How we fell into the trap of eating the same foods
No single food contains all the nutrients you need for good health.
Nutritionists the world over concur that a diverse diet is necessary for healthy living. Plural diet is what provides the body with a multitude of micronutrients, such as vitamin A, iron, zinc, folic acid, iodine, thiamine and so on. These ensure the body’s physical and cognitive well-being. A thin dietary profile leads to micronutrient deficiency in the body, something that is referred to as “hidden hunger” in nutrition parlance. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two billion people in the world suffer from “hidden hunger.” But, since exactly when have we been hungry the “hidden” way? And what exactly was it that led to the erosion of diversity from our plates? And how is it affecting us now? And what can we do to fix it?
Great nutrition fraud
Radical as it may seem, entertain for a moment the proposition that what we thought to be our greatest benefactor was actually one of the most ravaging malefactor: agriculture. It came about as a way to stabilise food: to make its availability less random and unpredictable. It was a fundamental rupture that changed human history. The complex superstructure of human civilisations grew out of this new deal with nature. But Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that agriculture has been history’s greatest “fraud”—a disruptive force, whose effect is being felt profoundly in our every day lives.
About two million years ago, the hunter gatherer culture developed among the early humans of Africa. They gathered wild plants and hunted wild animals for sustenance, before they made that seminal turn, about 10,000 years ago, to domesticating plants and animals. From a foraging lifestyle, humans now “sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from ground and led sheep to pastures” all day. “Rather than heralding a new era of easy life, the agricultural revolution left people with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of the foragers, who preceded them,” writes Harari in his 2014 classic, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “They spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease,” he notes.
Agony of agriculture
Human bodies were not used to the constant, repetitive, machine-like labour of agriculture. The tilling of land, the fetching of water, all took a toll on human skeletons and, studies show, the arrival of arthritis, slipped discs and hernia coincided with that of agriculture.
There was another, silent, unnoticed fallout of this transition to agriculture and its subsequent institutionalisation: the loss of dietary diversity. Early humans consumed a wide variety of foods, grains being a minor element in their diet. With the “staple-isation" of grains, average human diets lost out on crucial minerals and vitamins.
A small elite among them managed well, all along. Wondrously textured dishes were created for them, an endless cornucopia, embellished by rich nuts and fruits. But the majority of humanity toiled for thin gruel, literally. For an average Chinese peasant, Harari says, it was rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner.
Diet to disease
The erosion of diet plurality led to the deficiency of micronutrients. The deficiencies, in turn, led to a string of diseases. Iron deficiency, for instance, is linked to anaemia: fatigue, reduced physical work capacity, at times adverse pregnancy and birth-related outcomes. Every fifth man and every second woman in India is anaemic, the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) found. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness and increases the risk of disease and death from infection.
There is more. A majority of Indians take less than the recommended levels of micronutrients. A typical urban Indian household consumes a measly 22.8 per cent of the Vitamin A it should, and only half of the ideal levels of Riboflavin, a vitamin of the B group. Calcium and iron intake is at 67 per cent and 77.6 per cent respectively—and that’s an average, with zones of utter deficiencies.
Twelve food solution
The solution to this nutritional crisis is simple—a broad, assorted diet that includes foods from possibly all these 12 food groups: cereals and millets; pulses and legumes; green leafy vegetables and other vegetables; roots and tubers; nuts and oil seeds; condiments and spices; fruits; fish and other meats; milk and milk products; fats and oils; sugar and jaggery.
A diet with balanced proportions from at least nine of the 12 food groups is also acceptable to the nutritionists. It’s about time we bring the lessons of diversity from social science textbooks to our grocery notebooks.