Children eat their midday meal at a primary school. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
- A position paper drafted by a group of experts under the National Education Policy 2020 advances a misguided idea of nutrition couched in the language of nationalism.
- The paper recommends that meat and eggs be removed from midday meals and from children’s lessons, but on unscientific grounds and through statements devoid of evidence.
- The paper also uses conflates wildly different – and potentially dangerous – terms like “gene-diet interactions”, “Indian ethnicity”, “natural choice” and “race”.
- Similarly, it seeks to define nutrition and diets in terms of unrelated terms like “holistic”, “natural choice of food”, “Pankti Bedha” and “authentic dharma”.
- The document was drafted by eight experts, none of whom is a school-teacher or a parent. As such, the principal stakeholders are completely missing from the picture.
A position paper drafted by a group of experts under the National Education Policy 2020, and recently placed in the public domain, appears to advance a misguided idea of nutrition that could misinform students from a young age as well as endanger the composition of the midday meals that keep lakhs of children coming to school.
Since the Ministry of Education will use these position papers to draft curricula, and because the position paper makes dubious references to Ayurvedic precepts, the position paper could also seed school syllabi with bad science.
In one particular problematic portion, the ‘Position Paper on Health and Wellbeing’ has alleged:
“… while planning mid-day meals, cholesterol-free, additives-free, such as eggs, flavoured milk, biscuits , should be forbidden to prevent obesity and hormonal imbalance caused by excess calory and fat. (sic)
Given the small body frame of Indians, any extra energy provided through cholesterol by regular consumption of egg and meat leads to lifestyle disorders. Lifestyle disorders like diabetes, early menarche, primary infertility in India are escalating, and studies conducted across the countries suggest that animal-based foods interfere with hormonal functions in humans.
The gene-diet interactions indicate what is best for Indian ethnicity, and the natural choice of the race needs to be considered.”
First, the overall exercise appears to be an attempt to couch the Hindutva impression of food, cuisine and diet – especially the proscription of meat and eggs on unscientific grounds – in a narrative that introduces poorly defined terms that have little to do with good nutrition. Some examples: “holistic”, “natural choice of food”, “Pankti Bedha” and “authentic dharma”.
Even when a legitimate concept like over-nutrition has been acknowledged, it has been dealt with with an extreme measure like eliminating eggs and meat altogether.
Second, note that neither the portion excerpted above nor the rest of the paper provide any references to legitimate independent studies by other researchers. There is a list of references at the end of the paper but it’s not clear which papers refer to which claims. In addition, there appears to be no rubric to determine which papers or journals were reviewed before the paper was drafted.
In the absence of this information, the door remains open to the possibility that the expert committee drafted the paper first and added the references later.
Third, setting this oversight aside, children and adults have different physiological needs. Proteins from eggs and meat are more bioavailable – meaning that the body’s metabolism can access a greater fraction of the protein from these foods than from others. In addition, if a family eats non-vegetarian food, then eggs and meat are great sources of other nutrients as well, including vitamin B12 and iron, and not just protein.
Fourth, cholesterol – a type of lipid – is not the body’s go-to molecule for energy. Instead, the first biomolecules to be used as a source of energy are carbohydrates, mainly glucose. Fasting then promotes the utilisation of fatty acids, and acute starvation prompts the use of amino acids.
Fifth, the excerpt makes reference to four very-different concepts in the same sentence without explaining how exactly the experts believe them to be connected: “gene-diet interactions”, “Indian ethnicity”, “natural choice” and “race”.
According to one sentence on page 24: “Indians natural choice of food is plant-based, unlike Western food choice. Observing the world’s eating pattern suggests that food choice is geographical and genetic based” (sic). This is plainly wrong1.
Since the position paper is so heavy on Ayurveda, let us be clear: Ayurveda has nothing against meat or eggs. In fact, the Charaka Samhita, the medical treatise written by Charaka, includes shlokas on the different kinds of meat and their properties in relation to consumption.
‘Genes’, as is well-known, pertains to our biology. “Race” on the other hand is a cultural construct. “Ethnicity” is a state-culture classification. But perhaps the worst offender is “natural choice”: it has been left unexplained, but in the context seems to hew dangerously close to wrong and oppressive claims like “homosexuality is not natural”.
Just stringing these terms together is wrong – much less the point that the string is being used to make.
The residents of the Indian subcontinent have in fact been meat-eaters for millennia. A paper published in 2020 analysed lipid residues in pottery excavated from multiple sites of the Indus Valley civilisation. It reported that the residues contained evidence of a diet consisting of pig, sheep and goat meat, among other meats.
But by conflating vegetarianism – burnished with references to “carbon footprint” and “Athmanirbhar Bharat” – with what it means to be “Indian”, the paper seems less interested in the “health and well-being of children” and more interested in defining, through food, who can and can’t be Indian.
In another part of the position paper, it provides a series of recommendations for good mental health for children of different age groups from three to 18 years. Under the “Lifestyle guidelines” for those aged 8-11 years, the paper suggests dwelling on “The importance of Satvik foods” and – ironically – “Ayurveda basic diet concepts” for those aged 11-14 years.
The irony lies in the fact that there is no scientific evidence that following a “satvik” diet is good for children’s health and well-being nor – as stated above – does Ayurveda adopt an antagonistic stance against meat-eating.
The committee of experts that drafted the position paper was composed of a child psychiatrist, a diabetologist, a dietician and nutritionist, an Ayurveda physician, a Yoga therapist, an athlete and a gymnastics coach. There were no school teachers, parents or in fact children.
The principal stakeholders are completely missing from the picture, so it’s no surprise that the position paper is disconnected from both reality and science.
The stakes are high, so it bears repeating that because the education ministry uses this consultation, manifested as a position paper, to frame school curricula, we must treat the paper as crucial.
Nutrition is a life-long subject – one that its practitioners, both professional and personal, will study at the intersection of cultures, traditions, climate change, sustainability and their own preferences. Starting this journey with misinformation right from school will be devastating. Public-health nutritionists must speak out on the egregious nutrition-related comments on health and well-being in the position paper.
Megha is an assistant professor at the Centre for Ayurveda Biology and Holistic Nutrition, The University for Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Bengaluru. The views expressed here are the authors’ own.