Over 76% mothers believe that vegetarian diets have limited options of protein-rich foods
Protein has been the proverbial underdog on the dinner table in most Indian households. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends that an average adult should consume about one gram of protein per kg of body weight every day. But reality indicates otherwise. The Indian Market Research Bureau suggests that protein deficiency in Indians is more than 80%, and as per the recent National Sample Survey, India has a declining per capita protein consumption in both urban and rural areas.
On this occasion of Protein Day, observed on February 27theach year, let's look into the reasons behind protein deficiency in India and what needs to be done to address this challenge.
Why is protein intake in India a challenge?
The under-consumption of protein in Indian households can be pinned down to several influencing factors. The Protein Paradox Study by Right to Protein, that surveyed over 2142 mothers across 16 cities to understand the reasons why protein was ignored in an Indian household, an insight that emerged was the misinformation surrounding protein and its consumption. Nearly 95% of Indian mothers know of protein as a macro-nutrient but only 3% really understand its important functions and why one should consume it!
There is also a prevalent myth that a basic meal comprising of dal, roti and rice is enough to meet the daily requirements of protein. Both plant and animal-based foods which are high in protein content also remained unidentified. This is a cause for concern, especially in India where a majority of the population follow either a vegetarian or a flexitarian diet (casual vegetarianism), even plant-based sources of protein go unnoticed.
Lack of adequate know-how about vegetarian sources of protein
Over 76% mothers believe that vegetarian diets have limited options of protein rich food compared to non-vegetarian diets. This also makes it hard to break the myth that vegetarian diets fail to provide the right amount of protein.
A well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all the necessary nutrients, including protein. High protein sources such assoybeans, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, nuts and seeds are all great examples of quality vegetarian protein.
"Consumption of protein-rich food and pulses which are inexpensive and a natural choice, high in fibre and rich source of iron also, need to be made known of, for instance Soybean is a complete protein comparable to animal protein.", says Dr Raj Bhandari, Member, National Technical Board of Nutrition and Health at NITI Aayog.
Soybean is a source of high-quality protein. It is not just a rich source of plant protein but is also rich in iron, fibre, phosphorus, and several other vital nutrients. It is also a high-quality vegetable protein which is beneficial for both humans and animals. For animals, it is a universal acceptable feed due to its high protein content and suitable amino acid profile. Being a highly digestible protein for animals, Soybean's notable benefits make it a great choice for standard animal feed in several parts of the world, including India.
The quality of protein warrants a focus as much as thequantity of protein does. "Not just the quantity, quality of protein also needs to be focused on. Digestibility of protein consumed also needs to be consideration," Dr. Bhandari adds
Other good sources of vegetarian protein are pulses, which also offer other nutrients like fibre and iron. A similar sentiment is shared by Ms. Inoshi Sharma, Director - Social and Behaviour Change at FSSAI who asserted, "If you are following a plant-based diet or you are a vegetarian, you get all the requirements of protein. A combination of rice/wheat and dal is a wholesome meal and added with some vegetables and salad, fulfils all the nutritional requirements for the entire day. This misconception that exists that vegetarians lack protein is not correct."
Understanding the way forward
The solution to tackling protein deficiency in India starts with raising awareness about the macronutrient and its importance in each meal. This is where cause-awareness days like Protein Day come to play - it is an opportunity to clarify the prevalent myths around protein consumption, some of which include 'protein is difficult to digest', 'leads to weight gain' and is 'only for body builders'.
Public health experts can also focus on educating people about the importance of protein and can share different ways to add it to daily diets.
"Protein is required for several reasons. From hormones to tissue formations, your body requires protein to fulfil a variety of functions. It is important to have enough education around protein, its sources and requirement. We are a carb-loving country. There is a need to have more conversation about the hidden gems in Indian diet that are loaded with protein," says Manjari Chandra, lead of Assocham Women Foundation Wellness and Nutrition.
These experts also went on to suggest that there is a need to work on both supply and demand. Through various schemes and programs, the government can make protein sources accessible to each part of the population. An uninterrupted supply of protein-rich foods to each section of the society may help bridge the gap.
Collective efforts can help ensure good quality and quantity of protein at every meal. Even minor diet modifications can play a big role in maintaining optimal health. This Protein Dayshould be a reminder to include plant-based protein-rich whole foods alongside all other protein foods from both plant and animal sources and consume them in adequate quantities for overall health and better nutrition. A useful tool to help you identify all the protein rich is the Protein Index.
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