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Our diets are becoming less diverse, despite the fact that there is a vast variety of edible plants available to us. Because of our reliance on a small number of cereal crops, there is growing concern that our diets are high in energy but low in nutrients.
Micronutrient deficiencies are now recognised to be more widespread than energy/protein malnutrition, with at least 1.5 billion people at risk of suffering from one or more micronutrient deficiencies.
The reason for this is the diet is monotonous and lacks diversity, which is the norm in many developing countries.
Dietary diversification through increased consumption of a variety of whole foods is a complementary and viable strategy for this. Underutilised crops comprise the multitude of species that are currently largely neglected. These include cereals, millets, legumes, fruits, vegetables, flowers, roots, seeds and nuts.
A diverse human gut microbiome is generally a positive sign and well correlated with overall health. Today, due to the loss in diet diversity as well as the popularity of ‘fad diets’ in the western world limiting our food options, we are seeing that microbes are disappearing in our GI tract. This loss in species richness may contribute to several disease states like autoimmune, diabetes, obesity, autism, and many more.
Diversifying one’s diet by eating a variety of species can provide the essential nutrients needed for good health. So, together with staples, start diversifying the diet with a range of micronutrients and bioactive compounds essential to health.
The essential amino acids of animal-sourced proteins more closely match the profile of essential amino acids required by humans. To obtain the same amount of essential amino acids from plant-based foods, a combination of cereals and legumes found in all cultures is required. Examples include rice and beans, rice and dal, idli, dosa, uthappam, thalipith, thepala with curd etc.
Bioactive plant compounds including carotenoids, alkaloids, nitrogen containing compounds and organosulphur compounds that are present in fruits, veggies, grains and other plant foods. Evidence shows that it builds immunity to fight with infection, rather than taking plant-derived supplements or extracts.
A variety of green leafy vegetables, as well as red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables, all contribute to vitamin A consumption via carotene. The presence of small amounts of fat or oil in the diet improves absorption of carotenes and vitamin A. For example, increase consumption of oilseeds, oily fruits and nuts.
Humans require at least 18 essential minerals, many of which come primarily from plant sources. Deficiencies in zinc, calcium, and selenium are common in areas where the diet is either monotonous or based on a limited variety of foods grown in mineral-depleted soils.
People must consume a variety of foods in order to receive the nutritional benefits associated with them. Locally available food is an accessible and cost-effective option that results in improved nutritional output without changing the community’s dietary habits.
Diversity can be incorporated by eating traditional dishes and using locally available options. Even small changes in daily food choices can improve nutritional intake, at little or no additional cost.