Falling protein intake of rural Indians should be of greater concern rather than declining calorie consumption or rising fat content in urban diets, say nutrition experts and economists.
According to the latest National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) consumption data collected over 2004-05, except for a few coastal states where fish is the staple source of protein and that have bucked the trend, almost all the 15 states that were surveyed, and especially the northern ones, have shown a fall in calorie as well as protein intake in rural areas, especially since 2000-01.
This is being attributed to the existing agriculture and food security policies, which have emphasized cultivation of rice and wheat to the exclusion of coarse grains and pulses which traditionally have been the primary source of protein for the rural poor.
“There’s much to be said about our traditional knowledge base and food habits that favoured coarse grains and pulses, which are all based on scientific principles and local supply,” said Pronab Sen, secretary in the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, which looks after the NSSO.
“Both pulses and coarse grains were neglected by the green revolution, which by its very nature encouraged intensive cultivation of high-yielding wheat and rice varieties. This, along with subsidized seeds and the guaranteed purchases, encouraged a decline in sowing of pulses, which is a short-duration intercropping plant, as well as of coarse grains, which were being cropped more for own use,” Sen added.
Production of pulses has stagnated at the level of 14 million tonnes over the last decade and more.
According to Ishi Khosla, an independent nutrition expert, protein deficiency can lead to general health problems that range from indigestion and fatigue to physiological changes in skin and hair texture and a decline in immunity.
“All hormones and enzymes, for instance, are protein-based, so the implications of deficiency can be serious,” said Khosla. “Absolute deficiency of protein can also mean an excessive intake of carbohydrates, which leads to general degeneration accompanied with obesity, heart illnesses and even diabetes in more serious cases.”
Prema Ramachandran, director, Nutrition Foundation of India (NFI), a Delhi-based non-government scientific research institution, believes that the decline in calorie consumption has been an established trend for awhile.
Quoting an NFI paper prepared for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, she says that the reported monthly per head “consumption” of cereals in high-income households in rural areas in 1972-73 was about 26.2kg, or about 1kg a day, which declined to 14.4kg in 1999-2000, or about 0.5kg.
Ramchandran believes that policymakers need to be more concerned about the decline in rural protein intake and the rise in urban fat intake.
“From the calorie capital of the world, we are now getting to be the fat capital,” she says.
In rural areas, the average per-person intake of calories has gone down from 2,266kcal in 1972-73, to 2,153kcal in 1993-94 and even further to 2,047kcal in 2004-05.
The intake of protein in this period has fallen from 62g to 60.2g and then again to 57g. The fat intake, on the other hand, is up from a low of 24g to 35.5g—an increase of 47.9%.
While the fall in calorie consumption has been less sharp among urban Indians, from 2,107kcal to 2,071kcal and then to 2,020kcal in 2004-05, their fat intake has gone up by 32% in as many years, from 36g in 1972-73 to 47.5g in 2003-04.
The highest fat intake is in Punjab (rural 58.7g and urban 61g), while the highest protein intake is in Rajasthan (urban 65g and rural 69.6g).
Quoting data from diet surveys over 1979-2002, which are not done by the NSSO but by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, an NFI study says that the average dietary intake of cereals even in the highest rural income group never exceeded 400g per day.
Ramachandran makes a case for bringing back pulses and coarse grains into the policy ambit to arrest this trend. According to the NFI study, from 3.4kg of rice and wheat a month, the consumption of rice and wheat by the poorest classes went up to 8.3kg in 1999-2000, while consumption of coarse cereals went down from 2.4kg to 1.4kg.
Interestingly, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal and Orissa—which are states that have a comparatively higher tribal population—all have a fat intake of less than 30g. Orissa has the lowest fat intake of 17.8g.
Experts say that the uniform rise in prices of pulses and coarse grains such as maize or millet, comparative to subsidized rice and wheat distributed through fair price shops, as well as a consistent breakdown of traditional lifestyles and eating habits, has also contributed to this unhealthy trend.
Last year, the prices of pulses ranged between Rs30 and Rs80 per kg. Basmati rice was also more or less in the same range. As compared to that, wheat ranged between Rs7.60 and Rs8.20 per kg between April and May in New Delhi.
“What’s a poor person to do?” asks Ramachandran. “Can you name a single coarse grain that is available cheaper than wheat in the market? Policymakers should even think of cross-subsidizing coarse grains. Let the rich buy it from the market as health food, and let the government sell it cheap through the public distribution system.”
Some states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and parts of Orissa have already begun supplying coarse cereals such as millet (ragi) and bajra, while Gujarat has started giving out maize in some areas, says Ramachandran.
With pulses in short supply and its prices showing an unprecedented surge, it is beginning to impact the pulses component of food supplements being provided to schoolchildren under the mid-day meal programme.
According to Rajeshwari Ramana, a research scholar with NFI, in many parts of the country, the practice of giving khichdi or rice and pulses to schoolchildren has almost stopped, and instead it has been replaced with rice and milk gruel.
Sen, however, feels that the alarm over increasing fat intake is misplaced. “Fat intake is still only 47.5g in urban areas, which is way below the nutritional norms laid down by the Indian Council of Medical Research. It says that a balanced diet should include 67g of fat and an equal amount of protein.”
Sen’s contention is that the decline in protein intake in rural areas is a direct effect of the decline in mixed cereal consumption as well as substitution with other aspirational foods.
(Pragya Singh and Sangeeta Singh contributed to this story.)