People in rural areas are found to be eating more carbohydrates and sugary packaged foods, and having less proteins, according to a new study from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

More and more people are eating more carbohydrates because they are affordable and more convenient. And, eating more sugary packaged foods because they are easily available in stores and have a longer shelf life than healthy fruits and vegetables.

The study throws light on India’s rural health crisis, explaining the causes driving the rise of rural obesity and malnutrition. 

“They found it more convenient (to get carbohydrates and sugary packaged foods) than trying to source limited protein and micronutrient-rich options,” the study, conducted in Telangana, said.

“The study also highlights the lack of access to protein and the importance of traditional food systems, and nutrition-sensitive food supply chains,” an ICRISAT spokesperson said.

Those who move to cities from rural areas also change what they eat because they are exposed to widespread packaged food advertising.

“As policymakers navigate this nutritional challenge, the cost of inaction on the public health system would outweigh the cost of action,” Jacqueline Hughes, Director General of ICRISAT, said.

“There is a need to work closer with the food processing industry to blend heritage with health by making nutritious products such as millet more attractive to consumers,” she said.

Nourishment-tradition balance

Ultimately, it comes down to economics and education. ICRISAT, through its agribusiness innovation platform, and with its partners is leading the way in developing affordable, nutritious products and educating the market about their health benefits, the institute said.

“We are collectively responsible for nurturing a harmonious balance between nourishment and tradition by reinvigorating the rich tapestry of traditional food systems in rural India to combat the alarming surge in obesity and malnutrition,” she said.

“We mainly used to eat sorghum which has been replaced by rice because it’s cheaper and easier to find. We also used to collect wild fruits and food from the forest. But now they are also harder to find because there’s less forest,” Alwala Narayya, a 74-year-old from Aurepalle village in Telangana, said. 

He recalled how his family once used to eat sorghum but now rarely do.

The study said it was important to tell people to eat nutritious food by growing local food. 

“The cornerstone of rural sustenance lies within community markets,” Victor Afari-Sefa, who leads the Enabling Systems Transformation research programme at ICRISAT, said.

“By better understanding the intricacies of market mechanisms, we can chart a path that empowers rural communities with broader access to nourishing food choices,” Afari-Sefa said.

Scoring-based method

ICRISAT researchers have devised a scoring-based methodology to understand how farming, food, and nutrition are connected.

Shalander Kumar, Cluster Leader - Markets, Institutions, and Policy and the lead author said this study provides substantial evidence for policymakers to address the triple burden of malnutrition – the coexistence of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and over-nutrition in rural India.,

“Traditional farming systems and markets have an important role in making sure people can access more nutritious food in rural areas and close to where they live and ICRISAT looks forward to presenting more solutions in this arena,” Kumar said.

This study was conducted in Aurepalle, Dokur villages, and the towns of Amangal and Devarakadra in Telangana, India.