Mirror, mirror on the wall

The Synovate global health survey on Healthy Living brings us face-to-face with thereal attitudes of Indians regarding weight, food and obesity

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. This observation by former prime minister of Britain Winston Churchill holds true in all areas of life including weight management. Excess weight has become a global concern. And several factors contribute towards it—food habits, activity levels, genetics, and emotional state being the major ones. But, whether these factors work for or against you is something that your attitude determines. Through its third 'Healthy Living' survey, Synovate, a global research agency, set out to understand global attitudes towards weight control, food and health in relation to obesity.

The canvass of this survey was massive—13,155 people across 19 countries [Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Korea, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, UK and USA] were surveyed. They were asked five questions, two of which were multiple-choice. These questions were concerned with one's weight consciousness, attitude towards eating and obesity. Finally, after six months of hard work, the results were ready to be shared with the world.

Since this was a great opportunity to get a peek into the mindsets of Indians, Complete Wellbeing associated with Synovate to exclusively share the relevant findings with its readers.

The sample size from India was 509 [Male: 272, Female: 237] individuals in the age range 15-64 from Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

While focusing on India-specific figures, we uncovered some very interesting insights about how Indians think about their weight, food and obesity in general. In the following pages we share these perceptions with you.

What we found

On the whole, the growing popularity of fast food notwithstanding, a majority of Indians has a 'healthy' attitude towards food and doesn't depend on junk for comfort. Also, Indians don't consider lack of time or feeling low as an excuse to not eat healthy.

Though we are conscious enough about our weight [with 56 per cent people weighing themselves from time to time], it is clear that we are not a lot that is fixated on weight. Indians are aware of the growing problem of obesity, but aren't overtly worried about it, perhaps because healthy eating habits are intricately woven into the fabric of our culture. So, when asked what causes obesity, we are quick to cite increasing consumption of fast food as the primary reason. Though we are all guilty of indulging in it, and may have even made it a part of our lifestyles, we seem to inherently know that it's not good for us.

The survey throws up many such revelations. It's like a mirror that shows us our true reflection, the figures laying bare much more than what meets the eye—our hidden attitudes.

Weight watch

Frequency of checking weight

In a country, where Kareena Kapoor's figure inspires young women, and where every man envies Hrithik Roshan's perfect physique, 40 per cent Indians surveyed said they don't weigh themselves [refer Chart 1.]

On second thoughts, this number shouldn't be surprising. In the past, the only time most people weighed themselves was at their doctor's clinics or on public weighing machines. Things don't seem to have changed much. Although a lot of people want fitter looking bodies, obsession with weight is not in our nature. It's the body shape and size that we are more concerned with. Probably that's why you find a measuring tape in every Indian household but not a weighing scale. This is in sharp contrast to China, where [with 90 per cent weight-conscious individuals] weighing scales seem to be as common as a toothbrush.

A sizeable number of Indians weigh themselves whenever they remember [refer Chart 1], which is most likely when they have easy access to a weighing machine. But at least they are more proactive than those who check the scales only when they find their clothes getting tighter. Didn't we tell you that for most Indians, size matters more than weight?

But there are also those—though their number isn't significant—who watch their weight closely, checking the scales once every week [refer Chart 1]. Probably these individuals are on a diet or exercise programme and want to monitor their progress. Following close at their heels is another segment of the population that uses the scale several times a week [as if their weight will follow the waning and waxing of the moon]. Unlike Indians, more people from Korea [28 per cent], Argentina [26 per cent] and Brazil [25 per cent] weigh themselves weekly.

The number of Indians who hop on a weighing scale every single day or even several times a day is negligible. However, such Indians do exist. And surprise of surprise, they are all male!

Another shocker is that of the 55 per cent who weigh themselves—whether regularly or infrequently—the majority are male. This is surprising because the perception about Indian men is that they are not particular about their health.

Overall, the results seem to mirror the attitude of Indians towards their bodyweight. As a society we seem to be becoming more image-conscious, yet we are not a people that is obsessed with weight, [barring a few exceptions, of course]. We think this is good, because weight is a poor indicator of health and wellbeing, unless you are seriously overweight or obese.

India and the World

The percentage of Indians who do not weigh themselves [40 per cent] is highest in the world; the global average is 25 per cent. Closely following India are Chile [39 per cent], and Indonesia/Romania [both 38 per cent]. India is closer to these countries in its weighing habits than it is to its neighbour China, where only 9 per cent don't check their weight.

CW Says

While obsession with checking weight is bad, not checking weight at all isn't good either. Both are unhealthy extremes. We recommend you to take the middle path and keep a regular tab on your weight—weigh yourself at least once every six months.

Also, don't forget that size matters too. Keep a track of your waist circumference. A disproportionately larger girth is an invitation to a host of ailments like heart disease.

Weight control

The steps Indians take to keep their weight in check

Perhaps the reason why 40 per cent Indians don't weigh themselves at all is that 49 per cent claim that their weight doesn't vary. This could also explain why more than half of those surveyed said they do not use any weight control measures.

However, when their weights fluctuate, a good number of Indians swing into action. Opting for low-fat foods emerges as the most popular measure to lose or maintain weight. Comparatively, we don't buy as many low-carb foods, which suggests that we are still fat-conscious rather than 'carb' conscious [refer Chart 2]. Another point to note here is that until recently, we were not so conscious about the nutritional composition of food products that we bought. It was not our habit to analyse every product for its carbohydrate or fat content. But that trend seems to be catching on. On the global scale, Argentina is the biggest market for low-fat foods with 64 per cent Argentinians opting for such products.

Becoming more active or eating less [refer Chart 3] are also popular weight loss measures. Here, gender preferences differ radically: the men tend to increase physical activity [24 per cent men as opposed to 13 per cent women], while women cut down on food [20 per cent women as opposed to 14 per cent men].

Indians don't like to switch foods to shed excess flab. Very few take the trouble of changing what they eat, or opting for meal replacements. Forsaking soda, soft drinks or other food items like bread or candies is also not common. The general attitude here seems to be: no matter how my health suffers or how much my clothes complain, my taste buds should be happy.

Diet plans such as Atkins Diet or South Beach diet are not so popular among Indians. When it comes to seeking professional help for weight management, more Indians are visiting dieticians/nutritionists/doctors today than ever. As expected, women are more enthusiastic about consulting experts than men. We reckon this trend of seeking professional help will grow significantly over the next few years even as awareness of the role and importance of nutrition soars. Interestingly, in this land of Vedas and Upanishads, not many [3 per cent] believe the written word, as they turn their backs to diet books. Once again, contrast this with China, where 25 per cent seek advice from such books.

Among the list of weight loss options, joining weight loss groups or wearing body sculpting underwear don't even figure for Indians. Globally too, only people in Canada and Netherlands have admitted to meeting other weightwatchers and not one person in any other country has revealed using body sculpting underwear. We wonder how the manufacturers of such products survive in face of an absolute dearth of customers! In fact, why is it even an industry?

Further, weight loss medicines, herbs and supplements don't cut ice in India. Whereas, in China, the latter is more popular. And why not? After all, the Oriental country is a treasure trove of herbal medicine. What we found unbelievable was that a resounding 49 per cent of Indians insist that their weight doesn't change. Is that even possible? And would you believe that it's not just Indians, but 26 per cent of people in the world think this way?

India and the World

When aiming to reduce weight, not many Indians prefer indulging in physical activity. Countries like China [58 per cent], Canada [53 per cent] and USA [53 per cent] give a lot more importance to increasing physical activity than Indians [13 per cent].

Although reducing food intake seems to be the popular weight loss choice in India, compared to the world we are still less inclined to do so [only 17 per cent Indians vs 42 per cent global average].

When our weight exceeds a certain threshold, we don't prefer changing the kind of food we eat as much as the rest of the world does [only 9 per cent Indians vs 26 per cent global average]

Far more Indians believe that their weight remains constant than people in other countries [49 per cent Indian vs 26 per cent globally]. In fact, only 9 per cent Americans and 11 per cent British think this way. Again, Indians top the world in this regard, with Indonesia [38 per cent], and Colombia/Turkey [both 36 per cent] following at our heels.

The preference of Indians for using low-fat food products is not as high as that of the rest of the world. [25 per cent vs global average 34 per cent]. Is it because the market for such products in India is still nascent?

Not many Indians opt for a gym membership whereas, more than half of Argentina seems to be going to the gym.

Compared to the world average too, we are poor gymmers [India 10 per cent vs 17 per cent global average].

We are one of the few countries in the world that really loves restaurant food. Because, when pursuing weight loss, only 3 per cent of Indians cut down on the orders at hotels as against the global average of 12 per cent. Argentina takes the cake here too, with 61 per cent of its population ordering less in eateries. What self-control!

CW Says

Exercise may not be popular among Indians, but its indispenability to good health cannot be overemphasised. If you find yourself resisting regular exercise, perhaps it's time to reflect.

Always consult a qualified expert before getting onto any weight management programme. The worst thing you can do is to start on a programme on advice from friends or relatives, who may not be aware of your body's uniqueness.

Don't just be carbohydrate or fat-conscious, be nutrition-conscious. Only nutrition should drive your food choices.

Food and thought

India's attitude towards eating

Many Indians think like Mark Twain, who said, "Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside." 54 per cent of Indians eat whatever they want, whenever they want. Men outnumber women in subscribing to Twain's attitude. A common excuse such people give to continue eating unhealthy food is that 'life is too short to deny yourself whatever you want'. Fortunately, two in three Indians find this excuse ridiculous. Also, there's a large number of Indians [46 per cent] who don't subscribe to this view and are particular about their eating habits. Moreover, when asked particularly if they watch their food intake and strive to be healthy, 65 per cent people replied in the affirmative [refer Chart 4].

To 61 per cent of Indians, the taste of fast food isn't enough to prevent them from giving it up, if the need arises. These individuals seem to have the strength that American author Judith Viorst referred to when she said, "Strength is the ability to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands—and then eat just one of those pieces."

Junk food and depression are supposed to be partners-in-crime. As many as 47 per cent Americans tend to eat junk food when feeling down. But in India, the partenrship breaks as this figures drops to only 28 per cent. This is not to say that Indians are not 'emotional' about food. A large number do associate emotions with food; they say healthy food makes them feel better. This means that in matters of food, our heads and our hearts are where they are supposed to be.

Well, in a country as diverse as India, there will always be some people who sway between eating healthy and unhealthy. But yo-yo eaters are not an overwhelming majority here. Interestingly, more men than women switch sides often.

On the whole, Indians have a pretty 'healthy' attitude towards food. Irrespective of how busy we are, we cook and plan our food instead of opting for the quick and easy. That doesn't mean we are completely closed to easy options. A lot of Indian families are certainly including packaged foods [either from food companies or restaurants] in their daily diets. Perhaps, that's why a resounding 73 per cent of Indians feels that even food companies and restaurants have a responsibility to offer healthy food options. A lot of people think they already do, but an equal number feel they don't.

Unhealthy food increases obesity in adults and children alike. Are Indians worried about the issue of childhood obesity either in respect to their homes or their country? Not really, more than three in four Indians are not losing sleep over it, unlike Brazilians [90 per cent] who worry most about it. We are also not opinionated about the role of food companies in this matter, as opposed to the Colombians [88 per cent] who are totally convinced that food companies can prevent childhood obesity.

India and the World

The world as a whole is more concerned about childhood obesity than India. Perhaps, we are more confident about our upbringing and food habits than people in the other countries. [world average 34 per cent as against just 20 per cent in India]

Indians take pride in preference of home-cooked food. However, less Indian women [48 per cent] are able to make time to cook/ plan food than women in Egypt [86 per cent] or Netherlands [84 per cent].

While only 42 per cent in India believe that food companies can help prevent childhood obesity, the world over, 66 per cent believe so. Perhaps, it's because Indian food companies have recently started disclosing nutritional value of food on the packs, while worldwide, it's an old practice.

Far fewer Indians oscillate between eating healthy and unhealthy food than the rest of the world. [41 per cent in India Vs only 57 per cent worldwide].

CW Says

Be particular about everything related to food—what you eat, when you eat, where you eat and how you eat. It matters not just for your body weight or size but for your emotions as well.

Read the labels of packaged food items you or your children eat without fail to know the ingredients. It's your responsibility to monitor what goes into your stomach [and also your childrens' of course].

Who's the culprit?

The main cause of obesity according to Indians

An interesting quote about obesity goes this way: "Obesity is a condition, which proves that the Lord does not help those who help themselves and help themselves and help themselves." This quote squarely puts the blame of obesity on overeating. Many Indians too feel that bad eating habits—unhealthy food choices, eating too much fast /outside food, irregular eating hours—are the number one cause of obesity. Of these, 'unhealthy food choices' scores highest [20 per cent], followed by eating too much fast food [18 per cent] and then unhealthy food habits like eating at irregular hours [12 per cent].

The highest number of people in the world to blame unhealthy food for obesity belong to Denmark [27 per cent]. Those who feel the strongest against too much fast food come from Turkey [23 per cent].

Only a few Indians think that lack of exercise causes obesity. But we already know about India's lackadaisical attitude towards exercise, don't we? We rarely associate obesity with lack of self-discipline or control.

The second significant school of thought is that obesity has nothing to do with what you do or don't do, and are resigned to the belief that it's all set in your genes or runs in the family. The highest number of people who blame genetics for obesity belongs to Indonesia [22 per cent], followed by Brazil [20 per cent].

India and the World

While 16 per cent of the world citizens feel lack of exercise is the main cause of obesity, only 9 per cent in India feel so. Countries that better the global average on this count include China [29 per cent], Canada [25 per cent], Saudi Arabia [26 per cent] and USA/Netherlands [both 20 per cent].

While 18 per cent in India feel eating too much fast food causes obesity, the sentiment is shared by only 9 per cent people worldwide. Turkey [23 per cent], Egypt [16 per cent] and Singapore [17 per cent] too share India's view on this, with Turkey leading the pack.

CW Says

Did you know that emotional eating leads to unnecessary and unhealthy eating? Learn to listen to your hunger signals. This way, you will eat only when your body, and not your mind, is hungry.

—With inputs from Shiv Joshi and Rahul Baji

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