What’s on your plate ladies?

By Jisha Krishnan

Published on 19th, February, 2018

In a typical Indian household, women are invariably the lowest in the nutrition pecking order. The last to eat, they make do with whatever is left after the men and children have had their fill. It’s a social reality that most of us are aware of, but do we realise its implications?

The 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-4) asked women and men how often they consume various types of foods – green, leafy vegetables, pulses, meat, curd, milk, and fruits. The answers are telling. 

Food fundas

The survey found that almost half (47 per cent) of the women consume dark green, leafy vegetables daily and an additional 38 per cent consume them weekly. Similarly, 45 per cent of women consume pulses or beans daily and an equal percentage of women consume them weekly. When it comes to milk or curd consumption, 45 per cent women have it daily, 23 per cent weekly, and 25 per cent only occasionally. Seven per cent women never consume milk or curd.

The rarest item on the menu is fruits. Fifty-four per cent women said that they do not consume fruits even once a week. Consumption of chicken, meat, fish, and eggs is also rare; although about one-third of women consume these foods on a weekly basis.

Interestingly, the pattern of food consumption by men is similar to that of women, but men are more likely than women to consume milk or curd regularly, as well as fruits, says the survey. Also, men are less likely than women to completely abstain from eating chicken, meat, fish, and eggs. In fact, the pattern of daily food consumption has remained more or less the same since the last survey in 2005-06.

Alarming consequences

A well-balanced and nutritious diet is vital to ensure that adequate amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals are available to the body. Gaps in nutrition due to gender differences are causing mammoth health issues, such as anaemia, for instance. Its prevalence has barely changed over the last decade, decreasing from 55 per cent in 2005-06 to 53 per cent in 2015-16 among women. Among men, the numbers have reduced from 24 per cent in 2005-06 to 23 per cent in 2015-16.

As a country that holds the 131st spot (among 188 countries) on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and 108th place (among 145 countries) on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, India has a long way to go in terms of gender parity. The latest annual economic survey found that while women’s education levels between 2005-06 to 2015-16 has seen an improvement of 13 per cent (from 59.4 per cent to 72.5 per cent), it has been incommensurate with development.

Small steps

Nutrition is, perhaps, a good place to begin. For inspiration, we could look at Karnataka, the first state in the country to propose a Comprehensive Nutrition Mission. Created on a pilot basis in two talukas, the focus is on incorporating public and private sectors in an integrated fashion at the community level. To break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition, the target group includes adolescent girls, pregnant, lactating women, and children below three years of age.

On finding that the ‘take home ration’ given to pregnant and lactating women was often not fully consumed by them, but shared with other family members, the Karnataka government decided last year to call the women to the Anganwadis for their meals. Under the Mathru Poorna scheme, 12 lakhs pregnant and lactating women are offered one nutritious meal daily for 25 days a month. Experts concur that such measures can help reduce the prevalence of anaemia in women and children as well as reduce the incidence of low birth weight and malnutrition among children.

To improve the nation’s health, we need to first address the unjust nutrition pecking order at home. Can we have some fruits for the lady, please?