Changing food culture could be cause of malnutrition: Research

Wisespeak:Senior citizens talking to field workers during the survey conducted on change in dietary habits by students of Azim Premji University.

Wisespeak:Senior citizens talking to field workers during the survey conducted on change in dietary habits by students of Azim Premji University.

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Fifty years ago, our food palate looked very different from what it does today. When a group of grandmothers from Mandya, Mysuru and Yadgir districts were asked by researchers about the change in dietary patterns since their childhood, the list of food items they ate then could fill a book.

It included pearl millet, barley, 20 types of green leaves, bamboo shoots, tubers, beaten rice, different types of corn, black sesame, wild berries, and more. They also ate a lot more variety of wild meat compared to the broiler chicken, which has become standard fare now.

“Today, we don’t have access to many of these items, as we have been cut off from forests, and that is affecting the health of young children,” said one grandmother.

These revelations were part of a survey conducted by a team of researchers at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, who recorded the weight and height of 5,344 students in classes one to five in government primary schools in the three districts.

They found that children below the normal range of body mass index varied from about 29 per cent in Yadgir to about 31 per cent in the tribal block of HD Kote taluk in Mysuru. Older children (8-11) were significantly more underweight (an average of 33 per cent) than children between five and seven (an average of 27 per cent).

The team also had group discussions and interviews with 111 women in the age group of 55 to 65 to study the changes in food choices over their lifetime. While economic levels are a factor, the researchers second what the grandmothers feel: changes in dietary patterns could be contributing to malnutrition.

“There is a need to look at the contribution of changing food culture to malnutrition. For instance, families have stopped eating millets because cultivation has reduced, and rice has become the staple food due to easy availability,” said Professor Shreelata Rao Seshadri, who anchors the Health, Development and Society Initiative at Azim Premji University,

Research coordinator Suraj Parab said for many members from tribal communities in Yadgir and HD Kote, the variety of vegetables and meat available had reduced as they were now restricted from entering forests. 

Girls less underweight

“While the number of traditional foods has gone down, the number of snacks has gone up substantially. Packaged snacks have become common even in remote tribal hamlets,” said N. Latha, research associate at APU. A working paper of the study has been published on the university’s website.

An interesting aspect revealed by the research was that girls were less underweight than boys.

Nilanjan Bhor, who is part of the research team, said this was observed over all three groups surveyed. “When we asked mothers, they said the boys came home from school, threw their bags and went to play, while the girls stayed at home after school and had access to the kitchen, so ate better.”

“We used to eat a variety of meat earlier. Now we only eat chicken, but we’re getting health problems because the chicken is not of good quality,” said a woman from HD Kote

Another senior citizen from Yadgir added: “We used to eat traditional dishes, like obbattu and payasa, but today’s kids eat chocolate, biscuits and mithais from sweet shops and suffer.”

‘Families have stopped eating millets and rice has become the staple food due to easy availability’

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