38% of Indians consume fried snacks and processed foods, only 28% consume healthy foods

A new global report has raised concerns about India’s dietary habits, highlighting a significant increase in the consumption of unhealthy foods compared to nutritious options. According to the paper, more people in India consume unhealthy foods, such as salty or fried snacks, compared to those who consume vegetables, fruits and other foods rich in micronutrients.

Global Food Policy Report 2024: Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Nutrition was released on May 29 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Due to poor nutrition, 16.6 percent of the country’s population suffers from malnutrition, the report found.

Share of population consuming all five recommended food groups, salty or fried snacks, and no fruits or vegetables, 2021-2022

Source: Global Food Policy Report 2024

At least 38 percent of India’s population ate unhealthy foods, while only 28 percent ate all five recommended food groups, including at least one starchy staple food, one vegetable, one fruit, one legume, nut or seed and one animal food. source food.

Emerging trends in Indian diets

Consumption of such high-calorie and nutrient-poor foods was not only high but increasing, while consumption of vegetables and other foods rich in micronutrients was low, the paper showed.

In India and other South Asian countries, consumption of processed foods (chocolate and confectionery, salty snacks, drinks, ready-made and ready-to-eat meals and breakfast cereals) is increasing. After cereals and milk, snacks and ready meals made up the largest share of India’s food budgets.

In India, the share of the population suffering from malnutrition has increased from 15.4% in 2011 to 16.6% in 2021. This means that almost 17% of the Indian population’s regular food consumption was insufficient to meet energy levels necessary to lead an active and active life. healthy living.

The prevalence of overweight in adults has increased from 12.9% in 2006 to 16.4% in 2016.

According to the report’s analysis of data from a large nationally representative panel of households, total annual household expenditure on paid meals consumed outside the home in India rose from Rs619 billion ($8.8 billion) in 2015 to Rs820 billion ( $11.6 billion) in 2019. a real increase of approximately $3 billion.

Similarly, the share of packaged (highly processed and high-calorie) foods in household food budgets has almost doubled over this period, from 6.5 percent to 12 percent.

Wealthier households spent a larger share of their food budget on processed foods. However, it was unclear whether increased spending on prepared and ultra-processed foods is displacing consumption of healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables.

Share of urban household food budget spent on processed food and purchased meals, measured by per capita consumption expenditure, India

Source: Global Food Policy Report 2024

Many countries face a double burden of malnutrition, the report underlines. This means that malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are associated with overweight and obesity, or diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), within individuals, households and communities and across the life course.

More than two billion people, many of them in Africa and South Asia, cannot afford a healthy diet, the study estimates. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than half of children under the age of five and two-thirds of adult women were affected by micronutrient deficiencies.

As a result, high levels of undernutrition (deprivation and wasting) and micronutrient deficiencies have increased, even as the prevalence of overweight, obesity and related NCDs has risen in South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

High-calorie foods cheaper

In the South Asian region, the report highlights that food rich in micronutrients is expensive, while grains, fats and oils, sugar and sweet and salty snacks are relatively cheap.

South Asia had the highest cost premium – that is, the extra cost of the cheapest diet with sufficient nutrients over the cheapest source of sufficient calories.

For example, dark green leafy vegetables and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables cost 22 times more per calorie than starchy staples and twice as much per calorie as sugary and salty snacks. Moreover, calories from fats, oils and sugar cost even less than those from staples in India and other South Asian countries.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently published dietary guidelines warning that the information on packaged foods can be misleading.

Of the 17 dietary guidelines, ICMR asked consumers to read information on food labels to make informed and healthy food choices. It also suggested minimizing consumption of high-fat, sugar, salt and ultra-processed foods.

Grain-oriented agricultural and food policy

Agricultural and food policies in South Asia, as in many other developing countries, continue to prioritize the affordability of starchy staples over the diverse diets needed for long-term health. For example, rice, wheat and sugarcane growers are eligible for price guarantees in India. Similarly, rice farmers in Sri Lanka have preferential access to subsidized fertilizer.

“This bias also extends to public investments in agricultural research and development, which have prioritized increasing the productivity of rice and wheat, while neglecting coarse grains and legumes,” the report said.

The report, co-authored by 41 researchers representing IFPRI and several partner organizations, called for urgent and coordinated efforts to transform global food systems to ensure equitable access to sustainable, healthy food for all.

“The 2024 GFPR serves as a clear call to prioritize sustainable, healthy food as a cornerstone of public health and sustainable development,” said Johan Swinnen, director general of IFPRI and managing director, systems transformation for the global agricultural innovation network CGIAR.

Experts emphasized the importance of prioritizing improving diets as a crucial starting point for tackling all forms of malnutrition and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

“Evidence suggests that poor-quality diets are the leading cause of disease worldwide and that one in five lives could be saved by improving diets,” said Deanna Olney, director of IFPRI’s nutrition, diet and health division and lead author of the report .

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