Malnutrition in India

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Providing all people with access to healthy food is a challenge for every country, including India.

Despite India's 50% increase in GDP since 2013,[1] more than one third of the world's malnourished children live in India. Among these, half of the children under three years old are underweight.

One of the major causes for malnutrition in India is economic inequality. Due to the low social status of population, their diet often lacks in both quality and quantity. Women who suffer malnutrition are less likely to have healthy babies. Deficiencies in nutrition inflict long-term damage to both individuals and society. Compared with their better-fed peers, nutrition-deficient individuals are more likely to have infectious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, which lead to a higher mortality rate. In addition, nutrition-deficient individuals are less productive at work. Low productivity not only gives them low pay that traps them in a vicious circle of under-nutrition,[2] but also brings inefficiency to the society, especially in India where labour is a major input factor for economic production.[3] On the other hand, over-nutrition also has severe consequences. In India national obesity rates in 2010 were 14% for women and 18% for men with some urban areas having rates as high as 40%.[4] Obesity causes several non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases.[2]


The World Bank estimates that India is one of the highest ranking countries in the world for the number of children suffering from malnutrition. The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of Sub Saharan Africa with dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth.[5]

The 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report by IFPRI ranked India 100th out of 118 countries with a serious hunger situation. Amongst South Asian nations, it ranks third behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan with a GHI score of 29.0 ("serious situation").[6] The 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report ranked India 102nd out of 117 countries with a serious issue of child wasting. At least one in five children under the age of five years in India are wasted.

India is one of the fastest growing countries in terms of population and economics, sitting at a population of 1.365 billion and growing at 1.5%–1.7% annually (from 2001–2007).[7][8]

Though most of the population is still living below the National Poverty Line, its economic growth indicates new opportunities and a movement towards increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases which is observed in at high rates in developed countries such as United States, Canada and Australia. The combination of people living in poverty and the recent economic growth of India has led to the co-emergence of two types of malnutrition: undernutrition and overnutrition.[9]

On the Global Hunger Index India is on place 67 among the 80 nations having the worst hunger situation which is worse than nations such as North Korea or Sudan. 25% of all hungry people worldwide live in India. Since 1990 there has been some improvements for children but the proportion of hungry in the population has increased. In India 44% of children under the age of 5 are underweight. 72% of infants and 52% of married women have anaemia. Research has conclusively shown that malnutrition during pregnancy causes the child to have increased risk of future diseases, physical retardation, and reduced cognitive abilities.[10]

Nutritional trends of various demographic groups[edit]

Many factors, including region, religion and caste affect the nutritional status of Indians. Living in rural areas also contribute to nutritional status.[11]

Socio-economic status[edit]

In general, those who are poor are at risk for under-nutrition, in India[12] while those who have high socio-economic status are relatively more likely to be over-nourished. Anaemia is negatively correlated with wealth.[11]

When it comes to child malnutrition, children in low-income families are more malnourished than those in high-income families.PDS system in India which account for distribution of wheat and rice only,by which the proteins are insufficient by these cereals which leads to malnutrition also. Some cultural beliefs that may lead to malnutrition is religion. Among these is the influence of religions, especially in India are restricted from consuming meat. Also, other Indians are strictly vegan, which means, they do not consume any sort of animal product, including dairy and eggs. This is a serious problem when inadequate protein is consumed because 56% of poor Indian household consume cereal to consume protein. It is observed that the type of protein that cereal contains does not parallel to the proteins that animal product contain (Gulati, 2012).[13] This phenomenon is most prevalent in the rural areas of India where more malnutrition exists on an absolute level. Whether children are of the appropriate weight and height is highly dependent on the socio-economic status of the population.[14] Children of families with lower socio-economic standing are faced with sub-optimal growth. While children in similar communities have shown to share similar levels of nutrition, child nutrition is also differential from family to family depending on the mother's characteristic, household ethnicity and place of residence. It is expected that with improvements in socio-economic welfare, child nutrition will also improve.[15]


Under-nutrition is more prevalent in rural areas, again mainly due to low socio-economic status. Anaemia for both men and women is only slightly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. For example, in 2005, 40% of women in rural areas, and 36% of women in urban areas were found to have mild anaemia.[11] In urban areas, overweight status and obesity are over three times as high as rural areas.[11]

In terms of geographical regions, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar have very high rates of under-nutrition. States with lowest percentage of under-nutrition include Mizoram, Sikkim, Manipur, Kerala, Punjab, and Goa, although the rate is still considerably higher than that of developed nations. Further, anaemia is found in over 70% of individuals in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, and Jharkhand. Less than 50% of individuals in Goa, Manipur, Mizoram, and Kerala have anaemia.[16]

Punjab, Kerala, and Delhi face the highest rate of overweight and obese individuals.[11]


Studies show that individuals belonging to Hindu or Muslim backgrounds in India tend to be more malnourished than those from Christian, Sikh or Jain backgrounds.[17]

Female population[edit]

Dual burden[edit]

Dual burden is characterized as undernutrition in the form of obesity or underweight, existing within an individual and/or at a societal level. On an individual level, a person can be obese, yet lack enough nutrients for proper nutrition.[18] On a societal level, the dual burden refers to populations containing both overweight and underweight individuals co-existing.[18][19] Women in India share a substantial proportion of the dual burden on malnutrition.[20] The primary causes of whether a woman falls into the obese or underweight under-nutritional category is dependent on the socioeconomic status of the individual, and dependent on rural or urban populations. Women with higher economic means in urban areas fall into obese and overnourished category, while conversely lower income women in rural areas are underweight and undernourished.[20] A consistent factor among dual burden outcomes relates primarily to food security issues. Access to healthy and nutritious foods within India has been increasingly replaced by a large supply of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods.[18][20] The existence of the dual malnutrition problems suggests a need for policy makers to support options which measure nutritional output, as opposed to calories, when deciding policies to ensure a well fed society.[19]

Domestic violence[edit]

A strong connection has been found with malnutrition and domestic violence, in particular high levels of anemia and undernutrition.[21] Domestic violence comes in the form of psychological and physical abuse, as a control mechanism towards behaviors within families.[22] This control affects a woman's autonomy to make decisions in regards to providing food, what type and amount, which leads to adverse nutrition results for herself, and family members.[23] Psychological stress also affects anemia through a process labeled oxidative stress. In moments of high stress, free radicals are produced which attack healthy red blood cells, therefore lowering hemoglobin blood levels and producing anemic malnutrition.[21] Additionally, physiological or chronic stress is strongly correlated in women being underweight.[21][24]


The Government of India has launched several programs to converge the growing rate of under nutrition children. They include ICDS, NCF, National Health Mission.[citation needed]

In order to manage nutrition requirements especially following the COVID-19 pandemic experts have recommended ways in which India can work towards nutrition security.[25] These include setting up community kitchens, adding pulses and millets to the Public Distribution system and continuing the school Midday Meal Scheme.

Midday meal scheme in Indian schools[edit]

The Indian government started midday meal scheme on 15 August 1995. It serves millions of children with fresh cooked meals in almost all the government run schools or schools aided by the government fund.

Apart from this Food for Life Annamrita run by ISKCON Food Relief Foundation and the Akshaya Patra Foundation run the world's largest NGO-run midday meal programmes, each serving freshly cooked plant-based meals to over 1.3 million school children in government and government-aided schools in India. These programmes are conducted with part subsidies from the government and partly with donations from individuals and corporations. The meals served by Food for Life Annamrita and Akshaya Patra complies with the nutritional norms given by the government of India and aims to eradicate malnutrition among children in India. Food for Life Annamrita is the premier affiliate of Food for Life Global the world's largest free food relief network, with projects in over 60 countries.[26]

Integrated child development scheme[edit]

The government of India started a program called Integrated Child Development Services (Integrated Child Development Services) in 1975. ICDS has been instrumental in improving the health of mothers and children under age 6 by providing health and nutrition education, health services, supplementary food, and pre-school education. ICDS is run by India's central government via the Ministry of Women and Child Development, targeting rural, urban and tribal populations and has reached over 70 million young children and 16 million pregnant and lactating mothers.[27]

Other programs impacting under-nutrition include the National Midday Meal Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission, and the Public Distribution System (PDS). The challenge for these programs and schemes is how to increase efficiency, impact, and coverage.[citation needed]

Bal Kuposhan Mukta Bihar (BKMB) is a campaign launched by Department of Social Welfare, government of Bihar in 2014. The campaign is based on five Cs:

  • communication for behaviour change
  • capacity building
  • community's access to tangibles and intangibles
  • community participation and
  • collective approach.

The multi-pronged strategy shows that a health issue like malnutrition can be tackled with the help of behaviour change communication (BCC) and other social aspects.[28]

National Children's Fund[edit]

The National Children's Fund was created during the International Year of the Child in 1979 under the Charitable Endowment Fund Act, 1890. This Fund provides support to the voluntary organisations that help the welfare of kids.[citation needed]

National Plan of Action for Children[edit]

India is a signatory to the 27 survival and development goals laid down by the World Summit on children 1990. In order to implement these goals, the Department of Women & Child Development has formulated a National Plan of Action on Children. Each concerned Central Ministries/Departments, State Governments/U.Ts. and Voluntary Organisations dealing with women and children have been asked to take up appropriate measures to implement the Action Plan. These goals have been integrated into National Development Plans. A Monitoring Committee under the Chairpersonship of Secretary (Women & Child Development) reviews the achievement of goals set in the National Plan of Action. All concerned Central Ministries/Departments are represented on the Committee.[citation needed]

15 State Govts. have prepared State Plan of Action on the lines of National Plan of Action specifying targets for 1995 as well as for 2000 and spelling out strategies for holistic child development.[citation needed]

United Nations Children's Fund[edit]

Department of Women and Child Development is the nodal department for UNICEF. India is associated with UNICEF since 1949 and is now in the fifth decade of cooperation for assisting most disadvantaged children and their mothers. Traditionally, UNICEF has been supporting India in a number of sectors like child development, women's development, urban basic services, support for community based convergent services, health, education, nutrition, water & sanitation, specially abled children, children in especially difficult circumstances, information and communication, planning and programme support. India was a member of the UNICEF Executive Board till 31 December 1997. The board has 3 regular sessions and one annual session in a year. Strategies and other important matters relating to UNICEF are discussed in those meetings. A meeting of Government of India and UNICEF officials was concurred on 12 November 1997 to finalise the strategy and areas for programme of cooperation for the next Master Plan of operations 1999–2002 which is to synchronise with the Ninth Plan of Government of India.[29]

National Health Mission[edit]

National Rural Health Mission[edit]

The National Rural Health Mission of India mission was created for the years 2005–2012, and its goal is to "improve the availability of and access to quality health care by people, especially for those residing in rural areas, the poor, women, and children."

The subset of goals under this mission are:

  • Reduce infant mortality rate (IMR) and maternal mortality ratio (MMR),Neonatal mortality rate(NMR).
  • Provide universal access to public health services
  • Prevent and control both communicable and non-communicable diseases, including locally endemic diseases
  • Provide access to integrated comprehensive primary healthcare
  • Create population stabilisation, as well as gender and demographic balance
  • Revitalize local health traditions and mainstream AYUSH
  • Finally, to promote healthy life styles

The mission has set up strategies and action plan to meet all of its goals.[30]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Measham, Anthony R.; Meera Chatterjee (1999). Wasting away: the crisis of malnutrition in India. World Bank Publications. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8213-4435-4. Malnutrition in India.


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External links[edit]