Addressing protein deficiency in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Addressing protein deficiency in Sri Lanka

2 May, 2021

Sri Lanka’s ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition today spans across three areas: undernutrition, overnutrition along with macro and micronutrient deficiencies. Among these is the challenge of protein deficiency. Proteins are the “building blocks of life” due to their essential, indispensable amino acids, which cannot be replaced by any other food.

 An average person in Sri Lanka is known to consume more carbohydrates such as rice, bread, flour based and other starches, but less vegetables, fruits and foods rich in protein.

The ratio of carbohydrates to protein is far too high as people continue to consume more rice with just limited portions of vegetables and animal/plant-based protein. Worryingly, evidence[1] suggests that this predominantly carbohydrate rich diet is the reason for overnutrition and undernutrition among Sri Lankans.

Although, Sri Lanka is known to be home to a variety of nutritious and affordable vegetables, fruits, fish, dry fish, seafood and meat (poultry) – most people lack information on the quality and rich sources of food that should be consumed regularly.

Future smart foods, such as soybeans, cereals, leafy vegetables, drumstick and various types of pulses such as chickpeas, black gram, lentils are rich sources of protein and should be consumed more and must definitely be brought into the limelight. To do so, it is important that people educate themselves to know what the best sources of protein are:

* Pulses – Several pulses, such as mung beans, cowpea, kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, etc. are high in protein. Soybeans contain the highest protein content among other pulses. Per 100 grams of dried soy beans contain approx. 52 grams of protein. Soy beans are known to be one of the most affordable and easily accessible quality rich protein

* Grains – There are several high protein grains such as local (indigenous) rice varieties, millet (kurakkan), wheat, oats that can be consumed to increase protein intake

* Nuts – Many commonly known and widely consumed nuts such as peanuts, cashew nuts and almonds have a high protein value. Soy nuts among these have the highest amount of protein - which is over 35 grams of protein in 100 grams of dried soy nuts or soya beans

* Eggs – The protein of eggs is of high nutritional value since it is easily absorbed and increases renal solute load minimally. One average sized egg provides at least 8 grammes of essential proteins

* Seafood – contains at least 21 g of protein per 100g. The Protein of fish is easily absorbed and suitable for all ages

* Poultry and meat – Chicken, duck and other meat-based products such as beef, mutton, lamb and pork are high in protein although more difficult to digest. Frequent consumption of red meats seems to increase the development of heart disease (California Study). All of these foods contain approximately 20 grams of protein for 100 grams of quantity

There is no quick fix to the problem. But rather looking at one’s health and nutrition in a more holistic manner is the need of the hour to ensure better health and overall wellbeing of individuals. 

* Signs of protein deficiency - Lack of protein leads to decreased haemoglobin levels, which increases tiredness, fatigue, lack of concentration, excessive hair fall, and it may damage our immune system, thereby makes one vulnerable to falling ill. Signs of protein deficiency can also be skin abnormalities and brittle nails

* Encouraging the healthcare sector to focus on overall better nutrition – Nutritionists and wellness experts should familiarise themselves to counsel into focusing on adequate protein consumption in combination with vegetables/fibre and healthy rice varieties/tubers/starches. One can use publicly available calculators to understand the requirements and gaps in consumption

* Awareness campaigns - There is a pressing need to bring awareness on what to eat, how much to eat, how to eat, at what time to eat, what to avoid or minimise.

Global programs such as The Right To Protein initiative are good examples of increasing awareness about adequate protein consumption. The government and industry needs to come together in introducing such awareness initiatives from which people can easily access, learn and implement recommended actions to better manage their protein profile

* Participation by industry and organisations: Food production bodies, organisations and other private sector companies should focus on an approach that is centered on producing more than just the mass-consumed staple foods and more food varieties that are a variety of protein rich foods.

The situation in neighboring subcontinent regions also have similar challenges with protein deficiency. In fact, several parts of the world are facing their own challenges with protein deficiency, as well as macro/micronutrient imbalances. However, these regions are driving the change with initiatives such as ‘Protein Day’ celebrated on February 27 every year to increase awareness about adequate protein consumption.

Please note: A small population of Sri Lanka consumes excessive quantities of protein, which may affect overall health negatively.

The writer is a senior dietician, lifestyle consultant and wellness expert