Data from the recently released National Health and Family Survey (NFHS-5) support the hypothesis of a large section of nutrition specialists. The number of Indians who eat non-vegetarian foods is steadily increasing. More than two-thirds of people aged 15 to 49 eating non-vegetarian foods daily, weekly, or occasionally – a steady increase from NHFS-4 when the figure was just over 70% people. The latest edition of the survey also shows more people in the country eating meat at least once a week compared to 2015-16. The proportion of Indians who also eat eggs has increased significantly. The data from the dietary practices survey, however, show a clear gender gap: the increase in the number of men consuming non-vegetarian foods is much more pronounced than that of women. All of this has important implications for planning nutrition issues – it is particularly salutary for policy makers who stubbornly cling to the stereotype that India is a country of vegetarians.
In India, dietary practices have long been influenced by complex rules of religion and caste. In recent times, these habits have become part of the country’s political discourses in a way that has fueled acrimony between social groups and fueled violence against minorities. The myth of the vegetarian nation has also influenced political issues such as serving eggs in the midday meal program for children attending public and government-subsidized schools. Barely a third of states provide eggs to children under the scheme despite the fact that the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition – it works under the Indian Council of Medical Research – certifies that the eggs are loaded with more nutrients and easier to obtain compared to alternatives such as milk and bananas.
In 2011, National Sample Survey data revealed the declining protein intake of Indians. This was confirmed, in 2019, by the study of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Sustainable Food Systems, which pointed out that Indians consume more simple carbohydrates than protein as well as less complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. Given that non-vegetarian diets are high in protein, it would not be an exaggeration to say that restrictions on meat and egg consumption could increase the nutritional deficits of part of the country’s population – a worrying proposition being given India’s poor record on several occasions. Global Hunger Index Surveys. In fact, the gender disparities in consumption of non-vegetarian foods highlighted by the NFHS-5 should cause policymakers to revisit debates about reducing the nation’s women’s protein deficit. Clinging to easy stereotypes will do more harm than good.
This editorial first appeared in the May 18, 2022 print edition under the title ‘Meat of the matter’.