India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry — about 230 million people — according to the World Food Programme. About half of the country’s children are malnourished, a record poorer than the world’s poorest area, sub-Saharan Africa .
Hardly a day went by during the past month, in which we didn’t think of food. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t get our minds off of planning the first meal we would have at the end of our experiment. Rather, it was because, food was the largest component of our budget at both Rs. 100/day (50%) and Rs. 32/day (68%). We realized painfully through our hunger and massive sugar highs and lows, that you need sufficient calories and you need them balanced too. Lack of enough calories and essential nutrients can drive your brains into a tailspin with short term reactions including overeating into your food budget or getting angry and frustrated at friends (yeap. been there, done that this month). What sustained hunger can mean for the productivity and health of a nation and its economy should be obvious. For us specifically, these other effects aside, hunger could have easily destabilized our budget, had we not planned for this slice of our expenditure properly during the past month. Moreover, both of us were concerned about nutrition and fitness, and paid close attention to what we ate on a regular basis even before the start of the experiment. Hence, we wanted to mirror our nutrition profile from before Rs. 100/day as closely as possible instead of simply trying to load up on calories within our financial constraints.
A key ingredient we’ve always focused on is protein, which, for us, was predominantly made up of animal products. If you searched online for the ideal distribution of carbohydrates-fats-proteins, you’d find suggestions for 40-30-30, 50-30-20, etc. Even conservative estimates put “having 1g of protein for each kg in your body” targets. Also, the higher the level of physical activity, the higher the number of calories needed and larger the share of dietary protein. Both of us need more than 2200 calories/day, if we are to maintain our weight, given the fact that we were involved in a variety of activities – running, badminton, calisthenics – for more than an hour on most days. We found that it was impossible to get to our daily caloric requirement without sacrificing on the recommended nutrient distribution. The only way to get to the magic number was to eat more rice or roti. And since we didn’t go for the unbalanced diet option while @ Rs. 100/day, we ended up shedding 5.5 kg and 2kg each during the 3 weeks. (Our blood sugar dropped by ~15% and cholesterol dropped by ~30% to almost unhealthy levels!)
As we delved into nutrition planning, we realized that there is no such thing as a cheap source of protein, even at Rs. 100/day. See table below for a list of foods we consumed, their costs, and nutrition information.
Clearly, soy provides the most protein for the buck. And, we – as some of you are probably now – were also surprised to find the relatively low percentage of protein in dal. Fortunately, open soy @Rs 40/kg wasn’t much more expensive than dal in Bangalore (Let’s not get into what soy does to your apetite without a generous helping of spices). So, we did load up on it significantly. Of course, soy was beyond our means in Kerala where the market price for it was higher and, well, dal itself was a luxury
So, how did we end up doing on having a balanced meal? Here are a few charts from both Rs. 100/day and Rs. 32/day:
Of course, we couldn’t be bothered to lead a balanced diet at Rs. 32/day. Even so, we shed another 1kg and 0.5 kg each in that “starvation week”. It was because there is no way to make it to even 2000 calories in Rs. 17 (the food component of the Rs. 32 budget), unless you only eat rice/rotis.
Also, as you can clearly see, the nutritional intake (protein especially) is nowhere close to what we need. If it is not sufficient for us, it clearly doesn’t satisfy the requirements of someone who does hard labor with greater caloric needs. We think this explains why most hard working manual laborers are not burly musclemen, but bone thin workers. As we see it, they likely eat carbs heavy meals and burn through them everyday. Muscle development and regeneration rates are likely low given this low protein diet. What does this mean for the laborers in the long term? They likely are affected by early arthritis and other physiological disorders as their bones take the brunt of the impact – leading possibly to early retirement.
What has the Indian government done to provide enough nutrition to its citizens? Create the world’s largest food distribution system called “Public Distribution System”. under which the government distributes rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene. Some state governments add pulses and oil to this, but not all. How much calories does one get if only reliant on PDS system? The food allocation prescribed centrally under PDS or proposed in the National Food Security Act translates to 35 kg per family or 7 kg per person of food grains ,which is around 230 g of grains per day per person assuming household size of 5. Let’s further assume that the 2 adults each eat 300g of foodgrain a day (more than 50% greater than 3 kids). Now, this means between 1,110 and 1,000 total calories and between 20g (8% of total calories) and 40g (15% of total calories) of proteins – depending on whether you use rice or wheat, respectively – which is low for a person weighing ~70kg. Adding 50g of soybean to this could push the protein to 48g and 66g respectively, which is closer to the minimum healthy levels of 57g (0.8g per kg of body weight or ~20% of daily calories intake). Could the government not centrally plan to distribute high protein supplements or soy along with the diet? (Note: While we didn’t analyze our micronutrient and vitamin intakes as much as we would’ve liked to, it is our intuition that the reason half our children are malnourished is not just from the fact that they don’t receive enough calories, but also the right kind of calories and nutrients)
So, what about survival at Rs. 32/day? Well unless you want a malnourished, hungry, underproductive worker class, its time to raise that number for sure! Maybe Steve Jobs was trying to reach out to our planning commission literally when he said “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Food for thought?