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Home / Opinion / Views /  Are Indians eating more than before, and are they eating better?

Over the past three decades, India has witnessed a curious phenomenon: as the economy grew rapidly, and per capita incomes zoomed, average calorie intake fell steadily. According to some economists, the fall in average food consumption reflected a decline in physical activity of Indians, and hence in calorie requirements. But the latest data on nutritional intake published by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows that average calorie intake has gone up in the country for the first time in three decades, overturning the earlier trend.

The rise in average calorie intake however masks wide variations across states and income classes. As the chart below shows, states in north India have significantly higher calorie intakes as compared to those in south India. This has been the historical pattern, at least over the past three decades, and continues to hold true even today. Calorie intake levels are not necessarily higher for richer or more developed states.

There have been a few big changes between 1993-94 and 2011-12 when it comes to average rural calorie intake levels across states. Uttar Pradesh has moved up three notches to the top of the league tables. Gujarat has dropped four notches to move to the bottom of the league tables. Among southern states, Andhra Pradesh has seen a big increase in average rural calorie intake, rising five notches to fifth position among major states ranked according to calorie intake levels.

Unlike the wide variations in rural calorie intake levels across states, urban calorie intake levels are roughly similar across all states. As the chart below shows, the gap between calorie intake levels of northern and southern states are very small when it comes to urban India.

While the calorie intake levels of richer deciles are significantly higher than that of poorer deciles, the gap between the two groups has shrunk between 1993-94 and 2011-12. As the chart below shows, in rural India, the calorie deficit of the bottom deciles (compared to the national average) have shrunk considerably in 2011-12, indicating a progressive shift in calorie intake patterns.

A similar shift has occurred even in urban India. The gap between the calorie intake level of poorer deciles and the national average has shrunk considerably.

Indians are certainly eating more than before, cutting across states and income classes. But the data suggests that they may not be necessarily eating better.

As the charts below show, protein consumption has fallen over the past two decades across most Indian states, in both rural and urban areas.

Although average protein consumption in the country has recovered in 2011-12 from the lows of 2004-05, they are still below the 1993-94 levels. In a country with severe protein malnutrition, this is a disturbing trend. Unlike in the case of overall calorie consumption, the shifts in protein consumption have been highly regressive, at least in rural India.

The protein consumption of the bottom deciles have been fallen significantly below the national average while those of the top deciles have increased substantially over the past two decades.

In urban India though, the shifts in protein consumption have been more progressive, with the bottom deciles gaining more than the top deciles.

Unlike in the case of protein consumption, fat consumption has been increasing consistently across states over the past two decades. As the charts below illustrate, this is true of both rural and urban areas of the country.

But the increase in fat consumption has not been equal across all income groups. As in the case of protein consumption, richer classes are consuming greater quantities of fat than before while the lowest income classes are consuming far less than the rural national average.

In urban India, the shifts in fat consumption have been more progressive, with lowest income classes witnessing significant gains in fat consumption.

Overall, the data seem to suggest a broad-based increase in calorie intake cutting across states and income classes. However, not all Indians seem to be eating better. Poorer Indians, particularly in rural India, are eating less protein-rich and fat-rich foods compared to average consumption levels. While improvements in the public distribution system (PDS) may have increased their access to carbohydrate-rich food items such as cereals, rising prices of protein-rich and fat-rich items seem to have hit the poor hard, adversely affecting their diet.

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