By Dr. Jagmeet Madan
Of all the rights we exercise today as citizens of India, the ‘right to food’, enshrined in our Constitution in Article 47 is fundamental to our overall wellbeing and growth. While India remains committed to becoming a malnutrition-free country, its efforts in this direction have been a topic for many a debate – especially within the context of secondary challenges of the pandemic in 2020.
While there has been heightened realization that a balanced diet and nutrition can act as an effective prophylactic measure against public health challenges like Covid-19, the situation on ground may be perceived as convoluted. A December 2020 survey highlighted that the nutrition situation in India remains dire even months after lockdown restrictions were lifted in several parts of the country – every second household had reduced their intake of cereals, pulses vegetables as well as eggs/non-vegetarian items. Lowering intakes of pulses and poultry are especially concerning, given that India continues to grapple with the issue of protein deficiency in parallel.
Globally the issues of inadequate protein consumption have been observed to be particularly severe in developing and under-developed countries, characterized by diseases such as ‘Kwashiorkor’ and ‘Marasmus’ – severe conditions of protein energy malnutrition in children. Protein deficiencies also manifest in adults causing muscle loss, weak immunity, cardiac and respiratory conditions as well as poor wound healing. Long term protein deficiencies can also have macroeconomic implications for an economy through the loss of precious man hours of work and productivity due to fatigue and muscle loss. This can have serious consequences for a nation where a majority of the workforce is employed in prolonged hours of grueling manual labor such as agriculture, construction and manufacturing.
So what does India need to do to adjust its sails and avoid an impending nationwide deficiency?
As initiatives and organizations such as Eat Right India, PFNDAI, IDA, Right To Protein, etc. continue to build awareness about protein, our citizens must narrow their focus on balanced meal consumption to fulfil their daily protein requirements.
The Right to Protein initiative recently interviewed over 500 nutrition and health experts recently to determine the roles of various stakeholders in bridging the protein gap in India.
- Nearly 75% of these experts believe that the gradual decline in protein consumption is driven mainly by a lack of awareness and misconceptions amongst people.
- In another study by the initiative, called India’s Protein Paradox, the under-consumption of protein in Indian households can be pinned down to several influencing factors – a crucial one being the inability to identify the correct sources of protein.
- Most households tend to overestimate the amount of protein in foods like milk, green leafy vegetables, fruits, roti and curd, with 81% incorrectly believing that the regular Indian diet consisting of roti, dal, rice is enough for fulfilling a family’s daily protein needs.
- Meanwhile protein-rich food sources like oats, soy, millets, cheese, paneer and chicken were overlooked. Thus evidently, protein consumption is being reduced to a pinch amongst basic staples on the average Indian’s plate.
Where does the responsibility lie?
The Government of India, with its vast reach and resources, is one of the most important drivers of nutritional well-being of the Indian population. An important first step would be to ensure that food subsidies include quality protein-rich foods. NITI Aayog, the Government’s apex think tank has also been talking about subsidizing protein-rich foods like eggs, fish and chicken through the PDS.
Furthermore, through nutrition schemes such as the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls, the Government could not only initiate the discourse on protein but also facilitate practical nudges to citizens, beyond target specific groups. For the Government to be successful, it needs the help of the food producers, the educators, the thinkers, and the media. The food industry has a responsibility to provide better nutritional information to consumers and make investments in healthy food as responsible food firms.
Another greater challenge is the perception amongst a majority of Indian mothers that protein foods are expensive to procure and that there is a lack of variety for vegetarians (Protein Paradox, 2020). There is a need to not only debunk such myths but also offer worthy and affordable alternatives, in the form of protein-fortified foods and plant-based alternatives of protein such as millets, oats and soya bean.
Education institutions can initiate healthy eating campaigns for students and encourage parents to include protein sources in the daily diets. In schools where a mid-day meal is provided to children, the protein constituent of the meal must be assessed and enforced. Finally, professional services for nutrition management in India are becoming the need of the hour and there is a requirement for more nutritionists, dieticians and training institutes in India. Such professionals can play an important role not only through their personal interactions with individuals but also through their ability to initiate industry wide conversations and become an influencing voice on public forums.
So, as India steps into another year as a Republic state and remains committed to curbing malnutrition, there is no better time than now to bring protein sufficiency into focus. And amidst rising public sector conversations around child undernutrition, immunity and food fortification, protein sufficiency fits the discourse.
(Dr. Jagmeet Madan is an eminent nutrition expert, Professor, Principal, Sir Vithaldas Thackersey College of Home Science (Autonomous) SNDTWU, Mumbai and the National President, Indian Dietetic Association, Supporter of the Right To Protein initiative. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)