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‘Indians consume more refined cereals, less vegetables than they should’
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‘Indians consume more refined cereals, less vegetables than they should’

 Dr Hemalatha R, director of the ICMR-NIN, speaks on the Dietary Guidelines for Indians 2024 about the current diet and nutrition scenario in India and the most common dietary mistakes

Cereals currently contribute 50 to 70 % of the total energy per day in the Indian diet while the new recommendations restrict it to 45% of the total energy. The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) of the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research), recently revised the Dietary Guidelines for Indians, for the first time since 2011. The report linked an alarming 56% of the total disease burden in India to unhealthy diets.

Due to the limited availability and high cost of pulses and meat, a significant proportion of the population relies heavily on cereals, which leads to poor intake of essential macronutrients (essential amino and fatty acids) and micronutrients, the report stated. The low intake of essential nutrients disrupts metabolism and increases risk of insulin resistance and associated disorders from a young age, the report added.

Dr Hemalatha R, director, ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition and President, Nutrition Society of India (NSI) spoke to Happiest Health about the revised guidelines, the current diet and nutrition scenario in India and the most common dietary mistakes Indians are making.

Q: The last set of guidelines/recommendations were released in 2011. Considering the current diet and nutrition scenario in India, tell us some of the major changes you have witnessed in the last 13 years.

A: In the current scenario, people are consuming more cereals across urban and rural areas. We recommend 400 grams of vegetables. People are consuming hardly 150-250 g of vegetables. But 400 grams of vegetables must be consumed for good health. That is not being followed.

Even though cereals are being consumed in higher quantities, people are not consuming whole grains, minimally polished grains, millets etc. So, highly refined grains have turned out to be the main source of major calories for people in India.

Secondly, pulses and beans are being consumed in lower than recommended quantities. While the last released guidelines stated that the cereal to pulses ratio should be 10:1, we have changed that to 3:1 in the latest recommendations. This means, if you take 3 parts cereal, one part can be pulses and beans.

The previous report also did not have specific protein recommendations, which we have now incorporated in the latest guidelines. We have also added more specific recommendations with respect to fat and calories from fat. As per the new report, the total fat intake should be less than or equal to 30 % energy.

We have now categorized foods based on the level of processing that they undergo. There is an important addition- a chapter on reading food labels to help people make informed and healthy food choices.

Q: How has the type of foods that Indians are consuming changed over the past decade or so? Has there been a decline in terms of the quality of food being grown?

Although we do not have the latest data, the dependence on fortified, ultra processed foods is on the rise in India. Ultra processed foods have a high sugar content, a lot of additives, very little fiber and micronutrients.

Packaged foods with a long shelf life that undergo ultra processing are not good for your health, if taken in higher quantities over a long period of time.

Regarding the quality of food being grown, right now, we don’t have enough evidence. We are currently conducting a survey on this – ‘the Diet and biomarker survey’ – which is likely to be completed by the end of this year.

Q: The latest report has linked a whopping 56 % of the total disease burden in India to unhealthy dietary habits. Your thoughts on this?

While malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality rates and mortality rates among children under five years of age have come down, cases of overweight and obesity are on the rise along with diet related non-communicable diseases.

So, while undernutrition-related problems are decreasing, overweight, obesity and unhealthy diet related non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, stroke, chronic kidney disease and fatty liver are all on the rise. That is why this revised dietary guidance for Indians is very important.

Q: In the daily nutrient recommendations for non-vegetarians, chicken/meat contributes to only 70g of the total recommended 1,242 g of foods to be consumed per day. Is this sufficient?

Overconsumption of any food is not good for one’s health. Meat, especially red meat, should be consumed in moderation. For a day 70-80 grams means around 700 grams per week. You consume around 700 grams per week for good health. But if you go above and beyond this- suppose you consume several kilograms of flesh food, it’s not good for your health. That is why meat should be consumed for a good micronutrient status but in moderation.

Q: What about eggs?

Depending on one’s age and body weight, one can consume whole eggs in moderation. It is recommended for both children and adults.

Q: What is the most common dietary mistake Indians are making currently?

We are consuming more cereals, that too, refined cereals whereas we consume very less vegetables, dairy products and meat. Even in the wealthy population that’s what we have seen- vegetable consumption is less. Consumption of pulses and beans varieties is also not sufficient.

Basically, we are consuming less of all nutritious foods and consuming more of highly refined cereal grains.

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