India at 74: Is it not time to get freedom from protein ignorance?
New Delhi: Our country’s struggle for independence persists in several facets – a critical one being, freedom from malnutrition and undernourishment. A country of 1.35 billion people, India has many titles to its name – the world’s largest democracy, the fastest-growing trillion-dollar economy, the second-largest online market in the world and home to some of the world’s most ancient surviving civilizations. Today, more than seven decades years since its Independence, the sovereign, democratic, republic of India stands among global titans with a trajectory of transformation like no other. On the other hand, according to the Global Hunger Index 2019, nearly half of the world’s hungry are known to be living in our country; and we rank 102 out of 117 nations. The record of high economic growth over the past few decades has not transformed the nutritional status of its population to the extent necessary. In fact, there is much that has been said about the paradoxical burden of a parallel rise in malnutrition – the co-existence of undernutrition and obesity – that is affecting the poor and the rich, the urban and rural.
Despite access to food now more than ever before, and rising income levels that cut across states and income classes, studies indicate that Indians may not necessarily be eating better (NSSO 2011-12). With beliefs, habits, taste and preferences on food changing every thousand kilometres in a country with such diversity, there lacks uniformity in awareness and knowledge on adequate nutrition. This is particularly pronounced for protein consumption in India, as evidenced by studies that indicate 93% of India’s population are unaware about their daily protein requirements (IMRB) and 68% people in rural and urban regions have lower than adequate protein content in their body (IPSOS 2018).
A recent study evaluating the cause-and-effect relationship for India’s lurking protein challenges identified three concern areas that require immediate attention – poor knowledge that leads to poor consumption, myths and misinformation barriers, and passive consumption of protein foods as they remain unidentifiable by majority households. Ironically, these concerns areas were identified among a population of 2,142 Indian mothers across 16 cities (the primary decision-makers of a household’s nutrition intake) where 95% claimed to know protein as a macronutrient and believed it was “very important” (Protein Paradox Study, 2019-20).
In a country like India, where daily meals are carbohydrate-heavy, macronutrients like protein that have traditionally been overlooked as an important component of daily meals. The aforementioned study also revealed over 81% of mothers incorrectly believe that the basic Indian diet consisting of just roti, dal and rice is enough for daily protein needs. This misconception, when coupled with an inability to identify the correct functions and sources of protein, leads to households in India holding back protein intake to a pinch with basic staples. This is an irony, especially when there is a myriad of easily available protein-rich plant and animal foods in the country, which include paneer, fish like mackerel, soy and peanuts and seeds like chia or sunflower.
What do we need to do is to adjust its sails and avoid an impending nationwide deficiency? Protein deficiency today remains an under-debated issue in India, making it not just a public health problem, but also a behavioural one.
Of all the rights Indians exercise today as citizens, the ‘right to food’, enshrined in the Constitution under Article 47 (duty of the state to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health) is one of the most important fundamental rights for the overall wellbeing of the nation’s diaspora. So, championing the right to adequate nutrition through protein sufficiency as a foundational and basic right of the citizens of the Indian republic is the first step.
The Government of India, with its vast reach and resources, is one of the most important drivers of the nutritional well-being of the Indian population. It is imperative that the Government initiate the discourse on the right to protein for each citizen not just through awareness but also through practical nudges to citizens. For the Government to be successful, it needs the help of the food producers, the educators, the thinkers, the industry experts (nutritionists, dieticians and wellness experts) and finally the fourth estate – the media. There is a need to not only debunk myths but also offer worthy and affordable and sustainable alternatives, in the form of protein-fortified foods and plant-based alternatives, to the trigger the transformation from the struggle of protein insufficiency to a nutritionally sound India.
Nmami Agarwal is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.