Supplements no solution in malnutrition battle: Experts

Supplements no solution in malnutrition battle: Experts

Unhealthy trend

Experts say supplements will only blunt children's taste buds and profit private companies.

Vitamin tablets, multi-grain powder and fortification — consecutive governments have pushed for their inclusion in nutrition schemes, even as experts raised concerns about such supplements being the least sustainable among available options.

Dr Asha Benakappa, former director, Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health, highlighted the dissonance in Karnataka’s battle against malnutrition.

“Previously, there was a scheme in which mothers were given nutritious biscuits to feed their children regularly. Once the supply of the biscuits was stopped, the children went back to being deprived of essential nutrition,” said Dr Benakappa. 

READ: Malnutrition: When the system fails children

“When the mothers were asked the reason, they cited stoppage in the supply of biscuits as the cause,” she said, adding, “mothers treated it as medicine. It could not be inculcated as part of the diet.”

Another problem, Dr Benakappa said, related to the food being unpalatable.

“You cannot give someone food that numbs their taste buds on an everyday basis. This is where the whole idea of nutrition and diet crashes. In fact, it would result in binge eating once withdrawn,” she said and sought to know for how long one could be a participant in a supplementation programme.

She raised similar concerns about other schemes as well. “What happens after the Mathrupoorna Yojane,” she asked.

“When these mothers go back home, they must be taught to consume nutritious food. Instead of giving them readily available food or supplements, teach these mothers the idea of kitchen garden. Teach them to cook healthy meals.”

She also said that “at least 55% of the diet must be staple food, mostly carbohydrate, 20% protein, 30% oils and any amount of greens and fruits can be added”.

Dr Benakappa said giving children supplements would only result in blunting their taste buds and profit commercial companies.

Food as culture

The other issue is with the absence of localised diets. According to experts, the ICDS has committees in every district to prescribe localised diets, but in spite of that even the mid-day meal has been stripped of any local flavour, making it less appetising to a diverse culture. 

Public health activist Dr Sylvia Karpagam said if such diets are given to children, cultural heritage will be lost and the local economy would also suffer.

“Imagine this, would you want your children growing up being fed on supplements or remember what their grandmother cooked for them. Food and culture are associated with one another and hence the need for localised diet,” she said.

Apart from making the food culturally relevant, Dr Sylvia also raised the issue of mid-day meal and ICDS being “cereal heavy”. “There is no access to good quality proteins and vitamins,” she said.

Speaking about the need to give children what they normally eat, she said children must eat fish, eggs, chicken as part of their regular diet. 

Experts also questioned the acceptability of mid-day meal. “Though children are provided rice and sambar, the government must do a reality check to see how much children like it. Also, there needs to be a discussion involving parents in each district before commencing a nutrition programme to understand the everyday diet,” said a nutrition expert.

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