When the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare sent out a tweet on Monday asking Indians to choose what they eat wisely to live well, it seemed to have overlooked a key aspect of malnutrition in India. Many Indians suffer from protein deficiencies and foods like meat and eggs are the best complete sources of protein.
In its tweet, the health ministry shared an image comparing two body types. One was an outline of a the body of a curvy woman within which were illustrations of unhealthy foods like chips, donuts, fries and soft drink and also of meat and eggs. The second body type was that of a lean woman within which were drawings of fruits, vegetables and grain. The tweet was deleted later in the day but not before social media pointed out that the ministry seemed to be promoting vegetarianism and calling meat unhealthy, even as it also indulged in some casual fat-shaming.
The image itself has been lifted off a website that offered stock images, as one Twitter user pointed out, and so has not been designed for a health ministry nutrition campaign. But whether the ministry expressly intended to or not, it ended up sending out a message that vegetarianism is healthy and meat and eggs are not.
Here is a problem with such a message.
Proteins are essential building blocks of the human body necessary for growth and repair. Protein energy malnutrition has been a major public health problem in India for decades. Protein energy malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation, is an imbalance between the supply of protein and energy and the body’s demand for them to ensure optimal growth and function. It particularly affects young children showing up as stunting underweight (low weight for age), stunting (low height for age) and wasting (low weight for height). The latest round of the National Family Health Survey shows that 36% of India’s children are underweight, 21% are wasted and 38% are stunted. Protein deficiencies not only affect physical growth but also cognitive development and can lead to permanent impairment in later life.
Protein energy malnutrition also affects adults. A consumer survey in 2015 found that the diets of nine out of 10 Indians is protein deficient. Pregnant women across India also suffer this form of malnutrition, which not only affects their health but the health of their children.
A variety of foods are sources of protein – pulses, legumes, milk, eggs, meat and fish. However, as the dietary guidelines of the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad points out, animal proteins are of high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in right proportions, while plant or vegetable proteins are not of the same quality because of their low content of some of the essential amino acids.
This is not to say that a person cannot get their protein requirement from a vegetarian diet but that such a diet will have to contain a combination of cereals, millets and pulses to provide all the amino acids that build better quality proteins.
In fact, eggs are the best sources of protein having a very high biological value – the metric used to measure protein content.
Biological value of protein in different foods
The existing protein deficiencies threaten to get worse since protein content in both plant and animal food in India seem to be declining. A report from the National Institute of Nutrition in 2017 showed that, for example, in 20 years since between 1993 and 2013 protein levels in beans fell around 60%, brown lentil by about 10% and in goat meat by about 5%. Some of the depletion may be due to more intense agriculture practices and changing climate that is leaving soil nutrient deficient.
Given the severity of protein malnutrition in the country, Indians should get their protein from whatever sources are available to them making the health ministry’s willful or inadvertent labelling of high protein sources like eggs and meat as unhealthy a bad move.