India is seriously diabetic—and Diwali sweets will only make things worse

One more please.
One more please.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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Diwali is a high-calorie affair. Just two pieces of gulab jamun—deep-fried balls of dough soaked in sugar syrup—come in at 387 calories. And the festival sees a record sale of these traditional Indian sweets made of flour, sugar, milk, and dry fruits.

Frequent indulgence in such sweets is deadly for a country that is the world’s biggest consumer of sugar and home to the second-largest diabetic population at 65 million people. And Diwali or not, diabetes is a crisis far from being under control in India, according to a new report.

Seven out 10 people with diabetes in urban India are not eating right, and the imbalance is usually caused because of high carbohydrates intake from cereals, roti and rice, which are integral to an Indian plate.

The survey, conducted by pharmaceutical company Abbott along with market research firm IPSOS India, asked 4,148 people with diabetes across eight cities. All participants had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes for over 18 months and were aged between 36 and 65 years.

Obesity is one of the major risk factors for type-2 diabetes and heart disease. The results show that 62% of people with diabetes are overweight or obese, and 65% have uncontrolled blood sugar levels.

Indian festivals invariably mean more harm. “Almost 30% of surveyed respondents claimed to go easy on their diet during festive occasions. Sweets, rice, potatoes, and ice creams rank as the top items that people with diabetes have during festivals,” the report noted.

“These additional carbohydrate-rich foods, over and above a regular diet that is already laden with carbs, indicate how difficult it is for Indians suffering from diabetes to manage diet properly,” it added.

And not all calories are the same. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, explains:

Fructose, the sweet molecule in sugar, contains calories that you can burn for energy, but it’s not nutrition, because there’s no biochemical reaction that requires it. In excess, it can fry your liver, just like alcohol… Too much sugar causes diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease and tooth decay. When consumed in excess, it’s a toxin.

How Indian cities stack up

Out of six cities, Delhi had the highest percentage of people with diabetes who are overweight or obese, followed by Hyderabad and Chennai. Trivandrum had the least.

In comparison, Chennai, followed by Trivandrum and Kolkata, have the highest number of people with diabetes and uncontrolled blood sugar. Delhi has the least.

But it’s the southern Indian cities, including Chennai, Bengaluru, Trivandrum and Hyderabad, which have the most imbalanced food in terms of excess carbohydrates. In fact, their consumption far exceeds the recommended 60% upper limit for carbohydrates intake in a meal.