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‘Wealthier households spend greater share of food budgets on processed foods,’ finds global study; here’s how it affects health in the long-term | Food-wine News

Nutrition should be a fundamental right accessible to everyone regardless of where they live or how much they earn. However, a recent report paints a grim picture of India’s food landscape, where a significant portion of the population is forced to compromise their health for affordability. 

According to the Global food policy report 2024: Food systems for healthy diets and nutrition, 16.6% of the country’s population is suffering from malnutrition. This is an increase from 2011 levels, when 15.4% of the population was malnourished.

Researchers mentioned, “Dark green leafy vegetables and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables cost 8 to 22 times more per calorie than starchy staples and twice as much per calorie as sugary and salty snacks. In addition, calories from fats and oils and sugar cost even less than those from staples in India and other South Asian countries.”

The report also states that a large nationally representative panel of households shows that India’s total annual household expenditure on paid meals consumed away from home increased from Rs 619 billion (US$8.8 billion) in 2015 to Rs 820 billion (US$11.6 billion) in 2019 in real terms, an increase of about US$ 3 billion. During this period, the share of packaged (highly processed and calorie-dense) foods in household food budgets nearly doubled, from 6.5 to 12 percent. Wealthier households spend a greater share of their food budgets on processed foods. 

As the cost of nutritious food soars, many households are left with little choice but to embrace cheap, unhealthy alternatives that provide empty calories at the expense of essential nutrients. This disturbing trend not only has immediate implications for individual well-being but also carries far-reaching consequences that could burden the nation’s healthcare system. 

Shubha Ramesh L Chief Dietician at DHEE Hospital, says, “A significant portion of the population lives on a tight budget, making affordability a key factor in food choices. Processed and unhealthy foods are often less expensive than fresh, nutritious options.”

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Unhealthy foods are more readily available, she says especially in urban areas where fast food outlets and convenience stores are plentiful. Aggressive marketing strategies by food companies make unhealthy foods more appealing. These foods are often advertised as convenient, tasty, and trendy.

Many individuals, especially in urban areas, face time constraints due to busy work schedules. Unhealthy, processed foods offer a quick and easy solution. There is also a lack of awareness about the benefits of nutritious foods and the health risks associated with unhealthy eating habits.

processed food, India As the cost of nutritious food soars, many households are left with little choice but to embrace cheap, unhealthy alternatives that provide empty calories at the expense of essential nutrients. (Source: Freepik)

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 Long-term health impacts 

A diet dominated by cheap, unhealthy foods can lead to several long-term health issues, according to Shubha. These are:

Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs): Increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. These conditions are on the rise in India and are linked to diets high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.

Obesity: High-calorie, nutrient-poor foods contribute to obesity, which in turn increases the risk of several chronic diseases.

Malnutrition: While it might seem paradoxical, diets lacking in essential nutrients can lead to malnutrition, characterised by deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.

Mental Health Issues: Poor diet can also affect mental health, contributing to conditions like depression and anxiety.

What measures can be taken at the policy level to make nutritious food affordable and accessible?

To address these issues, Shubha asserts that several policy measures can be implemented, such as:

*Subsidies for Healthy Foods: Government subsidies for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can make them more affordable.

*Taxation of Unhealthy Foods: Implementing higher taxes on sugary drinks and junk food can discourage their consumption.

*Strengthening Food Supply Chains: Improving the efficiency of food supply chains to reduce the cost of transporting fresh produce can help lower prices.

*Nutrition Programs: Expanding programs that provide free or subsidised nutritious meals, such as mid-day meal schemes in schools, can help ensure children receive balanced diets.

*Support for Local Agriculture: Encouraging local food production can help reduce dependence on expensive, imported foods and ensure a steady supply of fresh produce.

© IE Online Media Services Pvt Ltd

First uploaded on: 07-06-2024 at 19:29 IST

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