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What is India eating? An unbalanced, carb-heavy diet

Gayatri Vinayak
·5-min read
Vegan lentil curry with vegetables, top view. Healthy vegetarian food background.
Vegan lentil curry with vegetables, top view. Healthy vegetarian food background.

Most Indians eat an unhealthy diet, consuming lower than recommended levels of pulses, legumes, milk, nuts and vegetables and higher than recommended levels of cereals and millets, reveals a report by the Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Nutrition (ICMR-NIN), titled ‘What India Eats.’ According to ICMR-NIN, which has initiated a real-time nation-wide data generation programme on nutrition consumption, this unbalanced diet has caused widespread nutrition deficiencies across the country.

As per findings published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR), the majority of calories that Indians consume come from carbohydrates (65-75 per cent). While there are significant regional differences based on food and cultural practises, this remains true across both rural and urban populations.

India has been grappling with the pandemic and a rise in other lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension and cancer - thus underscoring the importance of eating a balanced diet every day. What we eat determines how healthy our body is, and the report findings corroborate this.

Calories from carbs

The report on What India Eats reveals that an average adult in urban India consumes 1943 Kcal/day, 289 g of carbohydrates, 51.6 gms of fat and 55.4 gms of proteins. Further, the total energy intake from cereals is 998Kcal/day, while that from visible fats and pulses and legumes contribute to only 265Kcal/day and 119Kcal/day, respectively, in urban areas.

This was much higher in rural areas where the total energy intake from cereals was 1358kCal/day, with a much lower intake from fats (145Kcal/day), pulses and legumes (144Kcal/day). The intake of calories from milk and milk products is nearly similar, with 99Kcal/day in urban and 87Kcal in rural areas.

While the report suggests that not more than 45 per cent of energy should be contributed by cereals and millets, in actual, the contribution is much higher at 51 per cent in urban regions and 65.2 per cent in rural areas.

The intake of milk and milk products is also much lower than the recommended levels – only 8.7 per cent in rural areas and 14.3 per cent of the population in urban areas consume as per the daily recommendations.

On the flip side, packaged foods such as chips, biscuits, chocolates, juices, etc, contributed to 11 per cent of the total energy per day, in urban areas as compared to 4 per cent in rural areas. This, along with the reduced intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, increases the chances of diabetes by nearly 30 per cent. Abdominal obesity is also prevalent across the country – at 53.1 per cent in the urban and 18.8 per cent among the rural population.

As per the report, fat intake in the northern part of the country was the highest, at 67.3 gms, and obesity and abdominal obesity was also the highest in the region. The southern states got its maximum proteins from meat, poultry, fish and seafood, while people living in the north-eastern states got their maximum protein (22 per cent) from pulses and legumes.

However, the northeastern states also consumed the highest total calories at 2908Kcal and carbohydrates (457 gms) and had a comparatively higher percentage of people with hypertension (39.6 per cent). The eastern states, on the other hand, saw the highest consumption of vegetables as per the recommended daily intake (49.9 per cent in urban and 28 per cent in rural). The Western part of India had a higher consumption of milk and milk products (11.4 per cent) as compared to the northeast (2.9 per cent).

The ideal plate

Designed by the ICMR-NIN, My Plate for the Day takes into account the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA), to illustrate the proportion of food that should be on the plate to achieve 2000Kcal diet. It recommends sourcing of micronutrients and macronutrients from a minimum of eight food groups daily, in order to have a balanced, nutritious diet.

An ideal daily diet, according to ICMR-NIN, should consist of 350 gms of vegetables, 150 gms of fruits, 270 gms of cereals, 90 gms of pulses, eggs/fish or meat, 20 gms of nuts and seeds and 27 gms of fats and oils. The chart recommends the usage of multiple oils, not just one type. It also advises individuals who are looking to reduce weight to cut down on the cereal intake.

The Plate recommends getting 45 per cent of energy from cereals and millets, 17 per cent energy from pulses and fresh foods and 10 per cent from milk and milk products for the recommended 2000Kcal/day.

Indian traditional food is known to be rich in nutrients, whole spices and herbs. In its recommendations for an immunity-boosting diet, the Ministry of AYUSH has suggested regular intake of herbs and spices such as turmeric and ginger for its medicinal properties. It is also important to use locally sourced millets and cereals high in nutrition and dietary fibre, rather than just opting for wholewheat or rice.

Eating a balanced meal does not have to be expensive. The cost for a wholesome diet, as per the ICMR-NIN, works out to be approximately Rs 78 per person per day for a non-vegetarian menu and Rs 66 per person per day for a vegetarian menu.