From iron to vitamin B12: Five common nutritional deficiencies among Indians

Carbohydrates, fat and protein are macronutrients and need to be consumed in larger quantities for energy production,while vitamins and minerals, are micronutrients which are required in smaller quantities, but if not consumed adequately can have an adverse effect on health.

Among the many challenges faced by Indians, an often neglected one is nutritional deficiency. Good nutrition is critical for one’s survival and maintaining better quality of life. Dr Nandan Joshi, head, Nutrition Science & Medical Affairs, Danone India explains that there are two types of nutrients — macro and micro. “Carbohydrates, fat and protein are macronutrients as these are required to be consumed in larger quantities for energy production, and building and maintaining muscle mass. Vitamins and minerals, on the other hand, are micronutrients which are required in smaller quantities, but if not consumed adequately can have an adverse effect on the health,” he says.

According to him, the most common nutritional deficiencies that Indian adults grapple with are due to inadequate consumption of proteins, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12 and folate. Below, he explains them in detail.

1. Proteins are building blocks of the body. Our body needs around 2,000-2,500 calories everyday, and 10 to 35 per cent of the daily intake should be in the form of protein. However not all proteins are of same quality. Proteins are classified on the basis of the type of amino acids present in them. Complete proteins contain all essential amino acids in desired quantities. Protein is important for maintenance of muscle mass. Some of the protein rich foods are eggs, chicken, milk, pulses, and nuts. The ideal requirement is 1 gram of protein for every kg of a person’s body weight — with the average requirement for a man being 60 g per day and for woman it is 55 g. Surveys conducted in last few years have shown that more than 80 per cent of Indians do not consume the required amount of protein and most of the protein consumed is cereal based which is of poor quality and digestibility.

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2. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which is required to maintain normal levels of calcium and phosphate (which are required for formation and maintenance of bones, muscle contraction, nerve signalling and cell functions). WHile there is no national data, but many studies have shown that prevalence of vitamin D deficiency is anywhere between 55 to 90 per cent in the country. The dietary sources of vitamin D are fish, egg yolk, fortified foods and dietary supplement. Exposure to sunlight in the morning every day is also important for formation of vitamin D3 in the body.

3. Anaemia is a big public health concern in India. The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data showed that the prevalence of anaemia is 53 per cent among adult women, and 23 per cent among adult men. Nutritional anaemia can be caused due to deficiencies of micronutrients such as iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 , with iron deficiency being the most common cause of anaemia. Iron is an important micronutrient which is essential for various functions including the growth and differentiation of cells, transport of oxygen, immune function, cognitive function, mental and physical growth etc. So, deficiency of iron, due to either physiological or pathological reason, can affect mental and physical growth resulting in decreased learning capacity and work productivity. Meat, fish & poultry products are good sources of iron. Plant foods like legumes, green leafy vegetables and dry fruits also contain iron. Foods rich in vitamin C help absorption of iron. About 17 mg/day iron is required for men and 21 mg/ day for women.

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4. Vitamin B12 is important for formation of red cells, energy production during carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism, and a healthy nervous system. Some studies have shown deficiency as high as 70-100 per cent in individuals. This is primarily because many Indians are vegetarians and even those who consider themselves non-vegetarians do not consume meat every day. There are no plant sources of Vitamin B12. The animal sources include liver, shellfish, salmon, trout, milk and milk products.

5. The prevalence of folate deficiency is not as high when compared to vitamin B12 deficiency. However, studies carried out in New Delhi and Maharashtra among preschool children and adolescents have indicated deficiency of around 40 to 60 per cent. Folate along with iron and vitamin B12 plays a key role in formation of red blood cells. About 200 mg of folate is needed every day, however the requirement is 500 mg/day for pregnant women.

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