Food and nutrient adequacy during food shortages | Sunday Observer

Food and nutrient adequacy during food shortages

22 May, 2022

When a country is experiencing a financial meltdown, a food crisis is inevitable. If sufficient food production does not take place in the country and imports are restricted, food insecurity may hit a high. It is also important to pay attention to nutritional adequacy during food shortages as there are high chances that people would be deprived of essential nutrients.

Sri Lanka fell into an unprecedented crisis when the world economy began to slowly recover from Covid-19 pandemic. As the social, political, and economic uncertainties began to prevail in the country, many essential items were required to be rationed. With the imposing of restrictions on imports, most of the familiar and essentialgoods disappeared from the shelves in stores. Among them were some food items that people used to purchase during heydays.

Although political stability has been assured to a certain extent, there is no magic wand to end the crisis any sooner. As the crisis continues to exist, food insecurity is looming. The country has not yet been stricken with a hunger crisis. Hence, we do have time to take steps to assure food and nutrient security so that no citizen suffers from hunger as well as hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiency). Presently people of Sri Lanka may not experience severe hunger due to the crisis, but they may still be food and nutrient insecure.

Health issues

People may not experience severe hunger or death due to starvation under this crisis, albeit, there may still be reductions in the quantity and the quality of food people would consume to survive. Low-quality food may cause many health issues such as malnutrition. Malnutrition leads to a weakened body which welcomes diseases.

The diets that are taken during food and hunger crises are known as survival diets. Survival diets lack quality and in some instances quantity too. As the name suggests people tend to eat to ‘survive’ not for the proper functioning of the body and the mind. If survival dieting is prolonged, serious health issues can result if essential nutrients are missed out. Prolonged intake of monotonous and too much starchy, oily, and sugary foods is sure to injure health.

Since Sri Lanka is not a malnourished country, the crisis would not make the population undernourished overnight. Nevertheless, attention should be paid to special groups such as pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and children of growing age, diseased people, and those with cardiovascular diseases. Food and nutrient adequacy for such groups should be monitored during the crisis. If pregnant women are not adequately nourished during a crisis, there can be a retarded physical and mental development in the foetus. The same can happen to infants if nursing mothers are affected and growing children cannot escape the detriments.

Generally, in a country such as Sri Lanka, the intake of macronutrients such as carbohydrate and fats are high (although protein too is a macronutrient, the intake of it is low in Sri Lanka). Rice is the staple in Sri Lanka which is high in carbs. Apart from rice, food prepared of wheat flour such as bread and roti, jackfruit, breadfruit, yams and tubers are rich in carbs and help maintain sufficient energy levels.

Carbs also help gain body weight and the same can be lost during a hunger crisis. If a person is starved, his carbs are used by the body to release energy. If he further becomes starved, protein levels in the body should be utilised to maintain energy levels.


If a person, prior to a food crisis has been taking sufficient micronutrients such as vitamins and some minerals, the bodystores them for a prolonged period such as several months. So, the person’s micronutrient stocks in the body would not be exhausted immediately. Hence, a person who used to take a well-balanced diet rich in essential micronutrients would not face micronutrient deficiency immediately when he has to take a poorly balanced diet.

However, it should be noted that once the micronutrient stores are exhausted, they should be refilled. If a food crisis is prolonged, the person is sure to suffer the detrimental impacts of undernutrition such as reduced resistance to diseases.

During a crisis, food monotony can also be experienced. Variety in diet is essential to maintain nutrient balance. No single food in the world can provide all the nutrients required by the body. Some diets may be rich in some nutrients and may lack other essential nutrients. Hence, survival foods cannot be seen as a solution to nutrient inadequacy in the long run.

While carbohydrate is provided through the staples such as rice, bread, roti, jackfruit, and breadfruit as well as yams and tubers, there may be a reduced intake of protein due to the increased price of food rich in protein such as milk, meat and fish. Since Sri Lanka is an island nation surrounded by the sea, protein intake is possible through fish. Apart from protein, fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and many more nutrients.

Fish harvest

However, fuel crisis can affect the fish harvest as boats require fuel for operation. Extended hours of power outages may also affect the storing of the fish harvest. Drying may increase the shelf life of fish. However, the increase in the price of fish can also make it less accessible to the poor.

Green gram, horse gram, chickpea, and cowpea are the commonly consumed legumes that contain protein. Since the production of these legumes in the country is not sufficient and their prices are high, other cheaper sources of protein should be explored. Corn, (Iringu/ Sozham) is a not so expensive option to fulfill protein requirement. Although protein is required for a balanced diet, a high amount of protein is not healthy.

Prolonged deficiency of micro-nutrients such as vitamins, iron, zinc and calcium can be glaring. Leafy greens are grown anywhere on their own. They require less human intervention in growing. Leafy greens are a good source of vitamins, iron, and calcium.

The common source of obtaining calcium is milk and traditional rice varieties. Nevertheless, these two foods may not be accessible to many during a crisis. Leafy greens, Moringa leaves, Rhubard, Amaranth (Thampala), Kathuru Murunga flowers are cheaper sources of calcium.


Consumption of fruits can add vitamins and other essential micro-nutrients to the diet. Fruits are also grown with the least human intervention. Fruits are grown in the wild as well as in home gardens and most of the fruits are accessible to people free. Imported fruits such as grapes, apples, kiwi fruits, and oranges are wise to be omitted. Locally grown fruits are effective in fulfilling the micro-nutrient requirements.

Familiarity of foods is an important aspect. Even during a crisis, people would not opt for unfamiliar foods. Some foods may not be appropriate for a particular clime. For example, although corn is popular and is grown in Sri Lanka, many people would not prefer eating corn rice or Iringu Bath which is prepared by boiling corn and rice together and then adding scraped coconut into it. Corn rice is one of the survival foods popular among the poor in remote areas. Whereas, the majority may find this kind of dish less appealing to their taste buds.

Sri Lanka is blessed with a vast array of wild fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens which can also be curried in lieu of store-bought vegetables and can be procured free. Although they are a cheaper option to assure nutrient as well as food security, palatability can be a problem for many. Many are unaware of preparing palatable dishes with such uncommon edible wild plants. The cook’s skill, however, can play a vital role in increasing the palatability of such less popular and uncommon foods during a crisis.

(Dr. Naveen De Soysa is the Assistant Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Senior Registrar in Community Medicine at the National Institute of Health Sciences. Panchamee Hewavissenti is a culinary researcher and recipe creator)