As international relief workers come to the aid of more than 6 million people desperate for nourishment in Afghanistan, they are relying on three vital foods: wheat, an energy-rich grain; beans, a protein powerhouse; and vegetable oil, a source of concentrated calories.
The shipments are part of a massive international relief effort to sustain a nation buffeted by drought and war, where millions of men, women and children are facing starvation in freezing winter weather. Wheat, which was first cultivated in the fertile crescent of the Middle East 10,000 years ago, has always been a valuable commodity. Roman emperors imported it from the provinces to keep the hungry masses from rioting in the streets.
The reliance on wheat in Afghanistan is enough to inspire a fresh appreciation of a food that is commonly taken for granted in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid recommends six to 11 servings daily of grains, although it doesn't distinguish between the whole grains, which are more nutritious, and refined grain products such as pastas and white bread. Wheat supplies complex carbohydrates, which give the body energy and are burned more slowly than simple carbohydrates such as sugar.
Whole wheat is especially nutritious because it's high in protein, fiber and vitamins, which along with carbohydrates, help maintain and repair cells throughout the body--while also being low in fat. Whole grain wheat contains more nutrients and fiber than refined white flour that's been stripped of the bran and wheat germ. Wheat bran, the outer shell of the wheat kernel, provides lots of insoluble fiber, and wheat germis rich in polyunsaturated fat, Vitamin E, zinc and iron. Because whole-grain wheat--and breads baked with it--have long been a staple of the Afghan diet, it's comfortably familiar for people made homeless and hungry by war. But the true restorative power of this staple lies in its ability to fuel the body. Most of the hungry families are baking the wheat into bread. A daily ration of wheat provides 972 calories, plus 32 grams of protein--the equivalent of nearly 5 ounces of meat, fish or poultry, along with carbohydrates and some fiber.
This past week, the United Nations' World Food Program delivered 110-pound bags of wheat to families in Kabul, said Abby Spring, an agency spokeswoman in New York. Each bag feeds a family of six for a month. Wheat currently constitutes about 90% of the U.N. emergency food supplies shipped to Afghanistan, with the rest a combination of wheat blended with soy, or corn mixed with soy, sugar, oil and beans.
Eaten alone, wheat or corn are so-called incomplete proteins, lacking some of the essential amino acids that the body can't manufacture. However, mixing grains with beans, lentils or soy results in a complete protein that keeps cells and organs functioning. Cooking oil and sugar punch up the calories.
Besides their wheat ration, those Afghans considered most at risk--pregnant women, children and the elderly--may receive a supplementary daily ration of wheat flour, wheat-soy blend, beans, oil and sugar, which provides them with an additional 1,975 calories and 65 grams of protein. "What you're trying to do is get as many calories into as small a space and weight as possible, and the most efficient way is oils, nuts and grains," said Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. The emergency food shipments "would not be good for us to eat here in the United States, where we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes."
Most Americans live on what Heber jokingly calls a "grain-based diet: corn oil, corn sugar and corn-fed beef. That's a great diet if you were living in the Old West, working on a farm from 5 in the morning until the sun goes down. If you're working on a computer, it's too many calories."
Humans are surprisingly well-adapted to starvation, able to survive 260 days on just water and vitamins, said Heber. The body stores energy for emergencies. Without food, most people will deplete their stored carbohydrates, then fat, then precious protein. With high-calorie emergency nutrition, they can preserve their muscles and organs.
Among people who lack adequate nourishment, prolonged periods of subsistence eating can take their toll. There have been reports that Afghans are beginning to show signs of vitamin deficiencies, such as scurvy resulting from a lack of vitamin C.
While emergency meals rely on bread and water, they lack important nutrients in colorful fruits and vegetables, like red tomatoes, green leafy spinach, oranges and berries. Americans should be meeting their fuel needs with lower-calorie, higher-fiber foods, and going easier on the fat and sugary carbohydrates.