Millets have been part of the Indian diet since ancient times. But over time, they have been replaced by several other refined grains like rice, wheat flour etc.
Recent times, however, have seen a sudden comeback, with the superfood being thrown under the limelight for several health benefits.
Several studies have been done to determine the nutritional value of these forgotten grains. A recent one has found that millets can boost growth in children and adolescents by 26 to 39 per cent when replacing rice in standard meals.
Led by Dr S Anitha, senior scientist, nutrition, at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Patancheru, Hyderabad, the study was a review and meta-analysis of eight such previously published studies conducted in India.
“All the eight studies were based on different age groups such as infants, pre-school and school-going children and adolescents, who were fed millet-based meals. Most were long term studies ranging from three months to four years, and observations were then compared with the children who were consuming a conventional rice-based diet,” she tells The Better India.
The study, which was published in the journal ‘Nutrients’, found that millets indeed boosted the growth in these age groups of children. It also notes that the grain could help in overcoming issues of undernutrition and malnutrition.
According to the study, children who were fed millet-based meals were observed to have attained a relative increase in height of 28.2 per cent in mean height, 26 per cent in weight, 39 per cent in the mid-upper arm circumference, and 37 per cent in chest circumference, when compared to the children who were fed rice-based diets.
“These studies provide evidence that millet-based diets can be effective in improving height and weight where regular rice-based diets are currently consumed,” note the researchers in the study.
Calcium-rich finger millet
Most of the eight studies used finger millet (ragi). One was done with sorghum, and two with a mixture of millets (finger, pearl, foxtail, little, and kodo millets).
“Finger millet (ragi) is very unique when compared to other millets. It is rich in calcium, almost threefold higher concentration than milk, and from which almost 28 per cent is usually retained by the body,” says Dr Anitha.
She explains, “Millets, in general, are high in nutrient content, which promotes growth. The results from these studies prove that they contain a reasonably good amount of protein compared to refined grains like rice or wheat. They are also rich in sulphur-containing amino acids like cysteine and methionine which are also essential for growth. Apart from that, they also hold other essential nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc, selenium etc.”
“While replacing rice with millets, it is important to diversify them by adding more nutritious foods like vegetables, pulses, fruits, etc, which will help in growth in children,” she adds.
The study also gives out several policy recommendations such as developing nutrition intervention programmes to diversify staples and including millets in the mid-day meal scheme, as well as various mother and child health programmes. It also suggests incorporating millet-based meals designed for different age groups.
Other than growth, the study notes that millets help in managing type-2 diabetes, lowering total cholesterol levels, obesity, and iron deficiency anaemia.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)