New Delhi: India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has been advocating vegetarianism on grounds of religion and ideology, the latest being an effort by Indian Railways railways to enforce vegetarian menus on all trains on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, October 2.
However, around 80% of Indian men and 70% of women consume eggs, fish, chicken or meat occasionally, if not weekly, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of national health data. But their daily diet tends to be vegetarian, consisting of milk or curd, pulses or beans and dark green and leafy vegetables,
Overall, 42.8% Indian women and 48.9% men consumed 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 an Indian because both malnutrition and obesity are a problem: 53.7% women and 22.7% men are anaemic and 22.9% of women and 20.2% of men are thin (with body mass index of less than 18.5) while 20.7% of women and 18.9% 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, 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 low content of some of the essential amino acids” said NIN’s dietary guidelines.
The Indian Railways are now planning to celebrate the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a vegetarian, as ‘vegetarian day’. It plans to serve only vegetarian food on its premises and appeal to all its employees to abjure meat that day, reported Times of India on May 21, 2018.
Dietary risk including poor diet–low in fruits, vegetables, whole grain but high in salt, fats–is the third biggest risk factor for death and disability in India after air pollution and malnutrition, IndiaSpend reported in November, 2017.
In women, 37.4% have eggs, 36% fish, chicken or meat weekly
More men than women eat non-vegetarian food in India; almost three in ten women do not consume eggs (29.3%) and chicken, fish or meat (29.9%) compared to two in ten men who do not consume eggs (19.6%) and chicken, fish or meat (21.6%)
Among women between 15-45 years of age, 45% have milk and curd, 44.8% have pulses or beans and 47.2% 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% have milk and curd, 46.5% have pulses or beans, 46.6% have dark green, leafy vegetables daily while 44.7% eat eggs, 43.3% eat fish, chicken or meat weekly and 47.6% have fruits occasionally.
Age, marital status, geography, wealth and caste are 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% for eggs and 49.2% for fish, chicken or meat). Also, urban men (53.8% for eggs, 52.8% for fish, chicken or meat) eat more non-vegetarian food than rural men (47.1% for eggs, 46.5% for fish, chicken or meat).
Among women, the highest consumption of eggs and meat was among those who were widowed or divorced or deserted (41.5% for eggs and 47.4% 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% and 57.6%) and women (48.2% and 51.8%).
Among religions, Christians consume eggs and meat the most–men (71.5% and 75.6%) and women (64.7% and 74.2%). This is followed by Muslim men (66.5% and 73.1%) and women (59.7% and 67.3%).
The highest consumption of eggs and fish, chicken or meat is among those who said they did not know their caste–men (49.2% and 51.6%). 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% Indians consume eggs and meat.
Most meat eaters in Kerala, fewest in Punjab
Data on women show that Kerala (92.8%), Goa (85.7%) and Assam (80.4%) have the highest weekly consumers of fish, chicken or meat while Punjab (4%), Rajasthan (6%) and Haryana (7.8%) rank the lowest.
Figures for men show that Tripura (94.8%), Kerala (90.1%) and Goa (88%) are the highest weekly consumers of fish, chicken or meat while Punjab (10%), Rajasthan (10.2%) and Haryana (13%) are the lowest.
The consumption of meat on a weekly basis is high in the northeast and south India. It is the lowest in the north for both sexes.
(Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)
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