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Diet and Health in India Today
India, home to a civilization that has been in existence for over 9,000 years, is a country in transition. The seventh largest country based upon geographical area is host to the second largest population in the world, over one billion people. When you think of India, many thoughts and images may come to mind: The Taj Mahal, the Festival of Lights, pungent spices, bicycles, crowded streets, and bustling marketplaces. It is a land populated with beautiful, slender, brown-eyed people and its economy is booming due to rapidly expanding technologies; however, it is also a land of marked contrasts (Wikipedia). While there is a rapidly growing middle and upper class, there is also widespread poverty, malnutrition, and poor health. This research paper will attempt to highlight some of the problems with diet and health issues that exist in India today, and what is being done to try and resolve these issues.
According to a 2003 study by the World Health Organization, the average life expectancies for an Indian man and woman were 62 and 64 years (World Health Organization). Interestingly, in a study conducted just five years later by the Canadian Medical Association, the projected life expectancies for an Indian man and woman have risen to 66 and 71 years respectively (Bagchi 983). At face value, this increase in life expectancy would indicate improving conditions in India; however, it does not tell the whole story and there is still work to be done. India faces several challenges in the area of health care and nutrition. The areas it must address are maternal and child health care, its overall health care system, communicable diseases, and non-communicable diseases.
Nutrition, or in this case, malnutrition is at the heart of the issues of maternal and child health care. In a 2005-2006 study conducted by India s National Family Health Survey, it was found that malnutrition and anemia were widespread among children and women (Chatterjee, Child malutrition rises in India despite economic boom 1417). The World Health Organization has estimated that 70% of adolescent girls suffer from anemia (World Health Organization). Left unchecked, this will not bode well for the overall health of these young females and ultimately the health of their future families.
Later, in February of 2007,  UNICEF officials created a stir by telling a gathering of national and international journalists in Delhi that an Indian child is more likely to be malnourished than a child in Ethiopia (Chatterjee, Child malutrition rises in India despite economic boom 1417). Given the issues of drought, famine, war, and civil strife in Ethiopia, this came as quite a blow to officials in India. How could it be, the children in their country did not fare as well as children in Ethiopia?
Each year there are roughly 27 million births in India, and of these births, approximately 1 to 2 million babies will die within the first 4 weeks of life (Chatterjee, Indias efforts to boost neonatal survival 1055). It has been estimated that two-thirds of these neonatal deaths are due to lack of adequate nutrition. In a country where less than half of the women are literate, education is one of the keys to solving the problems of malnutrition. Young mothers, especially those living in rural areas and urban slums, are often given incorrect advice regarding nutrition and breastfeeding. In 2005, India launched a National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) with the goal of reducing its infant mortality rate. Heath care workers are sent to villages to provide education and assistance with basic nutrition and health issues. Young mothers are taught the basic information regarding the correct way to breastfeed their babies, and how to care for their infants. In one particular instance, health care workers learned that a young mother had been asked by her mother-in-law to reframe from breast feeding her child for the first couple of days following the birth. Her mother-in-law told her the colostrum would make the baby sick (Chatterjee, Indias efforts to boost neonatal survival 1055). Her mother-in-law was sadly mistaken; the colostrum is what boosts an infant s immune system. In another instance, health care workers discovered a baby that was failing to gain weight. After speaking with the baby s young mother, they discovered she was feeding her baby honey and water rather than breastfeeding her infant. The health care worker explained to her why breast feeding was so important, and she began breastfeeding her baby again; although, she did tell the health care worker that she,  felt like a failure (Allen 211). What a sad situation. These two instances alone underscore the need for education and intervention by health care workers.
Another group that has joined in the fight to improve the health and nutrition of women and children in India is the Child in Need Institute (CINI). Their mission is similar to that of the NRHM. They send workers into villages to give  advice about nutrition, family planning, hygiene and health (Allen 210). Armed with a high-calorie, high-protein formula called Nutrimix, they teach parents how to prepare a low-cost meal for their children using Nutrimix as the base. CINI s health care workers also run clinics were they treat severely malnourished children and mothers. These workers are also trained to be on the look-out for children suffering from diarrhea, vomiting, skin problems, parasites, and other reoccurring infections; because, all of these problems can be traced back to nutrition and hygiene problems (Allen 211).
Malnutrition is part of a vicious circle that is perpetuated by poverty and a lack of education. In the case of India, add to it caste and class inequalities. The 2001 Indian Census reflects the discrepancies in the diet and health care treatment of women versus men. At the time of the census, there were approximately 927 women for every 1000 men (Kumar 161). Men are more likely to survive, to receive adequate nutrition, and to receive an education. Women are viewed as second class citizens; and as such, their nutritional and health care needs are not deemed as important. They are subject to malnutrition, anemia, and have a higher mortality rate. Women who suffer from malnutrition and anemia also have more complications during pregnancy and childbirth; additionally, studies have shown that anemia has a direct effect on maternal mortality. One key to resolving this part of the issue is to include the fathers in visits with the health care workers. Indian men need to see the importance of good nutrition for their wives and daughters (Allen 210).
The overall health care system in India is made up of several levels and types of care; for example, hospitals, community health centers, sub-centers, and community workers (World Health Organization). Unfortunately, as of 2005, there was only one doctor for every 1722 people. To make matters worse, 75% of the doctors work in cities and approximately 70% of India s population live in small rural villages (Bagchi 981). Also, only 1% of the Indian population has some form of health insurance, and 82% of the private health care is fee-based (Bagchi 981). This makes it very difficult for many Indians to receive proper health care. Although government run health care is available, it is not always easy to access, especially for those people living in rural villages. Studies have shown the Indians that form the lowest caste in society, the untouchables, rarely receive any form of health care (Kumar 163). Fortunately, many ch