The results of the recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, which analysed the average Indian diet to find out how it has changed in the last decade, are an eye opener in many ways. The survey found that while almost half of urban Indians consume milk, pulses and green vegetables every day, the consumption of meat products is much lower. Less than seven per cent consume fish or eggs daily. For chicken and meat intake, the figure is less than two per cent. And what appalled me was the gender gap in daily milk/curd intake in the 15-20 years' age group (more boys have dairy products), and the fact that vegetarianism is more common among women.
I don’t understand the reason, but I am concerned. Due to the dual perspective I get as a practising nutritionist and health writer-researcher, I see the misinformation that is floating about macronutrients - fat, carbohydrates and the protein - from close quarters. I see it everywhere in all age groups, and all strata of society. And I am worried about protein in particular.
Even today, in this age of "too much information", I hear people say things like: Oh, I get enough protein because I have vegetables and fruits every day. Let's get the facts straight: vegetables and fruits are poor sources of protein, unlike dairy, meats, legumes and soya.
Try a chat with legumes or a mixed bean salad like sundal. Photo: Spices N Flavors
The NFHS data exemplifies that protein intake for many of us might be much less than required, particularly for women, specially those who are vegetarian and don't have enough dairy in their diet, too. That’s unfair because let me be blunt - we simply can’t exist without enough protein, and a deficiency can have a drastic effect on our health.
Why is protein so important?
Firstly, protein is needed on a daily basis, as it is not stored in the body. Any excess gets used up as energy or gets converted into fats or carbohydrates. Thus deficiency will lead to depletion of our muscles mass, which we must avoid at all costs.
Experiment more with soya.
Secondly, every body part is made up of protein, and we need it on a daily basis for the maintenance, upkeep, and regeneration of all our body cells, and organs - right from hair to hormones, antibodies to nerves, and haemoglobin to bones.
That is why it’s important to look out for signs of protein deficiency - sluggish metabolism, loss of muscle mass, low energy levels and fatigue, and a general feeling of unexplained tiredness, foggy brain, poor concentration, moodiness and mood swings, muscle, bone and joint pain, slow wound healing, and low immunity.
Who's at risk of protein deficiency?
Growing teenagers, fitness enthusiasts and athletes who exercise regularly (as they burn more calories and use more protein to build muscle), pregnant and lactating women (their needs are biologically higher) and vegetarians and vegans (they don't get enough complete protein) tend to have higher protein needs.
The elderly (because as we age our digestion and ability to use protein gets less efficient), those recovering from an acute illness or injury (to heal you need at least one and a half times the normal protein recommendations), those who are stressed (stress hormones increase muscle and tissue breakdown in times of both physical and emotional stress), people on a weight loss diet (adequate protein is needed for weight loss to balance blood sugars and prevent muscle breakdown), and those with digestive issues or low levels of stomach acid (to digest protein, one must have adequate stomach acid or HCL) too need to pack more protein in their diets.
And on the basis of the data unveiled, I would like to add most women to this list.
Even if you don't fall in any of the categories, it pays to make sure that your protein intake is up to the mark.
All of us need enough good quality protein on a routine basis to lead a healthy and active life, and a balanced diet can help ensure that. But what is important to know (and not many know it) is that both the quantity as well as the quality of protein are essential. Quality is more important. Not all food sources of protein contain all the nine essential amino acids our body requires to support muscle and cell health.
Try supplements if your protein needs are higher than others'.
It needs to be mentioned here that many vegetarian protein sources (cereals and lentils) are incomplete. And since the majority of the protein content in Indian diets comes from vegetarian sources, they tend to be predominantly low in quality protein.
Where protein needs are not being met through food, supplementation with a high quality protein source might become necessary to help to bridge the dietary gap, specially for high requirement groups.
Trust Sattu. Photo: Aaj Tak
Take protein seriously. Look closely at your plate to check if there is enough high quality protein in there. If not, ensure it consciously, to help keep serious health issues at bay and lead efficient lives.