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Nutrition of the nation

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By N.A.de S. Amaratunga

Adequate nutrition is vital for both physical as well as mental growth and development of the human being. If this development is inadequate the whole nation would not advance in all spheres of human activity, the economic, cultural, sports etc. The creativity, thinking ability, and learning capacity of the nation as a whole would be stunted. The gigantic effort required of the nation to come out of the present economic, social and political crisis will not succeed if people’s nutritional requirements are not met both in the short term as well as in the long term. There are two factors which may hinder progress in solving the current problems in nutrition, one is the cost of living, particularly the high prices of essential food items that could supply the minimum nutritional requirements, and the other is lack of awareness of nutrition and the misconception that more expensive food is more nutritious.

First, let us consider very briefly the nutritional requirements. Humans need carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water for growth and function of the body. It is customary to say that carbohydrates and fats provide energy while proteins are required for growth and replacement of what is lost. Vitamins and minerals are necessary for the utilisation of energy and other body functions.

In more prosperous communities, about 12 to 15 percent of energy is typically derived from protein, 30 to 40 percent from fat, and 50 to 60 percent from carbohydrate in a 2000-calorie daily diet. On the other hand, in many poorer agricultural societies, where cereals comprise the bulk of the diet, carbohydrate provides an even larger percentage of energy, with protein and fat providing less and the requirement in calories could be less than 2000 for them. The human body is remarkably adaptable and can survive, and even thrive, on widely divergent diets.

However, the Asian diet is an ancient and time-honoured way of eating. For thousands of years people of the Asian world have eaten a diet based on plant foods such as rice, vegetables, and fresh fruits. Unlike in the West, meat is rarely the main dish of any meal in the East. Fish is often eaten but not in large quantities.

In many Asian cultures, diet is closely related to religious practices and tradition. It is an extremely healthful diet.

In the Asian diet, rice provides 80% of the carbohydrate requirement and almost 20% of the protein requirement. The shortfall in energy requirement could be met by coconut which usually forms an essential ingredient in the Sri Lankan diet either in “pol sambol”, curry or oil. Coconut also provides essential fibre. Shortfall in protein requirement could be met by lentils, seeds, soy, and vegetables supplemented with a bit of fish. This diet could be further improved by the addition of mushrooms, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other yams. Mushrooms have about 14% protein and several minerals and vitamins. A medium sized potato or sweet potato would have 2 – 3 grams of protein and also minerals and vitamins.

It is seen that large portions of meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese and butter may not be needed to provide the Sri Lankan families with the required amounts of carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. The food items that supply these nutrients are locally produced or imported in adequate amounts. It could be seen that these items are freely available in the market. The problem is the cost. About 40% of people in Sri Lanka cannot afford to buy these items in sufficient amounts to ensure a healthy diet for the family.

Though inflation may have come down, prices of these essential food items have remained high. It is very unfortunate that at present these people cannot afford rice, dhal and one leafy vegetable which if eaten in adequate amounts twice a day, supplemented with breakfast perhaps consisting of rice and “pol sambol” would keep them sufficiently fed and avoid going into malnutrition. Now they are malnourished, children are stunted and their brain development may be retarted. If early action is not taken to solve this problem the nation as a whole would be doomed.

The government must immediately take action to ensure that food items like rice, dhal, and vegetables are within the purchasing power of the less affluent people. At present these items are not within their reach and they cannot buy sufficient quantities required for adequate nutrition. They skip a meal or eat less. The rice marfia has the politician in his pocket. Dhal is imported and high in price. Though vegetables are not too expensive people do not buy them in sufficient quantities required for adequate nutrition. Vegetable sellers find it difficult to sell their produce as people lack the purchasing power or are ignorant of the nutritional value of vegetables. I have heard in a TV programme on nutrition a mother from the village lamenting that she cannot afford to give her child apples and grapes. This may be due to ignorance of what is required for good nutrition.

Now the question arises, how good is rice as a staple food? Some health workers advice to restrict carbohydrate to a quarter of the plate, another quarter to comprise of proteins and half of the plate to be of vegetables and fruits, for health reasons. Is this advisable for our rural people? Can they afford a quarter plate of proteins which will have to be meat, fish or eggs?

Apart from being an excellent source of carbohydrate, rice is an important source of protein. It has a high proportion of lysine and high protein digestibility. Rice protein, which comprises up to eight per cent of the grain, has a special benefit as it has eight of the essential amino acids. Rice is a good source of several vitamins; the B-complex vitamins, especially thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Rice bran also contains beneficial anti-oxidants like tocopherols and tocotrienols (of the Vitamin E family) and oryzanols (Lloyd et al., 2000) which could prevent cancer. Red rice has been found to be rich in iron, zinc magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and manganese (Ahuja et al., 2000). Rice bran also contains essential amino acids (tryptophan, histidine, methionine, cysteine, and arginine) and micronutrients (e. g, and 9 B-vitamins), all of which may work together for health promotion

Too much of white rice, which really is brown rice sans the nutritious bran, could be unhealthy specially for diabetics. By polishing brown rice the important nutritious part, the bran, is removed and the grain is rendered less nutritious and perhaps unhealthy because its glycemic index is increased which means blood glucose levels could rise rapidly which is bad for diabetics. Rice Mafia must understand this and produce more brown rice, government may have to intervene in this regard as well. Health workers must educate the public with correct information on the consumption of rice. The government must make rice available at a price affordable to the poor and also items like dhal, green gram, etc. People must be encouraged to grow in their backyard green leafy vegetables, yams and perhaps a bit of mushroom.

Unless the problem of malnutrition is solved, both in the short term and in the long term our nation, which comprises 40% of less affluent people, will never come out of the economic crisis and will remain heavily indebted to the rich powerful countries. We have been made a vassal state at present due to the misdeeds of the politicians and we will remain so unless the people become healthy with good physical and brain growth.

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