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NFHS data on diet practices should lead to more informed debate on nutrition, remove blinkers of policymakers

The gender disparities in the consumption of non-vegetarian food, highlighted by the NFHS-5, should make policymakers revisit the debates on reducing the protein deficit of the country's women. Hanging on to facile stereotypes will do more harm than good.

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 18, 2022 9:39:47 am
More than two-thirds of people in the 15-49 age group eat non-vegetarian food daily, weekly or occasionally — a steady rise compared to NHFS-4 when the figure stood at a little over 70 per cent people.

Data from the recently-released National Health and Family Survey (NFHS-5) confirms the hypothesis of a sizeable section of nutrition scholars. The number of Indians who eat non-vegetarian food has been increasing steadily. More than two-thirds of people in the 15-49 age group eat non-vegetarian food daily, weekly or occasionally — a steady rise compared to NHFS-4 when the figure stood at a little over 70 per cent people. The survey’s latest edition also shows that more people in the country eat meat at least once a week compared to 2015-16. The proportion of Indians who eat eggs too has gone up appreciably. The survey’s data on dietary practices, however, shows a distinct gender skew: The increase in the number of men eating non-vegetarian food is far more pronounced compared to women. All this has significant implications for planning on nutrition-related matters — it is especially salutary for policymakers who obstinately hold on to the stereotype of India being a country of vegetarians.

In India, food practices have been, for long, informed by complex rules of religion and caste. In recent times, these habits have become part of the country’s political discourses in ways that have bred acrimony between social groups and stoked violence against minorities. The myth of the vegetarian nation has also influenced policy matters such as serving eggs in the mid-day meal scheme for children attending government and government-aided schools. Barely a third of the states provide eggs to children under the scheme despite the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition — it works under the aegis of the Indian Council of Medical Research — certifying that eggs are loaded with more nutrients and easier to procure compared to alternatives such as milk and bananas.

In 2011, the National Sample Survey data revealed the declining protein intake of Indians. This was confirmed, in 2019, by the EAT-Lancet Commission Study on Sustainable Food Systems, which pointed out that Indians consume more simple carbohydrates than proteins as well as less complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. Given that non-vegetarian diets are protein-rich, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that restrictions on eating meat and eggs could increase the nutritional deficits of a section of the country’s population — a worrying proposition given India’s poor report card in repeated Global Hunger Index surveys. In fact, the gender disparities in the consumption of non-vegetarian food, highlighted by the NFHS-5, should make policymakers revisit the debates on reducing the protein deficit of the country’s women. Hanging on to facile stereotypes will do more harm than good.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on May 18, 2022 under the title ‘Meat of the matter’.

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