The rise of food porn—photographing food and publishing it on Instagram—and heated Facebook debates on which city has the best biryani show affluent India’s obsession with food. Every other white collar worker talks about the dream of opening her own restaurant.

While that last bit is anecdotal, hard data show that despite this food obsession, the proportion of Indians eating out has not risen in the past decade.

According to the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2011-12, about 27% of Indian households reported to have eaten out at least once in the 30 days preceding the survey. That number is not significantly different from that in the 2004-05 survey.

To be sure, this could mean that people are ordering in more. A number of research reports, especially those focussing on India’s food franchising industry, routinely claim that the frequency of Indians eating out is increasing. Thus, it is possible that while the number of people eating out has not increased much, as suggested by IHDS data, those who are eating out are steadily spending more, and more frequently.

An industry report from market research firm Research and Markets on India’s fast food industry said, “Eating out in India has become more of an everyday activity instead of the occasion driven activity."

Indeed, as a 2009 research paper by Raghav Gaiha (University of Delhi), Raghbendra Jha (Australian National University) and Vani S. Kulkarni (Yale University) puts it, “The expansion of the middle class, higher female participation, emergence of nuclear two-income families, a sharp age-divide in food preferences with younger age-groups more susceptible to new foods advertised in the media, and a rapid growth of super markets and fast food outlets" are reasons for the increase in Indians dining out.

So, who are these Indians who are eating out?

Data predictably confirms the oft-held notion that urban households tend to dine out more, and this propensity among urban households increased slightly between the survey years of 2004-05 and 2011-12.

Conventional wisdom would also have us believe that it is smaller family units that are driving the rise in spending on eating out. But data shows otherwise. It is actually the joint families which tend to eat out more compared to nuclear families.

Similarly, smaller household size does not necessarily translate into more trips to the restaurant. Single-person households, i.e. people living alone, show a much lower propensity to eat out; only 15% of people staying alone in urban areas admitted to have eaten out in the last 30 days.

To be sure, the overall numbers for people living by themselves get skewed by the fact that a large number of single-person households are in fact old people. However, even among the under-35 people living by themselves in urban areas, only 43% of them reported to have dined out at least once in the last one month, not a significantly higher rate than the 42% reported by urban families of four people.

Thus, any rise in urban households eating out more and the growth of India’s served food industry cannot be attributed to some narrow section of the population—the small urban families. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the changes in eating habits are more pervasive, with large families appearing to have taken the lead in embracing food away from home.

Why is this important?

Children generally belong to such large households rather than the small households of one or two people. And one of the reasons often cited as an important factor behind obesity among young people is the “frequent consumption of meals at fast-food outlets", as noted by a recent paper published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Indeed, data from the IHDS, concerning obesity in children aged 5 to 15 years, corroborates this conventional wisdom.

Children in households that admitted to eating out were more likely to be obese. The proportion of obese children was arrived at by using the 95th percentile rule, wherein a child whose body mass index (BMI) falls within the top 5% for his or her age and gender group, is deemed to be obese.

And, needless to reiterate, childhood obesity is a cause for concern as it is a known precursor to adult obesity and other non-communicable diseases in adulthood, according to ICMR. Of course, eating out is not the only contributor to obesity among children and adolescents, with other factors like “genetic, neuroendocrine, metabolic, psychological, environmental and socio-cultural factors" also deemed as important determinants.

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