New Delhi: India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has been advocating vegetarianism on grounds of religion and ideology, the latest being an effort by Indian Railways to enforce vegetarian menus on all trains on 2 October, Mohandas Gandhi’s birthday.
However, around 80 percent of Indian men and 70 percent of women consume eggs, fish, chicken or meat occasionally, if not weekly, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of national health data.
Although their daily diet tends to be vegetarian, consisting of milk or curd, pulses or beans and dark green and leafy vegetables, 42.8 percent of Indian women and 48.9 percent of Indian men consume fish, chicken or meat weekly, according to the National Family Health Survey, 2015-16 (NFHS-4). It is important to assess the average diet of Indians because both malnutrition and obesity are a problem in the country: 53.7 percent of women and 22.7 percent men are anaemic and 22.9 percent of women and 20.2 percent of men are thin (with body mass index of less than 18.5), while 20.7 percent of women and 18.9 percent men are overweight or obese, according to the same data.
The ministry of health and family welfare had recently courted controversy when it tweeted an image that grouped non-vegetarian foods such as eggs and meat with junk food, implying that both cause obesity. The image was subsequently deleted.
In 2015, the Madhya Pradesh government had banned eggs from meals served in anganwadis or day-care centres allegedly due to pressure from Jain groups.
These moves come despite the recommendations of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, which advocate the consumption of protein-rich animal foods such as milk, meat, fish and eggs, and plant foods such as pulses and legumes.
“Animal proteins are of high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in right proportions, while plant or vegetable proteins are not of the same quality because of their lower content of some of the essential amino acids,” said NIN’s dietary guidelines.
The Indian Railways is now planning to celebrate the birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi, a vegetarian, as “Vegetarian Day”, and plans to serve only vegetarian food on its premises on 2 October, 2018. It appealed to all its employees to abjure meat that day, reported The Times of India on 21 May.
Dietary risk including poor diet — low in fruits, vegetables and whole grain but high in salt and fats — is the third biggest risk factor for death and disability in India after air pollution and malnutrition, IndiaSpend reported in November 2017.
More men than women eat non-vegetarian food in India; almost three in 10 women do not consume eggs (29.3 percent) and chicken, fish or meat (29.9 percent) compared to two in 10 men who do not consume eggs (19.6 percent) and chicken, fish or meat (21.6 percent).
Among women between the ages 15-45 years of age, 45 percent have milk and curd, 44.8 percent have pulses or beans, and 47.2 percent have dark green, leafy vegetables daily while 37.4% eat eggs and 36.6% eat fish, chicken or meat weekly. Almost half–51.8%–of them have fruits occasionally.
Among men between 15 to 45 years of age, 46.2 percent have milk and curd, 46.5 percent have pulses or beans, 46.6 percent have dark green and leafy vegetables daily, while 44.7 percent eat eggs, 43.3 percent eat fish, chicken or meat weekly. And 47.6 percent of men have fruits occasionally.
Age, marital status, geography, wealth and caste factors
Weekly consumption of food items is not the same for all groups and follows different trends. But those over 19 years tend to eat more eggs and any kind of meat every week.
Among men, the highest consumption of eggs and meat was among those who were never married (50.5 percent for eggs and 49.2 percent for fish, chicken or meat). Also, urban men (53.8 percent for eggs, 52.8 percent for fish, chicken or meat) eat more non-vegetarian food than rural men (47.1 percent for eggs, 46.5 percent for fish, chicken or meat).
Among women, the highest consumption of eggs and meat was among those who were widowed or divorced (41.5 percent for eggs and 47.4 percent for fish, chicken or meat).
Education appears to decide the choice of vegetarian/non-vegetarian foods. Those who have studied up to five years eat the highest amount of eggs and meat — men (54.2 percent and 57.6 percent) and women (48.2 percent and 51.8 percent).
Among religions, Christians consume eggs and meat the most — men (71.5 percent and 75.6 percent) and women (64.7 percent and 74.2 percent). This is followed by Muslim men (66.5 percent and 73.1 percent) and women (59.7 percent and 67.3 percent).
The highest consumption of eggs and fish, chicken or meat is among those who said they did not know their caste: Men (49.2 percent and 51.6 percent). This holds true for women as well for eggs; for fish, chicken and meat it is highest in “other caste”.
And while the consumption of eggs and meat increases with household wealth, a lower percentage of men and women among the richest 20 percent Indians consume eggs and meat.