A total of 74.1% of Indians were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2021, a report published by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation on Tuesday showed.

This is a slight improvement from 76.2% of Indians not being able to afford a healthy diet in 2020, according to the 2023 Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition report.

The United Nations defines a healthy diet for adults as food that includes at least 400 gms of fruit and vegetables per day as well as nuts and whole grains. It also says that a healthy diet should have less than 10% of the total energy intake from free sugars, less than 30% of total energy intake from fats and less than 5 gms of salt.

In other parts of South Asia, 82.8% of Pakistani citizens could not afford a healthy diet in 2021, the global food security agency’s report showed. This is the worst performance by any country in the Asia-Pacific region.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, the figure stood at 66.1% during the same year, and 76.4% in Nepal.

In Maldives, only 1.2% of citizens could not afford a healthy diet, according to the report.

The agency said that if rising food costs are not matched by an increase in income, it would lead to more people failing to afford a healthy diet. “If food costs rise at the same time [as] incomes fall, a compounding effect occurs that can result in even more people unable to afford healthy diets,” the agency warned.

The United Nations agency said that while the overall conditions in eastern Asia and southern Asia had improved between 2020 and 2021, unaffordability also increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The outbreak of Covid-19 and a lack of decent work opportunities in many parts of the region, alongside significant uncertainty of food systems and markets, led to a worsening of inequality, affecting poorer families disproportionately,” it said.

The agency said that during the pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region witnessed “harrowing statistics” in terms of the “5Fs crisis – food, feed, fuel, fertilisers and finance”.

“Even to date, the region is still suffering from some protracted effects,” the agency said. “The latest statistics indicate that the region, with 370.7 million undernourished people, continues to represent half of the global total.”

It said that the Asia-Pacific region also accounts for half of the world’s severe food insecurity, with more women than men lacking enough safe and nutritious food. “Prevalence rates on stunting, wasting and overweight among children under five years of age, as well as anaemia among women of reproductive age, are still off the [mark] in terms of [the] World Health Assembly global nutrition targets,” the report said.

The report said 16.6% of India’s population was undernourished as of 2021. “The impacts of undernourishment extend beyond health and nutritional well-being to include economic and social costs,” it said.

The report also showed that 31.7% of the children under the age of five in 2021 were malnourished in India. “Stunted growth and development are the result of poor maternal health and nutrition, inadequate infant and young child feeding practices, and repeated infections interacting with a variety of other factors over a sustained period,” it said.

In terms of wasting, or the condition in which a person has a low weight in comparison to their height, 18.7% children in India were suffering from this ailment. India’s figure was the highest in the Asia-Pacific region.

In October, the 2023 Global Hunger Index ranked India 111th out of 125 countries. India scored 28.7 on a scale of 100 where 0 is the best score. The index, published by non-governmental organisations Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfe, had categorised India’s severity of hunger as serious.

Also read: High undernourishment, gender disparity: India’s nutrition trends align with hunger index findings