Nutrition and Health
The effects of the socio-economic and environmental factors in which one is constrained to live will manifest in terms of the nutritional and health status of individuals. The nutritional requirements of the body are derived from the food that is consumed. It is these nutrients which allow the body to function efficiently. Broad nutrients contained in food are: carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. The energy derived from these nutrients are measured in terms of calories.
Depending on the physical and mental work load of the individuals living in different economic settings (e.g. rural and urban areas, those engaged in physical works as compared to intellectual work involving reading and writing, etc.) the amount of energy required by an individual is defined. In India, for instance, the poverty level nutritional requirement of a person living in rural areas was defined as 2400 calories while that in an urban area as 2100 calories. This limit was determined more than three decades ago (early 1970s) when poverty measurement studies were focusing on a standard measure of assessment. Mechanisation in agriculture was also at its infancy at that time. With progressive adoption of technology and the resultant reduction in the extent of physical labour put in, the energy requirement is redefined. Usually, this is lowered as factors like mental peace derived from better income and reduced drudgery in work contribute to improvement in health.
In addition to the broad nutrients, there are micro-nutrients like iron, iodine, etc. which are important for the balanced health of the individuals. Their deficiency will result in specific diseases like anaemia, goitre, etc. The ultimate determinant of the required nutritional status, in proper combinations of all the nutrients, is decided at the cellular level. This is determined by two broad sets of factors viz.
(i) The diet,which is the food consumed providing the body with the nutrients specific to the type of food, and
(ii) The ability of the body to absorb, assimilate and utilise the nutrients of the diet.
The latter depends on the activity level and environmental factors, including the ability to ward off the effects of infections and the ability to cope with stress situations. With balanced diet, by which is meant a combination of food items which supplies all the required nutrients, the physical and the mental status of the person is expected to remain in an ideal state. In such a state of health, it will be easier to cope with the complexities of health. The level of immunity enjoyed by an individual is a function of both inherent and acquired/ developed factors of life. The level of immunity is an important factor of the health status of an individual. While the lack of food and improper nutritional contents results in conditions of malnutrition (and diseases of poverty), higher income associated with sedentary life styles cause diseases specific to energy-dense food consumption (e.g. obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases, etc.). It is therefore necessary to maintain active and healthy habits in the life style of an individual. Knowledge of the interrelationships between nutrition and health tendencies is important for the allocation of resources in matters of public health policies.
It is important to recognise that there is considerable variation in the food intake among individuals of different sections within a country. Due to wide income inequalities and poverty, many people in developing countries are under-nourished. While some population groups face shortages of staple foods (e.g. cereals) that are necessary for meeting their energy needs, the quality of diet remains poor for the majority of the population. Falling environmental standards makes it difficult even for the better off sections of the society to ensure the desired nutritional contents in the food they consume. High amount of fertilisers used, polluting the river waters with poisonous and highly toxic chemical wastes, air pollutants, etc. are making the air and food we consume deficient in their qualitative contents. They are becoming sources of many respiratory and gastro enteric diseases. While industrialisation and modernisation leads to increase in incomes and better standards of life, they are also accompanied by trends having adverse effects on health. The achievement of a favourable trade-off between the gains and the losses of such growth-induced changes is an important policy challenge of the modern times.