KARACHI: A colossal 40 percent 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 percent of children in the country were overweight and more than 5 percent were obese.
However, several hospital-based studies and surveys paint a grimmer picture, with findings that 40-50 percent of children in the country are either overweight or obese.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency in connection with the 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.”
Riaz, who has been part of such hospital-based and clinical studies on obesity, said the actual figures range between 40 percent and 50 percent.
“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 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.
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.
Citing a recent study by the Pakistan Health Research Council (PHRC), an official research body, he said that nearly 60 percent of the people are obese.
Two cutoffs were used in the countrywide study — Global and Asian.
The World Health Organisation figures show that 58.1 percent of Pakistanis are overweight, with 43.9 percent obese.
However, according to the Asian cutoffs that are not yet globally recognised, 72.3 percent of Pakistanis are overweight, with obesity affecting 58.1 percent 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.
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.