Thursday, July 14, 2011


The very definition of food intake is skewed

A couple of months back I wrote on how our policy makers have always pushed wheat and rice through PDS and four other essential commodities, but no pulses which by far are a major source of nutrition and how most of the cereals (especially maize) are used as chicken feed. This was more because of lack of vision at the policy level and naming of such cereals, which educed its acceptability.

Undoubtedly, nutritive foods have never been pushed by our government. Our successive governments and their populist policies have mostly focused on feeding its citizens with two square meals a day (which even today have not materialised) and have rarely cared for a balanced diet. This is prime reason why 46 per cent of the children up to the age of three are malnourished — which is worse when compared to even sub-Saharan African countries. One of every three malnourished children of the world lives in India. This problem is not only damaging on the social front, but also affects the economy severely. The malnourished children tend not to attain their potential — physically or mentally; which has a direct impact on the productivity. According to the World Bank, the problem of malnourishment strike off at least three per cent of potential GDP — making it a case for immediate attention.

Poverty does play a significant role when it comes to nutritive foods, as most of the Indians - owing to high inflation — are currently not able to afforddecent intake of food. As per our official recommendations, the minimum calorie requirement for healthy child in the age group of 1-3 is around 1200 Kcal. This definition is itself skewed and incomplete. As this very requirement can be fulfilled by taking only a particular type of food — say milk, but this would by no means makes a child healthy, as just milk is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement of all the ingredients (Protein, Iron, Calcium, Vitamin, Fiber, Sodium, Cholesterol and Fat) essential for balanced diet. We still have to make adding of Vitamin D during pasteurisation mandatory for the milk producers in India. In US, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made it mandatory to label all food items according to nutrition level which helps the consumer choose food items as per their dietary needs. Some countries have even developed Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) — a recommendation of nutrition intake — to educate the masses about the balanced and healthy food habits. But no such policy is prevalent in India. Here lies an opportunity to reduce the rate of malnourishment by educating the parents about a well balanced diet.

India is a nation with misplaced priorities when it comes to a child's health. The government failed to tackle the problem of malnutrition amongst children despite having two big and expensive schemes — the public distribution system (PDS) and the Integrated Childhood Development Services (ICDS); ICDS being the main efforts to tackle the problem of child malnutrition. But the main focus group has been the children within the age group of 2-5 years which meant that the under-twos and pregnant women barely got the required attention. Unfortunately, those are the groups that required the most consideration as most growth retardation transpires by the age of two and is irreversible. Our policy makers should understand that mere defining of calorie intake and crafting health development plans is not enough. Rather an intense and holistic definition of dietary intake and educating people on the same would lead to a healthy nation.


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