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Ashoka fellow, Dr. Saligram advocates NCD prevention through healthy living

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

NCD prevention through healthy living is at the core of all our work


November 7, 2021 (IANSlife)  Starting from Navratri followed by Dhunteras and Diwali, Indians across the country celebrated the festivities with much fervor, indulging in an irresistible variety of sugar-laden sweets and delicacies rich in oil.

However, studies suggest that overindulgence during the festive season adversely impacts an individual’s blood sugar levels, especially around Diwali. In India, more than 77 million adults are living with diabetes. Researchers predict that this will increase to 134 million by 2045 as per the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). NCDs cause an alarming 64.9 percent of the deaths in our country and 40 percent of hospital stays. Yet these diseases can be largely prevented through the adoption of a healthy lifestyle

Arogya World
, a public health not-for-profit organization working to reduce the global burden of non-communicable diseases launched a public health campaign ‘Healthy Wali Diwali’ as there is a need to bring behavioral change on how Indians overindulge at the cost of their health for celebrations. Through their MyThali program, they encouraged Indians to eat healthier and have one balanced meal a day for 30 days.


Founder, CEO, an Ashoka fellow,  Dr. Nalini Saligram talks to IANSife about how mindful eating can help avert India's NCD crisis: 



In India sugar and festivities often go hand in hand.. how can people resist the temptation and cravings?

Dr. Nalini Saligram: Do not suppress your sweet tooth, try making age-old sweets at home with alternatives such as fruits or fruit juice instead of sugar or sweeteners, try baking instead of frying, and of course use the best quality ingredients, and love.

Research reveals that foods that are in season benefit health more. Hence go for those ingredients which are nutritious and in the season.

•             Replace refined sugars with honey, dates and figs. Add cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg and fruit concentrates to perk up the sweetness of your sweets.

•             Foods like banana, berries, nuts and seeds, beetroot, coconut and lentils are considered as happy foods as they contain nutrients like B vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids, healthy fats, fiber and some amino acids which help reduce the stress hormone cortisol and increase the happy hormone serotonin. Include these in your sweet recipes and have a happy and healthy Diwali.

Go on.  Relish these Indian traditional sweets this Diwali, based on healthy ingredients. Make them part of your #HealthyWaliDiwali thali.  

•             Chakkara Pongal              
•              Puran Poli/Bobbatlu
•             Paal Payasam
•             Til Chikki / laddu
•             Peanut chikki / laddu     
•             Badam halwa / sheera
•             Gajar Halwa       
•             Ragi laddu
•             Khajur pak / methi pak
•             Bottle gourd halwa         
•             Dates and nuts roll
•             Apple cinnamon kheer 
•             Anjeer roll


More than 77 million adults are living with diabetes a lot of them are below the age of 40.. what do you have to say about this?

Dr. Nalini Saligram: While 77 million Indians live with diabetes, an equal number are said to be prediabetic and a similar number don’t even know that they have diabetes. Thus the actual burden is estimated to be 3 times higher. 

Indians get type 2 diabetes at least a decade or two before people in the West, in their 30s and 40s at the height of their productive years. Indians therefore have to live with their disease for several decades, and if they don’t control their blood sugar, it is likely they could suffer the consequences of uncontrolled diabetes – heart disease and stroke, kidney disease and dialysis, blindness, foot amputations etc. This would lead to more hospitalizations, more catastrophic healthcare expenditures, more absences from work. And this could lead to a less productive workforce in the future and the country losing its competitive advantage as an economic powerhouse. 

Moreover, India is a young country with half the country under age 25 and 2/3rd under age 35. Over the next decade or so young Indians will start to get diabetes in very large numbers as they grow older. The public health agenda of the country is indeed crowded and quite alarming. The demographic dividend really could become a demographic disaster we’ve heard people say, unless we do something about diabetes and other NCDs. Inaction is not an option.    

International Diabetes Federation (IDF) says NCDs cause an alarming 64.9 percent of the deaths in our country and 40% of hospital stays. Yet these diseases can be largely prevented through the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. Can you share examples of these lifestyle changes?

Dr. Nalini Saligram:  Even though diabetes and other NCDs are considered one of the biggest health and development challenges of the century, fortunately they can largely be prevented. According to the World Health Organization 80 percent of type 2 diabetes. 80 percent of heart disease and 40 percent cancers can be prevented with 3 lifestyle changes – one must eat right, exercise and avoid tobacco. Thus adopting a healthy lifestyle is one of the best things we can all do.  Not only will it help us prevent diabetes and if we have diabetes already, prevent or delay its complications,  it will also help increase our resilience and protect us from the next pandemic. 

What do we mean by healthy lifestyles?

It means eating a balanced meal, with enough energy producing carbohydrates, adequate proteins like lentils, eggs or fish, some curds or milk to ensure strong bones, and more fresh vegetables (raw and cooked) and fruits – about 5 servings a day is what is recommended. 

It means eating all these foods in the right portions at each meal. It means reducing fried food and sweets, junk foods like namkeens or chips, and cola. It means using limited quantities of healthy oil to cook our food, and no more than 1 teaspoon of salt all day. It starts with eating home cooked meals the traditional way and importantly planning for it. All this is part of Arogya World’s MyThali tool that shows people what and how much to eat.  And that is very important because unhealthy eating is the #1 cause of death. 

Healthy lifestyles also means being physically active.  We should walk briskly for 30 min a day for 5 days a week.  Sitting all day at a computer is not good – in fact Sitting is the new Smoking is what our mHealth programs say.  Our mDiabetes text messages in 12 languages give people ideas of how to practically incorporate physical activity into our lives.  Walk to the market for errands, go for a walk with a friend, do household chores.  

Of course going to the gym, playing sports, swimming and cycling are all great forms of exercise. Our Healthy Schools program, now available digitally, teaches middle school children the basics of healthy living including the importance of physical activity, using age-appropriate compelling games. This is badly needed because 75 percent of India’s adolescents do not move enough according to a WHO study. 


Tell us about the public health campaign ‘Healthy Wali Diwali’

Dr. Nalini Saligram:  The festive season can lead to overindulgence, and especially at this time of the year when we have multiple celebrations over a few months, starting with Dussera - Diwali all the way till Christmas - New Year.  By New Year there is a frenzy of resolutions and gym memberships. People gain a lot of weight in these 3-4 months and the number that end up being diabetic or pre-diabetic, increases.

We want people to take ownership of their health before the festivities begin. Get in the habit of eating healthy and not wait for a post-celebrations detox. However, during Diwali big brands and major conglomerates fight for the mind share of the same consumers. This is the time of the year when most of the marketing budget is spent, from large FMCG to consumer durables companies. We knew we had to hustle if we had to make any difference during this peak season. Moreover, health advocacy has always been somewhat prescriptive and preachy. If we wanted to establish a connect with the consumers, we had move away from the traditional communication methods and create a new aspirational campaign that every person can connect to.

After a lot of deliberation, we came up with the 30 day challenge and designed this campaign, "Healthy Wali Diwali". The objective was simple, to create a sense of ownership amongst people by asking them to participate in this challenge and give them an opportunity to flaunt it on social media. Which in turn acts as a motivator for people to stick to their challenge.

This Diwali, Arogya World's MyThali program encourages people across India to #BeAPataka and take the #30DayChallenge to eat a balanced meal every day, to celebrate a #HealthyWaliDiwali

This is done in 3 Simple Steps:

1. Take the challenge & get your certificate

2. Do the self-assessment & receive a personalized meal plan

3. Challenge your friends to #BeAPataka like you, and have at least one balanced meal per day for 30 Days

Over the month, we have had our challenge taken up by superstar chefs like VahChef & Chef Saby, had 40+ digital media Influencers spread the message, and 100+ Nutritionists, Dietitians and supporters take the challenge. This has caused a ripple effect and the hashtag #HealthyWaliDiwali is trending on social media platforms.   We are pleased we can influence people to change their eating habits. 


How is Arogya World, working to reduce the global burden of non-communicable diseases?

Dr. Nalini Saligram: NCD prevention through healthy living is at the core of all our work. Our programs are science-based, and well thought through from a design perspective. We have shown proof concept and have reached >6 million people in our first decade. We believe prevention should not be over medicalized and should be accessible to people in the community. 

We follow a doorstep health  approach and take prevention to people where they live, learn and work. We reach people at various ages, and in all walks of life, in urban and rural settings, and appeal to women, men and adolescents throughout India.  We work in more than 15 states.  We are champions of technology and mobile technology. We believe very much that population level prevention is a smart solution to the NCD crisis: we simply cant treat our way out of the NCD crisis. 

What are your key India based programs?

Dr. Nalini Saligram: Our key India-based programs are helping India meet its SDG 3 (good health and well-being) commitment:

• Healthy Schools, a middle school-based program across India that focuses on the basics of healthy living. In response to Covid the program has been digitized. We have educated over 500,000 children, and shown 15 percent impact.

• mDiabetes, a mobile messaging program that has shown 20 percent improvement in multiple health behaviors and has reached 1.8 million people so far

• Healthy Workplaces, which advances workplace health in > 150 companies (spanning 3.2 million employees)

• MyThali, a nutritional program that empowers Indians (in urban and rural India) to eat healthier food and has reached >25 million urban Indians using media and social media



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