Building blocks of immunity: Are Indian women getting enough protein?
Living in the shadow of a pandemic, many of our conversations have suddenly turned to the question of a healthy immune system. While we hear a lot of talk about nutrient-rich superfoods, one of the basic issues that gets ignored is the amount of proteins we eat on a daily basis.
Proteins are the basic building blocks of immunity. Importantly, proteins form the antibodies that help fight bacteria and viruses that cause infections. When bacteria and viruses enter the body, antibodies tag them for destruction and elimination.
What data shows
It’s alarming to know that Indians are now eating less protein than they did in the 1990s. Some data show that while rural Indians ate 60.2g of protein daily in 1993-94, this number dropped down to 56.5 g by 2011-12. In the same period, urban Indians dropped protein consumption from 57.2g to 55.7g
What’s more, these numbers are even more worrisome for women, because they eat far less than men. Women often eat less protein because they are conditioned to feel they have to feed everybody else, and so they sacrifice their share. In a 2017 survey based on 60 million food logs by over 1.5 million people, it was found that found that women consume 13% less protein less than men.
Cooking proteins properly
One of the main barriers to women eating enough protein is the bad rap that legumes (dals and beans) have got recently. I often hear patients complain that legumes give them gas. But that happens because people often do not take the trouble to cook them properly.
The kind of legumes we consume also makes a difference to how our digestive system reacts to them. Nowadays when we think of eating legumes, most people automatically think of chana. However, our staples have been dals like toor dal, urad and moong dal, while legumes like chana were eaten more occasionally.
Previous generations also better understood the importance of properly combining together carbs and proteins. With dishes like sambar-rice or dal-rice, proteins, carbs, fats and the many micronutrients of vegetables are brought together. Similarly, dishes like idli combine carbohydrates and proteins to deliver the complete mix of amino acids, which makes it a complete protein, and that may not be present in either one alone.
Vegetarian proteins for all
Getting this mix of amino acids is somewhat difficult for vegetarians as this needs a careful combination of cereals, pulses, beans, nuts, and dairy products. While meats are a more-ready source, non-vegetarian Indians aren’t spared of protein deficiencies either. This is because there’s far more focus on creating rich tasty foods that are heavier on fats and carbs. And meat eaters often tend to neglect other important sources of protein.
The signs that women and girls are eating less protein are apparent. So many women talk about hair fall these days. In most cases, that’s because of lack of protein. Other common symptoms of protein deficiency include lack of bone and muscle strength and excess fatigue. Proteins are needed everywhere. So, if you are not eating enough protein, the effects show on your body.
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