We investigate wellness through adequate protein intake for women in India, with special love for the International Day of the Girl Child, 11th October.
It all started serendipitously, as it always does. In my search for a PCOS diet, I was on the food route to overcome the impact of the condition, and used an app to monitor the carbohydrates, fats, protein and other nutrients, to make it easy to track.
“I can’t meet my daily fat and protein requirements!” was my surprised lament. Can you imagine wanting to meet a fat requirement after all the bad press fats have got in general (and still do)? The issue is exacerbated by the fact that I am vegetarian.
I got many suggestions – make dosais, they have lots of protein, our traditional cuisine has so much, you know? And so I complied to find that a dosai has only 2.5 gms of protein per serving and unless I ate loads, I would still have the same issues of fulfilling these daily dietary requirements. Our traditional cuisines do have a lot of healthy alternatives but it was going to take some mindful combining and menu planning to get enough nutrients on a daily basis.
An Adai (dosai like dish made from rice and lentils) is touted as a high protein dish. The recipe has more rice than dal in it, so some substitutions were made. Still, I was at one-fifths of my carbohydrate requirement and struggling to get just beyond one-tenths of the protein requirement. Tofu is a staple for vegetarians abroad but suddenly, it is all about avoiding soya completely for health reasons!
An investigation into the whys and wherefores brought up some interesting information and myths and I found:
I had to dig much further to find very little information on an important public health problem in India – Protein Energy Malnutrition. Did you know that almost half of our children under five years of age are undernourished in terms of protein? The body requires protein for physical and cognitive growth. When a lack of protein happens during this crucial period of a child’s development, its impact is life long, making it a vicious cycle that is hard to break out of.
Many factors impact this issue – appropriate feeding (including colostrum), maternal nutrition, infections, gender, mother’s literacy, income levels, health care services, urban/rural location, birth order and low birth intervals. With the patriarchal strain woven into every area of our lives, girls and women suffer from issues such as inequitable food portions, early weaning for girls (to prepare for another pregnancy hoping for a male child), etc. While both boys and girls are undernourished, a larger portion of girl children were found to be underweight (49% to boys at 45%).
Undernourished women give birth to low birth weight babies, boys and girls, making our millennium goal of halving the problem of being being underweight a distant dream. Rural populations suffer from undernourishment due to food insecurity while urban populations have to deal with malnutrition – a lack of a balanced meal. While income and poverty are important factors, it is clear that large families and unhygienic environments also contribute to this problem.
I am a middle class woman in India. Neither literacy nor income are issues when it comes to my family’s nutrition and yet, it quickly became evident that it would be easier to meet and surpass the calorie and carbohydrate requirements consistently. The trick is to meet them all, requiring careful attention to our diets and figuring protein levels out with a lot more precision than usual.
Clearly, a non-vegetarian diet is likely to be higher in protein intake though a study has found that 80% of Indians have protein deficient diets, regardless of whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian.
Some foods that are good to keep the protein intake adequate are: Meats, eggs, cereals like millets/quinoa, milk and milk based products (including whey), non-fat Mozzarella, spirulina powder, unsweetened cocoa powder and lentils.
As I worked on this challenge, I found that some principles stayed true for me and these were
Fact based interventions help. We are constantly told stuff like “curry leaves are so good for you, so much iron!” It is true. However, it takes 100 gms of curry leaves to give you 5% of your daily iron requirement. Way to feel like a cow chewing on grass – this is a huge handful for many of us, vegetarian or not!
Please pay special importance to the serving size because in the interest of understating information, sometimes they give you the nutrition for 10 gms of a substance when a bottle of it contains 500 gms. Finishing the bottle will mean you have to multiply calories and all nutrition information by a factor of 50. We are looking for a good protein to calorie/protein to carb ratio.
Extra virgin olive oil can be used to cook over heat. However, it loses a lot of its phenols (anti-oxidant phytonutrients) when heated up. It would be better to use it in salads as dressing.
Flaxseed chutney powder is a lot in vogue. Flaxseeds need to be crushed a bit before adding in cold foods because its lignans need to be made accessible to our body (it won’t get absorbed into the body without crushing) and will lose lignans when cooking with high heat. However, experts okay baking with the seed which is more stable than flax oil.
Without getting into PhD level information, we do need to do a bit more research into whether all this effort is indeed giving our bodies these nutrients we are after.
Starting off on this journey, I was one of those who said, “But I barely eat THAT much! This diet is too much food, not less!” Sure enough, when I started measuring out half a cup of rice is when I figured out exactly how little I was NOT eating before. Like everything else, it adds up…the quantities and the carbohydrates, that is…rarely the protein!
A banana oats smoothie with coconut water tastes amazing. However, doing it consistently means breaking open a coconut every morning in time for breakfast. I don’t know about your home but this is impractical in mine. A spoon of peanut butter being added into the milkshake, however, is a fantastic option – realistic and efficient. A tablespoon of unsalted, unsweetened peanut butter has 3 gms of protein for 3 gms of carbohyrates versus an Adai for 8 gms of protein, 30 gms of carbs!
If my pantry is full of unhealthy stuff, the veggies lose some cool value! If I have not stocked up on the non-fat mozzarella, I am going to nibble on some chakli. Eating well, esp. at this level of watching protein levels takes planning, stocking and re-stocking!
Quinoa has a great nutritional chart. It is also expensive and imported, with a carbon footprint that can’t be great. We have some great millets though – home grown, low on calories and carbs, low glycemic index and high on protein. Substituting millets for quinoa might be what works for you versus stocking quinoa every week at home. We need to take calls on what works in our homes and families for sustainable clean eating.
So go out there and get enough protein in your diet – this is in every cell of our body, in our DNA, enzymes, hormones, haemoglobin, hair, antibodies, nails and bones!
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Image source: Justinc under CC 2.0