2011 to 2018. Likewise, the number of overweight children doubled in Pakistan from 2011 to 2018. STEP survey (2014-15) also estimated that 41.3% of adults in Pakistan are obese or overweight He said that one significant factor contributing to the obesity epidemic in Pakistan is the consumption of sugary drinks.

Studies have shown that high consumption of sugary drinks is linked to weight gain and obesity, especially in children. Sugary drinks, such as soda, energy drinks, sweetened fruit juices, flavoured milk, squashes, syrups, and iced teas etc. are one of the leading sources of added sugar in liquid form in the diet. The liquid sugar absorbs quickly and alters the body’s metabolism resultantly causing obesity and several chronic diseases. Basit said that drinking just one soda a day increases the likelihood of being overweight by 27% for adults and 55% for children. A single can of soda contains about 9 teaspoons of sugar, which exceeds the recommended daily intake of added sugar for an adult.

Excessive sugar consumption from sugary drinks can lead to weight gain and obesity, as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and liver, and kidney diseases. The World Health Organization recommends limiting free sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories and less than 5% for added health benefits. It is crucial to raise awareness about the high sugar content in sugary drinks and promote healthier alternatives to reduce the risk of obesity and associated chronic diseases.

Dr Basit pointed out the growing concern in international health bodies and said that Andrew Boulton (President) and Akhtar Hussain (President-Elect) from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) wrote a letter a few months ago to the governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, including Pakistan, to take immediate policy steps to reduce consumption of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSBs) and decrease the crippling burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes on national health systems. Sanaullah Ghumman, Secretary General of The Pakistan National Heart Association (PANAH) lamented the situation and said that contrary to these risks, sugary drinks are readily available everywhere in Pakistan and heavily marketed, often targeted towards children.

These drinks are high in calories, low in nutritional value, and can lead to an energy imbalance that contributes to weight gain. It is crucial to educate parents and children about the harmful effects of sugary drinks and promote the consumption of healthier alternatives such as water and unsweetened milk etc. He asked the health ministry to regulate the sale and marketing of sugary drinks to reduce their availability and promote healthier options. Munawar Hussain, a senior nutritionist, and advisor to the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) stressed upon the importance of fiscal policy measures and demanded that the government should increase taxes on sugary drinks to slow down the impending obesity crisis.

He said that sugary drink taxes are a triple-win, as they are cost-effective policy options that can improve population health, increase government revenue, and reduce health care and environmental costs. More than 50 countries have imposed higher taxes on sugary drinks and the evidence is encouraging. Likewise, the health tax impact modelling study by the World Bank from Pakistan in March 2022 confirmed that raising taxes on sugary drinks in Pakistan is very likely to improve population health, particularly helping in the prevention of overweight/ obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases.

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