For decades, I was anguished by the lack of calories for our poor. I believed our nutritionists, who that Indians were seriously underweight, calorie-deprived and physically deformed by malnutrition. I believed it made sense to define our poverty line in terms of the nutritionists’ norm of 2,400 calories per day for rural areas and 2,100 calories in urban areas.
Not any more. Today I believe that India has been taken for a ride by nutritionists. My skepticism began when I discovered two years ago that if a person ate a ham and turkey Subway sandwich for breakfast, a Big Mac (from McDonald’s) for lunch and a Whopper (the giant hamburger of Burger King) for dinner, his total calorie intake would be barely 1,500 calories. According to our nutritionists, this is a starvation diet. Does any reader really believe that?
My belief that our nutritionists have grossly inflated our calorie needs is further strengthened by new international research. This suggests that calorie deprivation can mean better health and longer life. At the National Institutes of Health, USA, an experiment starting in 1987 divided monkeys into two groups. One groups was fed the equivalent of what nutritionists regard as a healthy human diet. The second group was fed 30 % less, what nutritionists would consider close to starvation level. The result: only 14% of the supposedly starving monkeys have died to date, against 22 % of those on the supposedly healthy diet. The first group has proved healthier too. Only 14% of its members have developed diseases like cancer, heart trouble and diabetes, against 32% of the second group.
Calorie deprivation yields similar results in many other species. According to the Wall Street Journal, calorie deprivation has yielded exceptionally long life in rats, guppies, water-fleas, yeast, spiders and even Labrador dogs. Calorie restriction has worked in every species in which it has ever been tested, says MIT biologist Leonard Guarante. I’d be shocked if it didn’t work in humans.
Calorie restriction creates profound biochemical changes in the body. It reduces free radicals, which can damage genes and cause fatal diseases. It lowers body temperature, and this too seems to be imply better health and longevity. Calorie restriction appears to trigger special survival mechanisms in the body: human and rat cells grown in the blood of calorie-restricted monkeys have proved enormously resistant to heat and toxicity.
Low-calorie enthusiasts calling themselves Cronies have started an online chat group. They say their blood sugar, blood pressure, temperature and cholestrol have dropped. However, they also report problems like lower testosterone levels and loss of libido, irritability, and osteoporosis.
The National Institutes of Health now plan human experiments with calorie intakes 20-30 % below US norms. The Department of Agriculture says that a sedentary male needs 2,200 calories a day and a sedentary female 1,600 calories.
Consider the implications for India. Sedentary Americans, who are far taller and heavier than Indians, need only 1,900 calories per day (averaging out males and females). Yet our nutritionists say urban Indians need 2,100 calories per day, and anyone getting less is below some notional poverty line. By this yardstick Americans are far poorer than Indians!
I find it revealing that American nutritional norms say that women need far fewer calories than men. Much has been written about women and girls getting less food than men and boys in Indian families. I have long regarded this as exploitation, but it now seems that the practice may be nutritionally justifiable. We need more research on this.
Indian women are not as sedentary as American ones. Especially in rural areas, women work long hours fetching water and wood, apart from doing household duties. Still, our middle class is growing steadily, which means the number of sedentary persons is rising fast. With growing mechanization, workers do less physical work. Ploughing with a tractor uses far less calories than ploughing with bullocks. Instead of walking long distances, villagers increasingly travel by bicycle and bus. Machines have replaced manual operations in agriculture like sowing, harvesting, weeding and threshing. Coal mining is now done by mechanical draglines, not manual hacking at the coal face. The list is endless, and underlines the case for new nutritional norms.
India has a mountain of cereals today. Grain production has not risen materially faster than the population. High procurement prices can explain part of the problem of high stocks. Yet all survey data show that incomes have risen 20 per cent in the last decade for casual workers in real terms (after adjusting for inflation). Despite higher incomes, Indians are consuming less cereals. One reason is that they are shifting to superior foods like sugar, fats and oils, eggs and meat, all high in calories. So perhaps falling cereal consumption does not mean falling calorie intake.
But the poor may not have shifted much to superior foods. Their calorie intake may have stagnated, and may have fallen during natural disasters like drought. Yet the new research from the USA suggests that this may actually mean better health and longer life for our poor.
I do not wish to take this argument too far. We badly need fresh research on this before jumping to conclusions. And we badly need fresh nutritional norms.