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Vegetarianism rules in north India, but dal and paneer as proteins punch below their weight

National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) shows 2 out of 3 Indians eat meat, but data shows huge variations in regions and between men and women. But, what’s best for nutrition?

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New Delhi: From all the ‘hurt sentiments’ around meat-eating of late, it might seem that non-vegetarianism is not just an aberration but downright offensive in India.

From the South Delhi mayor deciding to shut meat shops during Navratri, to students allegedly agitating over chicken on a canteen menu on Ram Navami, to the endless debate over serving eggs in midday meals in Karnataka, angry vegetarians have turned non-veg food into a boiling issue.

But, who and where really are the vegetarians in India?

The latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), conducted in 2019-21, points out that two in three Indians are meat-eaters. However, they are by no means evenly spread across the country or even across genders.

Analysis of state-wise data shows that vegetarianism is much more widely prevalent in the northern and central parts of the country than elsewhere, and that more men than women are meat-eaters.

As for their relative nutritious value, non-veg food is said to have a distinct advantage with respect to its protein content.

Also read: As a fasting Hindu, I oppose South Delhi mayor’s move to shut meat shops for Navratri

Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat are vegetarian ‘strongholds’

The NFHS-5 data shows that, on average, only 23 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men never consume chicken, fish, or meat.

This means that every three in four women and five in six men in India do consume meat — whether daily, weekly, or occasionally.

However, region-wise data reveals stark differences in food habits across India.

In north and central India — comprising Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, UT of Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh — more than half of the women (50.7 per cent) and about a third of men (33 per cent) never consume meat.

Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur

This means that in north and central India, the share of vegetarians to the total population is almost twice the national average.

Among the states, Haryana has the highest share of vegetarians in India. Nearly 80 per cent of the women and more than 56 per cent of men reportedly never consume meat here.

Following Haryana in the prevalence of vegetarianism are Rajasthan (75 per cent women and 63 per cent men) and Punjab (70 per cent women and 41 per cent men).

At the other extreme, data shows that vegetarians are a minuscule minority in the northeastern, eastern, and southern states.

In the northeast, comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, vegetarians are an anomaly. Only 1.6 per cent of women and 1.3 per cent of men report not eating meat. In other words, about 99 per cent of the population is non-vegetarian in these parts.

In the eastern states — West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bihar — only about 10 per cent of the population, on average, reports that they never eat meat, chicken, or fish, which means about 90 per cent do.

Similarly, only 8 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men report that they never eat meat in southern India, comprising Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana (data for the Union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry was not available).

Vegetarianism is higher than the national average (31 per cent women and 23 per cent men) in western India, but the numbers are majorly inflated by Gujarat, which is the fourth-most vegetarian state in India.

Despite its long coastline, which often correlates with a high consumption of seafood, more than half of Gujarat’s residents — about 61 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men — do not eat non-veg.

The other western states have a very different food profile. In Goa, only 3 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men are vegetarian, while in Maharashtra this goes up to 28 per cent for women and 17 per cent of men.

The gender gap, and food choices

As is evident from the data described above, the prevalence of meat-eating is higher among men than women across all the states, albeit to varying degrees. The north and central parts of the country showed particularly glaring gaps.

Among the states and UTs where at least a third of the women said they were vegetarians (see figure below), Jammu and Kashmir showed the highest gaps in meat intake — about 36 per cent of women here reported they never ate meat, compared to only 9 per cent of men. Compared to men, women in Uttarakhand and Punjab were almost two times more likely to be vegetarian.

Graphic: Ramandeep Kaur

To ascertain the reasons for this, ThePrint spoke to the officials in the women and child development departments of the states/UTs where the vast majority of women are vegetarians.

A senior official from the Women and Child Development Department in Haryana, where about 80 per cent of the women are vegetarians, said “religious reasons” dictated people’s food choices.

“A vast majority of the state is religious (Hindu) and as a result, meat-eating is not commonly seen here. However, people regularly consume milk and milk products as well as lentils, so the need to consume meat for protein is not felt here,” the official told ThePrint.

In Punjab, officials in the Women and Child Development Department said they had not studied meat-eating habits in the state and could not comment.

Dr Hemalatha R., director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), noted that “there could be several social and cultural factors” that account for differences in food consumption patterns even among members of the same family.

“While access, affordability, and availability of foods play an important role in the frequency and regularity of consumption of some foods, cultural and religious factors play an important role as well. These should be explored and more research is required,” she said.

According to food consumption data in the NFHS-5, states with a high prevalence of vegetarianism also consume milk and lentils — both vegetarian sources of protein — regularly.

In Haryana, for instance, about 72 per cent of women consume milk or curd daily and 98 per cent consume pulses at least once a week. Similarly, in Punjab, 64 per cent of women consumed milk or curd daily while 91 per cent of women ate dal at least once a week. In Rajasthan, 69 per cent women consumed milk or curd on a daily basis and more than 90 per cent women ate dal at least once a week.

Is plant-based protein enough?

According to National Institute of Nutrition recommendations, a healthy adult should consume 0.83 grams of protein for every 1 kg of their body weight. So, if your weight is around 65kg, you should consume more than 53 grams of protein every day.

While milk products and dal are often the proteins of choice for vegetarians, data suggests that they lack some of the nutritional benefits of non-vegetarian proteins. While some milk products tend to be high in harmful fat, dals need to be consumed in bulk to provide adequate protein benefits.

Graphic: Ramndeep Kaur

Based on NIN’s detailed list of nutrient content (proteins, fats, moisture etc) in common foods, ThePrint calculated the protein-to-fat ratio of various foods — pulses, milk, eggs, poultry, meat, and marine fish — and found that animal-based proteins provided more proteins than fats, and are also often lower in calories, compared to vegetarian sources.

Whole milk, of both cows and buffaloes, contains more fat than proteins. A glass (200 ml) of cow’s milk has about 6.52 grams of protein, but it also contains 9 grams of fat. A glass of buffalo milk would give you more protein (7.36 grams) but also more fat (13 grams).

On average, 100 grams of paneer has 18.86 grams of protein, while the same amount of chicken has about 19.44 grams. This is pretty close, but the fat content in paneer is also higher at 14.68 grams than chicken, which has only 12.64 grams of fat.

Pulses and legumes fare better when it comes to protein-to-fat ratio — 100 grams of dal, for instance, contains about 22 grams of protein and only 3 grams of fats.

But, it’s not so straightforward. Pulses are usually boiled before being consumed, which makes them bulky to consume.

A 100-gram cup of dal when cooked makes about four servings (which has about the protein content of a leg of chicken), so you need to make sure you have plenty of space in your stomach.

Unlike the fats in greasy oily food, the fats in milk products and nuts are good for health, experts told ThePrint, but they fall short in fulfilling protein requirements unless consumed in large amounts.

Further, non-animal-based proteins are less rich in amino acids, which are essential for our bodies to break down protein and provide energy.

Best protein sources

Marine fish, which is mostly eaten in coastal India, has among the best protein-to-fat ratios. A 100-gram serving of fish contains about 21 grams of protein and only 2.2 grams of fats.

Another good source of protein is eggs, which are also more cost-effective than meats.

Depending on how they are cooked, on average, every 100 grams of eggs contains more protein (14g) than fat (13g). However, here also, north and central India lag behind — 43 per cent of women in these regions reportedly never consume them. In the case of men, however, eggs are relatively acceptable. Only a fourth of men (26.8 per cent) in the region never eat eggs.

“Meat, eggs, and milk are great sources of quality protein and superior. To meet a 2,000 kilocalorie a day diet, the ‘My plate for the Day’ recommended by our institute suggests that about 90 grams of pulses or legumes are to be included, a portion of which can be suitably replaced with meat/eggs/fish etc,” Dr Hemlatha said.

She also told ThePrint that milk and its products should not be seen as a replacement for any food.

“About 200-300 ml of milk, curd and so on are recommended for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. They are not a replacement for any food, but they should be seen as a necessary inclusion,” she said.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

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