Today, the world is reeling from the widespread effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, not discounting its effect on global food systems and security. So, this year’s World Food Day, with the theme of #ZeroHunger, also calls for bolder action to combat the impact of the pandemic on food and nutrition production, reach, access, awareness and practice. The capacities of various countries to maintain the momentum on their respective nutrition agendas are in the spotlight, and there is a pressing threat of reversal of the substantial gains made. The dialogue is now on making global food systems fit enough to sustain any volatility, climate shocks, deliver sustainable healthy, and affordable diets as nations pull through the global health crisis.

Hunger is crucial to combat but only food is not enough

While hunger is still a major challenge in many parts of the world, the burden of malnutrition in countries like India are also a result of increasing nutrition deficiencies, especially among children. Indian diet composition continues to be cereal centric notwithstanding the fact that a cereal-based diet does not meet the caloric composition of a healthy diet – and diseases like obesity and malnutrition are a by-product of this phenomenon.

According to a 2019 UNICEF report, consumption of protein-based calories is negligible for Indian children and its intake share remains unchanged in the last two decades. And the signs of malnutrition are everywhere – in India, every second child is affected by some form of malnutrition – stunting (35%), wasting (17%), underweight (33%) and overweight (2%). While there is a rise in the income level of an average Indian over the years, the corresponding change in the food habits of both urban and rural populations have remained comparatively negligible.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) asserts that food security in our times isn’t only a matter of quantity, it’s also a question of quality. People who experience moderate levels of food insecurity or worse, including those who do not have regular access to enough nutritious food, are at greater risk of various forms of malnutrition. Hence, addressing the problem of hunger is of substance this World Food Day, but the kind of food is made available to curb that hunger is also equally substantial.

The concerning statistics – a case of the east of India

A study titled Protein Paradox conducted by nationwide public health initiative Right to Protein in 2020 found out that the lack of protein knowledge among mothers in several parts of the country, might be concerning for its next generation. The knowledge-perception-practice gaps that contribute to this concern were especially pronounced among mothers in the east of India:

– The functions and sources of protein are undermined across the region – less than 50% in East India are aware of protein’s association w/ immunity and even less of the population associate it with muscle building (44%), tissue repair (12%), and the ability to control blood sugar (21%). Overall, 70% of mothers feel that supplements are better than whole foods for protein, but 60% don’t feel the need to fortify diets with either form of protein sources

– In Kolkata, need and importance of protein is undermined with prioritization of vitamins and minerals – Over 70% of mothers in the city feel that supplements are better than whole foods for protein, but 60% don’t feel the need to fortify diets with protein sources. Furthermore, in a predominantly non-vegetarian eating city, more than 75% mothers believe any homemade food has protein, as they also claim vegetarian diet has limited options of protein rich food as compared to non-veg diet

– Low usage behavior seen in Patna – Nearly 82% mothers from Patna feel that their child/children’s diet currently is low on protein, but more than half feel that even if they lack protein, it doesn’t impact their overall health

– Only a pinch of the actual requirement given to children in Jamshedpur – 91% mothers from Jamshedpur feel that importance of protein increases with increasing age and 80% feel that children cannot digest protein rich food as easily as adults do and 82% believe supplements aren’t meant to be given to children. Instead, 93% would prioritize vitamins and minerals over protein for their children

The Bottom Line

These findings exhibit a pattern of low awareness influencing behaviour which could be pose a multitude of public health challenges for the next generation. We are, however, in a favourable period to pivot in to adopting essential changes that could help India correct course. The Protein Paradox study further outlines key recommendations that every stakeholder in the country must execute in-order to achieve this common goal.

Beginning with recommendations for the Government to introduce dedicated programmes in India that focuses solely on driving protein awareness and therefore, encourage adequate protein consumption in daily diets of average Indians, while bringing a change in nutrition polices to focus on quality of nutrition alongside the quantity.

Further, the study suggests educational institutions can create awareness by initiating healthy eating campaigns for students and their parents. This includes encouraging parents to include protein sources in the daily diets of their children. Active participation of parents and teachers in canteen decisions and dedicated sessions on the role of protein and other nutrients for well-being is a must to inculcate the right eating choices at a young age.

The study also recommends using media as an effective tool for imparting nutrition education and promoting the consumption of certain micro and macro nutrients to spread awareness about protein requirements and sources, to dispel myths and expand the acceptability.