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Home / Science / Health /  What Indians eat and drink, in five charts

Are Indians becoming more diet-conscious? Do they access better food in villages or in cities? Is meat slowly entering more Indian plates? Which states see better protein intake in their residents? Data from the 2019-21 round of National Family Health Survey (NFHS), released last month, provides a glimpse into these questions. For one, fascination for sugary, aerated drinks is on a decline. Pulses are almost universal in a typical household’s weekly food menu, but fruits are missing. More Indians are eating non-vegetarian food than ever before. India’s drinkers are getting rarer. Here’s more:

1. Junk, out

Indians appear to be consuming fried items and aerated drinks less and healthier items more than before, the data shows. Around 25% of men and 16% of women aged 15-49 consumed aerated drinks at least once a week in the latest survey, down from 32% and 24% in 2015-16, respectively. Most people enjoy fried food once in a while, but only 7% of women and 9% of men consume such items on a daily basis. Both figures are down marginally.

In contrast, both genders are consuming healthier food items such as eggs and leafy vegetables more often now. Over half the men (58%) eat eggs weekly, up from 50%. More than half (52%) of women now eat dark green leafy vegetables—a key source of fibre—daily, up from 47%.

However, fruits are a relatively uncommon part of Indian diets, with a minuscule 12% respondents consuming one daily.

2. Non-veg grows

The consumption of non-vegetarian food—fish, chicken or meat—has grown sharply across India. As many as 57% men eat such food items at least weekly now, compared to 49% in 2015-16. The increase is more pronounced in more disadvantaged groups: 16 percentage points among the poorest quintile, but just 6 percentage points among the richest; 10 percentage points among the least educated, and 7 percentage points among those who completed school. However, among women, the overall share increased only marginally, from 43% to 45%.

Experts say economics is at play here. Himanshu, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, attributed rising consumption to a drop in relative prices of items such as chicken and eggs, which has made them more accessible and affordable for poorer groups. “A large proportion of marginalized communities such as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are inherently non-vegetarian eaters, but these items had been inaccessible due to high prices," he said.

3. Protein problem

The NFHS data also confirms the role gender plays in nutritional intake. Women are less likely to consume proteins. To measure this, we looked at consumption patterns for milk or curd and eggs—both cheap and accessible sources of proteins.

While 81% of males in their late teens (age 15-19) consume milk or curd at least once a week, the same is true for just 70% among females. Similar gaps exist for eggs across age groups. Since women are also less likely to eat fish, chicken or meat, their overall protein intake could be a cause of concern.

However, in three southern states—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu—women are highly likely to eat both milk and eggs often. Weekly egg consumption is high among women in West Bengal (83%), Tripura (75%), and Sikkim (72%). In central Indian states, consumption of both product types is low.

4. Rural & urban

Thanks to higher income levels, city-dwellers eat both healthy and unhealthy food items more often than those in villages, the data suggests. While 86% of urban men consume milk or curd at least weekly, only 77% of their rural counterparts do so. Fruits are consumed often by 66% of urban men, but just 51% of rural men. Similar gaps exist among women, and across each food item listed by the NFHS, rural women are the least likely demographic to have their share at least once a week.

Pulses and green leafy vegetables are close to universal for both rural and urban Indians. However, fried foods and aerated drinks are much more common in cities.

Richer families are more likely to eat all food items often—except non-vegetarian food, for which there is no notable trend. As many as one-third of the richest 20% of Indians consume aerated drinks at least once a week, compared to one-sixth in the poorest 20%.

5. Abstinence rising

Contrary to the perception, younger Indians are significantly less likely to drink than the middle-aged, the survey showed. Moreover, alcohol has lost some appeal since the last survey.

While 12% of men aged 20-34 drink at least once a week, the share rises to 19% among those aged 35-49—down from 15% and 22%, respectively.

Drinking is extremely rare among women, with fewer than 1% saying they consume alcohol. Arunachal Pradesh (18%), Sikkim (15%) and Assam (6%) were the top three states on this metric. Among men, drinking is the most common in Goa (59%), Arunachal Pradesh (57%) and Telangana (50%). Bihar saw a sharp drop (29% to 17%), as the previous survey preceded the prohibition policy. More education and wealth can be linked to lower alcohol consumption.

The trends hold for tobacco as well: around 39% of men aged 15-49 use any kind of tobacco, down from 45%, and the share is much higher (53%) for men aged 50-54.

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