It is 8 a.m. and Khusboo’s eyes are fixed on her mobile phone. She is anticipating an email. She has requested her boss to allow her to work from home today and is eagerly waiting for his reply. Khusboo works in an international organization and is considered as an extremely valuable asset to the organization due to her outstanding professional skills and dedication towards work. However, over the last few months she has been taking a lot of sick leaves and work-from-homes due to her ill health. She often wakes up with body aches, headache or some other health issue. All this is making her really worried -- not only about her physical health but also about her career -- as her sickness is greatly impacting her productivity at work.
Being a millennial she chose to check out Dr Google first. To her surprise, most of her symptoms indicated vitamin and mineral deficiencies. She then decided to see another doctor (this time a qualified one) who asked her to get some tests done. The results indicated that her Vitamin D, calcium and iron levels are significantly low, causing her these multiple health issues. Doctor said her nutrition-deficient diet and sedentary lifestyle is the culprit. Khusboo got baffled, she didn’t realise that nutritional deficiencies could be so disrupting.
Khusboo is not alone, her story resonates with numerous working women in India who face similar issues -- they are strong-headed, passionate about work, and are able to juggle multiple tasks. The modern Indian woman shoulders numerous responsibilities -- of both family and work, and does it so wonderfully. However, they score really low on the nutrition front. Although there are no specific studies to indicate the nutrition status of working women, the latest National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) report indicates that 50% of all women between the age of 15 and 49 years are anaemic in the country. In urban areas, 54% of women suffer from anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency is the most common problem among these women, where women lack one or more essential micronutrients, leading to several mental and physical health problems, as faced by Khusboo.
Sadly, it is not just undernutrition which is a problem, obesity and overweight are also affecting a larger proportion of these women. NFHS-4 indicates 20% of women as overweight or obese (BMI ≥ 25.0 kg/m2). The figure is 31% and 15% for urban and rural areas respectively.
Societal Role-Sharing – A Tipped Scale
Women constitute 48.5% of the country’s population, and according to the most recent National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey, the female Worker Population Ratio in the country in 2011-12 was 23%. However, it has always been observed that although a large number of women in urban and rural areas in India are working, our society is not evolving fast enough to keep pace with this transformation in the roles of women. The males still continue to perform their conventional roles with little or no sharing of the household load. Thus, women despite joining the mainstream workforce, continue to take care of the traditionally assigned household responsibilities. This responsibility-sharing pattern coupled with the demanding nature of the jobs, takes a huge toll on the health of such working women.
Walking A Tight Rope
Safe and nutritious diet, good sleep and a regular exercise regimen are things a working woman finds hard to maintain. The early work timings, added to the myriad of other morning responsibilities (such as getting the children ready for school, packing lunch boxes, arranging breakfast for the family) very often causes women to skip their first and the most important meal of the day. Since ancient times women have been giving their meals the last priority which stands true, to a large extent, even today. Not focusing on their diet requirements and eating food which is either inadequate in quantity or quality, leads to poor nutrition among women.
The lack of time to cook at home, or easy availability of packaged ready-to-eat foods put additional burden on the already nutrient-inadequate platter of women. Studies suggest that processed food consumption in India has increased manifold in the last couple of years. Online food delivery platforms have slowly become indispensable, and thanks to their amazing marketing strategies, ordering food has become an uber-cool thing today. The traditional wisdom about cooking food at home, eating seasonal fruits and vegetables and focusing on unprocessed food is taking a back seat.
Is it due to lack of knowledge? Is it always about inaccessibility? The answers are not simple. Sometimes inadequate knowledge results in poor nutrition choices, but in this digital era an information-overload can also be a source of huge confusion about food-related issues.
Also, working women apparently do not spend enough time on exercise, leading to slower metabolism and poor absorption of nutrients. Ironically, despite the current flood of fitness mobile apps and gymnasiums around, there has not been a proportionate increase in the numbers, especially women, who exercise. Even traditional practices such as Yoga, though receiving a lot of attention and hype, are also not being practiced by majority of women.
Although it is easier said than done, but women need to prioritise their nutrition first, else they would significantly lose on their productivity and growth, both in the professional and personal spaces.It’s a no-brainer that freshly prepared home-cooked meal is the best. Thus, planning the schedules in a way to make room for cooking, with some help, would be a good idea. Packing lunch boxes, and some healthy snacks to deal with evening hunger pangs would prevent the need and urge to eat outside food. Also, some quick and effective exercise sessions need to be squeezed in the daily schedule.
Organisations also need to come forward and catalyse this change in some way. They need to reorient their structures and processes with the changing needs of working women. Organisations may think of taking steps such as arranging diet counselling for women, say bimonthly or quarterly, to improve their knowledge about nutritional requirements and ways and means to achieve them.
Government and development organisations may also invest in education and awareness campaigns around improving women’s nutrition, promoting healthy diet, diet diversity and discouraging low nutrient packaged fast foods. Most working women are in their reproductive age, having high nutritional demand. Unavailability of proper nutrition leads to issues like poor maternal and child health, anaemia, and stunting and wasting among children.
Increased participation of women in the workforce would boost economic growth. But to unleash the country’s women potential we need them to be super fit and healthy. As a society and more so for men, we need to share women’s burden of responsibilities. Grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and raising children should not be labelled as women-only territories. Stereotyping of gender roles should be a thing of the past. Also, as women we need to make nutrition and good health our priority. A new and progressive India would only be possible with stronger and fitter Khusboos - Healthy Nutrition, Healthy Women, Healthy Nation!
(Dr Archana Singh is a public health professional, passionate about women issues. She currently works as Senior Program Analyst at Project Concern International/India. She has studied in UK and Australia, and worked in many international organisations. She practices Yoga and strives for healthy lifestyle. The views expressed by the author are personal.)