Diversifying our plate: Ways to combat anaemia - Hindustan Times

Diversifying our plate: Ways to combat anaemia

Jun 15, 2024 09:41 AM IST

This article is authored by Dr NK Arora and Dr Kapil Yadav.

Anaemia is a hidden giant in India’s public health landscape affecting almost half of the populace. Its detrimental impact acts as a silent undercurrent, impacting the health and well-being of many, and impeding their ability to reach their full potential. This seemingly innocuous yet recalcitrant condition, characterised by a deficiency in red blood cells, diminishes the physical and cognitive productivity of the individual. However, the good news is that the disorder is preventable and treatable with affordable science-based solutions available. Currently, schemes aimed at reducing anaemia levels provide testing and treatment services, and prophylactic supplementation of micronutrients especially for women, adolescents and children. At the same time, to improve the quality of our lives and attain full potential, each of us, as individuals, families and a community, must take steps to prevent this pervasive disease.

Iron-rich food(Freepik)
Iron-rich food(Freepik)

A routine yearly blood test and early treatment initiation can help ensure that anaemia, if present, is quickly addressed. In light of the sheer scale of anaemia in India, it is possible that the condition may be present in any of us, which is a major cause for concern. According to government data, over 50% of all women aged 15-49 years, including pregnant women and adolescent girls, suffer from this condition. It also affects 67% of children under five years and 25% of men. In children, it can impede crucial cognitive development, leading to a potential loss of 11-14 IQ points. This translates to diminished learning potential, impacting their academic trajectory and future opportunities. Adults experiencing anaemia often grapple with constant fatigue, a persistent sense of weakness, and lack of vitality, affecting their ability to perform daily tasks effectively. Pregnant women with anaemia face an increased risk of complications, including premature delivery and low birth weight babies.

Anaemia's impact extends far beyond individual health, placing a significant economic burden on the health system. While lost productivity translates into reduced income-earning potential, increased health care costs associated with treating anaemia and its complications further strain household finances and national healthcare budgets.

The most common cause of anaemia is iron deficiency and other essential vitamins and minerals, and this is where the power of a well-balanced diet comes into play. We may recall our grandparents' insistence on consuming a diverse array of pulses, grains, vegetables and fruits. This seemingly simple practice, promoting dietary diversity, unknowingly equipped us with a potent weapon against anaemia. This diversity isn't merely about variety for its own sake; it ensures the consumption of a broad spectrum of nutrients essential for optimal health.

Within this context species richness is also crucial, as it signals a need to ensure that we seek out diverse sources of nutrients. Each type of food contains a unique combination of micro and macro nutrients, and other beneficial compounds. Instead of reaching for the same foods over and over again, a varied diet can equip our bodies with a broader range of nutrients, including iron, to combat anaemia more effectively.

This approach and advice are in complete sync with local, seasonal, and traditional food practices. India boasts a rich tapestry of regional cuisines, each with its unique wisdom passed down through generations. Summer and winter vegetables vary distinctly and, traditionally, our diets change with the changing seasons. By ensuring that these time-tested practices reflect in your diet, we can achieve species richness naturally.

However, today’s fast-paced modern world often presents challenges to maintaining optimal dietary habits. Time constraints, busy schedules, and readily available processed foods can lead to monotonous diets lacking in essential nutrients. In this context, fortified foods such as rice, salt, and flour emerge as silent heroes. These staples, enhanced with iron and other micronutrients, can significantly contribute to bridging the nutritional gap and combating iron deficiency anaemia.

Recognising the importance of fortified foods, the government has made significant strides in recent years. They have launched initiatives aimed at making fortified options readily available through public distribution systems and in the market. Advancements in fortification technology ensure that these options are indistinguishable from their non-fortified counterparts and, as consumers, we must actively seek out these fortified options and integrate them into our diets.

Armed with rich, diverse and fortified diets with food systems approach ensuring availability to all at affordable costs, anaemia can be swiftly and successfully addressed. Dietary diversity combined with crop diversity will benefit everyone, including the farmers themselves and contribute overall to Viksit Bharat. Ensuring haemoglobin levels are maintained is easily achievable through annual health checks and treatment options is widely available. Since anaemia, is also an important indicator of overall wellbeing and if a healthy and diverse diet, coupled with iron supplementation, doesn't improve your condition, consulting a health care professional for further investigation is essential.

The fight against anaemia necessitates a collaborative effort, requiring collaboration between individuals, communities, and the government. While the Anaemia Mukt Bharat mission launched by the Government of India is a commendable step in this direction, individual efforts are key to ensuring we effectively reduce anaemia across the country. Combining blood testing with a balanced diet rich in diverse nutrient-rich foods can make all the difference to each of us and the country as a whole.

This article is authored by Dr NK Arora, executive director, The INCLEN Trust International and Dr Kapil Yadav, professor, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS, New Delhi and Lead, National Centre for Excellence and Advance Research on Anaemia Control (NCEAR).

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