Living to eat

The 15-year-old boy weighs 54kg, much more than an average Nepali his age. He is malnourished.

His breakfast and lunch consist of biscuits, instant noodles and other packaged foods. His uncle buys him fizzy, sugary drinks. The boy does not like home-cooked meals, and when he does they are oily and deep-fried.

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When he came to me, the boy was already suffering from a sore back, he could not run, and found it difficult to climb the stairs to the third floor.

There is a strong chance he will suffer from diabetes and hypertension by the time he is 25. His grandmother is worried about his addiction to sugar-sweetened sodas and packaged foods.

While in the US, 15 years ago, I saw many obese adolescents, and remember thinking we had the opposite problem in Nepal: under-nourishment and stunting. Not any more, however, because urban Nepal is now seeing an American-style epidemic of malnutrition.

It used to be rare to see an overweight child in Nepal’s schools, but today it is a common sight. In a recent informal survey of a school in Sindhupalchok, I found students mostly bring money from home to buy packaged food for lunch. Teachers themselves consumed junk foods for snacks, and had no idea about the lack of nutritional value. They purchased the packets out of convenience.

The mothers of the students told me they always believed instant noodles were nutritious. They liked the fact that it was cheap, didn’t need to be cooked, and their children loved it. They were aghast when I showed them pictures of children gaunt with malnourishment. Some mothers asked: if junk food was so bad , then why were there so many celebrity-endorsed TV advertisements? If the government does not care about your health, we have to think of it ourselves, I answered.

A three-year-old in Far Western Nepal was dying from malnutrition: not because she had nothing to eat, but because she had been eating the wrong food. Her mother took the child to a health centre, where she admitted her daughter only ate instant noodles and cheese balls. The girl was referred to the Nutrition Rehabilitation Center in Nepalganj, and was nursed back to health.

I have an acquaintance who works in one of the instant noodle factories in Nepal, and he says he wouldn’t touch the stuff - he knew what went into it. “I would never eat it, and never give it to my children,” he told me.

The junk food industry is all about creating demand through marketing and branding. It equates packaged foods with modernity, affluence, and a trendy lifestyle. What it is really all about is putting them in non-biodegradable single-use plastic into our landfill sites, and robbing our people of their health. Junk food is another symptom showing we are becoming a throw-away society, and if we are not careful we will throw away our children’s futures.

Aruna Uprety is a public health specialist and co-author of the book 'Khana Khanu Bhayo'?

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