India is stereotypically portrayed as a predominantly vegetarian country. Even government estimates project that a large proportion of the population live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, recent investigations indicate this may not be the case.
Research by US-based anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan and India-based economist Suraj Jacob has uncovered large amounts of data suggesting the stereotype of mass vegetarianism is untrue.
Government estimates have claimed more than a third of Indians are vegetarian. However these figures may have been inflated based on cultural and political pressures. In particular the cultural and religious significance of cows has led to mass underreporting of the numbers of people who eat beef.
The government often promotes the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Shivira, a magazine published by the Rajasthan government, recently published an article claiming non-vegetarian food increases the risk of infectious diseases. There is no well-documented evidence to suggest that meat increases the risk of infection, though the links between meat and cancer have been studied in detail.
Red meat, in particular. is associated with certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer (CRC). Meta-analysis of numerous studies have uncovered clear links between excessive consumption of red meat, as well as processed meat with CRC. One study estimated that these risk factors increase the chance of an individual developing CRC by up to twenty to thirty percent.
Red meat consumption in India is, in theory, lower than in the West. Government data suggesting only seven percent of the population eat beef. Independent studies have suggested this figure may be closer to fifteen percent.
The percentage of vegetarians in India fluctuates considerably between cities and geographic regions. As a country-wide average, the sample registration system (SRS) baseline survey 2014 found that 71 percent of Indians over the age of fifteen are non-vegetarian.
Data from cities varies widely. Indore has one of the highest rates of vegetarianism within a city, at 49 percent. The majority of other cities have far lower rates of vegetarianism, with Delhi having a thirty percent vegetarian population, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata had far lower rates, with vegetarian populations of 18 percent, six percent and four percent respectively.
A correlation was found between meat consumption and wealth. Government data shows that higher-income households are more likely to be vegetarian. Meat-based diets were often seen to be associated with lower castes, tribal people and Dalits and are more prevalent in rural areas.
In urban areas westernised diets are becoming more and more prevalent. In addition to higher rates of meat consumption, this style of diet includes far more fast food. These unhealthy food choices, combined with the sedentary lifestyles involved with many urban jobs, has led to higher rates of obesity. This, in turn, has elevated risks of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease.
Nicholas Parry has a Bachelor of Science in genetics from the University of Sheffield and a Master of Research in neuroscience from the University of Nottingham. He has been a featured writer for Health Issues since 2016. He is based in South Wales.