Taking a look at another looming health crisis


‘Protein deficiency’ has become a common word for Sri Lankans these days, as many children are malnourished due to the ongoing crises in the country.

Who are those affected by protein deficiency?

When contacted, Dr. Manoji Gamage, Consultant Nutrition Physician, claimed that mainly, protein deficiency affects children and the elderly and that they are the most vulnerable for protein and other nutrition deficiencies.

She also said as children’s needs are different from the grownups, protein is an essential nutrition for their growth including the height. As for the elderly, she stated that they are vulnerable, they have many appetites and religious beliefs, and therefore they tend to be vegetarian, and as a result, the effect can be severe and lead to loss of muscle mass, strength, and function in elderly which is called ‘Sarcopenia’.

The clash of modernisation and the healthy diet

Dr. Gamage emphasised that as the Sri Lankan culture is an Eastern Culture, we are a more agricultural-based community, and in ancient times, people have been able to take a balanced meal as they had their own cows to take milk from and at least two to three eggs per day and also had enough space for home gardening plus had good quality rice, all put together giving the much needed and the adequate amount of protein.

According to her, the protein deficiency started only a few decades ago with modernisation, where people lost their ‘attached’ resources and changed into modern and western lifestyles.

She also explained that the protein deficiency has become a problem because we have deviated from what we have been doing and we have not compensated and therefore, there is an imbalance in our culture, the eating pattern and therefore it has led to many health issues.

What food contains protein?

As Dr. Gamage mentioned, rice is also a good source of protein, therefore, she advises to feed the children with rice rather than with bread, noodles and bakery products.

The protein is mainly divided into two categories as animal and plant-based proteins. Therefore, all the categories of meat, fish, and milk come under the animal-based protein, and she stressed that egg is a good quality protein. Then in relation to plant-based protein pulses (cowpea, mung bean), tofu, soya, tempeh, seitan, nuts, seeds, certain grains and even peas are included.

She warned that if you don’t consume animal-based protein that can lead to ‘iron deficiency’.

Dr. Gamage also advises to be cautious about what you eat and therefore to plan for it. When planning to balance the diet, she advises to check whether what provides good quality protein.

How can we balance the diet in a crisis situation?

As Dr. Gamage said, instead of buying expensive fish like, Tuna, Thalapath and Thora, we can shift to fish such as Linna, Lenapara and Salaya and that is called ‘coping strategy’. She explained that in a crisis situation, people have to adjust themselves to cope. And ‘cope’ is when we go for alternatives as we cannot afford the expenses. And she also stressed that the protein content is not different in any of the fish varieties whether it’s a Lenapara or Tuna.

And also, she said at least children should be given the necessary amount of protein, if it is economically not possible to provide for the whole family. And she stressed that egg is a good investment during this crisis, as it is a good quality protein.

Dr. Gamage then explained that when moving to alternatives we have to increase the consumption of pulses and soy products like, tofu, tempeh and soya milk.

She stated that when spending money on food, people have to go for healthy options, therefore, she said when buying rice, it is better to buy the ‘husk rice’ which is in its unpolished state as there is a B complexion in it; more vitamins and minerals in the whole grain.

She further stressed that, when we have a limited or minimum amount of money to spend on food, we have to go for the next best possible choice.

As Dr. Gamage claimed, that there is a 3.5g of protein in a cup of rice and in our culture as we usually eat all three rice-meals, it does play a major part as a protein source in our country. Therefore, she reiterated that rice is a better choice for children rather than noodles, pasta and other food. When it comes to a balanced diet, Dr. Gamage claimed that adding nuts for children’s meal can enhance the diet as it is a nutritious food (depending on the allergic states). Also, instead of buying milk, which is expensive nowadays, she said that curd is also a good option as it is a good source of protein. She further explained that in the past, in traditional Sri Lanka, especially people in the South, used to add curd to rice before consumption.

What are the symptoms of protein deficiency?

According to Dr. Gamage’s guidance, if it is a ‘fat adult’, Sarcopinia is a symptom that we could identify in a person suffering from protein deficiency and when it comes to a slim person, it could be identified from the shoulders as if the last born, almost being visible. 

Fatigue, lack of concentration, slowed growth, lowered immunity are also symptoms of protein deficiency. In children they can manifest as malnutrition, and they also can be taunted.

By Kanchana Kolagolla