How Can Pakistan Unlock Its Protein Potential?

Author: Zoha Matin

Pakistan’s dietary landscape, perceptions, knowledge, and behaviours have a pivotal role in steering the nation towards nutrition security. Predominantly known for its delectable non-vegetarian offerings, Pakistan’s relationship with protein is a complex one.

According to the ‘Pakistan Protein Perception Study 2023’ conducted by the protein awareness initiative ‘Right to Protein South Asia, powered by US Soybean Export Council (USSEC)’, there is a need for our citizens to develop a better understanding of the importance of protein for optimal health. The study unearthed vital findings that not only shed light on the nutrition landscape of the nation but also the challenges to adequate protein consumption, awareness and affordability. Here are the key findings of the study:

Misconceptions about protein sources: There is a high awareness of animal-based protein sources among Pakistanis. However, there are misconceptions about plant-based proteins and their nutritional value. A significant 40% of study participants incorrectly identified fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereals as high-protein food sources.

Lack of awareness of the signs of protein deficiency: The study revealed significant gaps in understanding the symptoms and consequences of protein deficiency. 60 percent of study participants acknowledge protein’s impact on health, but common deficiency symptoms are often unrecognized.

Pakistanis tend to consume high-protein foods only on a weekly basis, rather than a daily basis.

Gender disparities in protein awareness: The study revealed that women are generally more aware of protein’s importance than men, with higher recognition of deficiency symptoms. The study found that a greater percentage of men (45 percent) experience muscle mass decline compared to women (51 percent), due to a lack of protein awareness and adequate consumption.

Misinformation about protein requirements exists in specific subsets of the population: The participants’ misconceptions about who needs more protein affect dietary choices. Many believe only specific groups (like children, athletes, and pregnant women) need more protein, potentially skewing household protein consumption. Findings from the study showed that 28 percent of elderly individuals are not consuming adequate protein.

Confusion over ideal protein requirements per day: According to official dietary recommendations, the daily protein intake for an average individual should be 56-80 g/day. Participants in this study were quite unsure about the ideal daily protein intake, with 38% of participants thinking up to 40 grams is enough, and 33% suggesting 40-80 grams.

Weekly vs. daily protein consumption. Pakistanis tend to consume high-protein foods only on a weekly basis, rather than a daily basis. This is often due to habits, family structure, and economic factors.

Food budget allocation towards protein foods: The average Pakistani household spends only 10-20% of its food budget on protein sources.

The impact of inflation on protein consumption. Recent inflation and food crises have led to decreased consumption of protein-rich foods (like meat and fish), especially in larger households. This may have serious nutritional implications in the long term.

Improving the affordability and accessibility of protein-rich food sources should be a major intervention area to counter the challenges faced by the Pakistani population. Pakistan is a net importer of food. It is important to assess the nature of consumption, access, and affordability of protein in view of the ongoing food crisis and severe inflation which has affected Pakistan since 2022. The conflict in Europe coupled with rapid exchange rate depreciation has led to a surge in commodity prices. To add to this, the developing situation in the Middle East could make matters worse.

Key Recommendations

The ‘Pakistan Protein Perception Study’ has cast a spotlight on the intricate web of protein awareness, misconceptions, and affordability issues. As a nutritionist, I believe that some immediate measures are pivotal in steering Pakistan towards a healthier and more protein-conscious future. Here are some strategies that I propose:

* Educational campaigns: Launch nationwide campaigns to educate the public on the importance of protein in the diet, focusing on dispelling myths and providing accurate information about protein sources and daily requirements. Educational campaigns should focus on creating awareness around the signs and symptoms of protein deficiency as well as educating the public on what are affordable sources of protein.

* Economic support: Implement policies to make protein-rich foods more affordable, especially for low-income families, to ensure better access to these essential nutrients. This could involve subsidies or price controls for essential protein sources.

* Diversified protein sources: Promote a variety of protein sources, including plant-based options, to encourage a more balanced and sustainable diet. Identifying and promoting the availability of superfoods, such as soybeans, can be a game-changer. This versatile ingredient can play a vital role in improving the quality and affordability of protein sources.

* School breakfast and lunch programs: Implementing subsidized meal programs at schools leads to higher protein consumption in school-going children. Protein is essential for healthy child growth and development.

* Affordability of animal feed: Ensuring the affordability of animal feed is crucial in making common protein sources, such as poultry, more accessible to the general population. Policymakers should consider measures to support this endeavour.

* Healthcare involvement: Encourage healthcare providers to actively educate patients about protein’s role in health and the risks of deficiency.

* Community engagement: Engage local communities and leaders in promoting a balanced diet. Tailor messages to address cultural and economic factors influencing dietary choices.

These strategies aim to improve protein consumption patterns in Pakistan by increasing awareness, affordability, and accessibility of protein food sources. Addressing the gaps through education, economic measures, and community engagement is vital for improving the nutrition of Pakistanis. Overall, this can lead to a healthier population and a brighter future for our nation.

The writer is a supporter of the ‘Right to Protein South Asia, powered by the US Soybean Export Council (USSEC)

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