Data Shows More Men Than Women Are Non-vegetarians In India, Why This Policing?

The increase in the number of men eating non-vegetarian food is far more pronounced compared to women. It also points out how entrenched patriarchy is and it dictates who is allowed to eat what.

Smita Singh
May 26, 2022 14:52 IST
Non-vegetarian, Misinterpreting women's words
I had heard that widows cannot eat meat, fish, chicken, eggs, garlic, onion or masoor dal, as these foods heat the body which in turn might ignite their passions. Well, now I also know that it’s not just widows who are discouraged from eating non-vegetarian foods but girls and women are discouraged too. I know many women who cook delicious non-vegetarian dishes but do not eat them. Are we even policing what women eat?

The recently released data of the National Health and Family Survey (NFHS-5) conducted between 2019-21, says that 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 of people (78.4 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women) and now in NFHS-5, 83.4 per cent of men and 70.6 per cent of women eat meat. Also, this latest edition of the survey shows that more people in the country eat meat at least once a week as compared to in 2015-16.

But my focus is on the survey’s data on dietary practices, which shows a distinct gender skew: The increase in the number of men eating non-vegetarian food is far more pronounced compared to women. It also points out how entrenched patriarchy is and it dictates who is allowed to eat what.

Why is there a significant rise in the consumption of non-vegetarian diets among men and not women?


It is not easy to pinpoint the reasons for the increase in the consumption of non-vegetarian foods among men from the NFHS-4 to NFHS-5 data period, we can still look at some points.

First, men get more opportunities to consume animal food outside of the home than at home. They freely visit restaurants and eat what they want even if there are dietary restrictions at home. While women who are confined at home are the ones who are forced to follow dietary restrictions.

So, while eating out gives a lot of autonomy and anonymity to men, it is quite rare to find single women (even a group of women) dining by themselves in restaurants in India even today. It can be concluded that agencies like autonomy and anonymity do not come easily to women even when it comes to something as basic as food.


Second is the reason we all know - gender discrimination. Women are often deprived of certain kinds of foods. The best portions (of fish, chicken, and meat) are served to the men of the family, and protein-rich foods like eggs, milk, ghee, curd and cottage cheese are served to them as well. And let’s not fool ourselves this is practised in most families across class levels.

Third, if there are temporary restrictions on foods due to religious and cultural reasons then women need to follow the rules, and men are exempted. If they so crave they can easily go out and consume whatever they want. In households where meat is not allowed to be cooked at home, the men are free to order from outside, but women will not be allowed to join in the feast.

It is sad but true that due to the prevalent patriarchal setup in India, men of the family exercise control over almost everything, which includes women’s diets.


Avoid Meat Good Health

Anaemic Indian women

About 46 per cent of Indian women under the age of 15 are anaemic according to a report released in January this year. This was a finding of SRL Diagnostics based on haemoglobin tests conducted between January 2015- November 2021. The study shows that 63 per cent of all samples, across all age groups of women, showed anaemia. While predominantly anaemia is caused due to iron deficiency or a deficiency of vitamin B12 there could be other reasons as well.


If not treated at the right time anaemia can worsen and become an underlying cause of grave illness, such as impaired foetal development during pregnancy, delayed cognitive development and increased risk of infection in young children, and also reduced physical capacity in general.

Other than dark leafy vegetables, beans, raisins, figs, dates, apricot, lentils, and soybean – meat, seafood and poultry are the best sources of iron. While along with milk, fruits and other dairy products – eggs, meat and fish quickly replenish vitamin B12.

The benefits of a non-vegetarian diet for women


A joint study by doctors at AIIMS, Delhi, and Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) 2019, on dietary habits of women suggested that those who consume non-vegetarian meals are less prone to diseases such as diabetes, cardiac ailments, cancer and obesity as compared to those on a vegetarian diet.

The survey was conducted on women between the ages of 18 and 40 years and was funded by the Department of Bio-Technology (DBT), Government of India. A total of 464 women enrolled from Delhi and Kashmir between 2015 and 2018. Women who consumed meat (203) were selected from Kashmir, while those who were vegetarian (261) were from Delhi. This included healthy women as well as those suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). A total of 144 women were suffering from PCOS and 320 were healthy. They were divided on the bases of their dietary preferences — vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism.

The findings of the survey have left researchers perplexed. Results show that women from Kashmir who consumed up to five non-vegetarian meals a week were found to be at a lesser risk of these diseases irrespective of whether they were suffering from PCOS or were healthy, in comparison to women in Delhi who followed a vegetarian diet.

So, think deeply about what your daughter is eating.

The views expressed are the author's own.

#non-vegetarian diet