India in Transition

Dietary Transition in India

Kulkarni Gaiha.jpg
Vani S. Kulkarni and Raghav Gaiha

India is currently undergoing a rapid economic and demographic transformation. Since 1980, average living standards have experienced a sustained and rapid rise. The gross domestic product per capita has risen by 230 percent; a trend rate of 4 percent annually. Poverty declined at an annual rate of 0.88 percent from 1983-94, and at a slightly lower rate of 0.77 percent from 1993-05. Life expectancy has risen from 54 years to 69 years while the (crude) birth rate has fallen from 34 to 22 between 1980-2008. Rapid economic growth has been accompanied by rising urbanization. Between 1980-2000, the share of the urban population rose from 23 to 28 percent. By 2030, it is likely to be as high as 41 percent.

The growth momentum was accelerated by wide ranging domestic and external liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s. A key feature of the economic transformation has been the change in the nature of the Indian diet. As the global markets integrate and communication becomes better, diet transitions are unavoidable. This results in a move away from inferior to superior foods and a substitution of traditional staples by primary food products that are more prevalent in western diets. These shifts are reflected in higher consumption of proteins, sugars, fats and vegetables.

Some of the underlying factors of this dietary transition include expansion of the middle class, higher female participation, the 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 supermarkets and fast-food outlets.

Based on FAOSTAT, some dietary changes observed since the 1980s include:

  • The sharp rise in consumption of both animal and vegetable products during the 1980s.
  • The consumption of milk as the largest proportional increase among animal products.
  • Rice, pulses, wheat, spices, and oils comprising the largest increases among vegetable products.

During the 1990s, significant changes in the pattern of food consumption included:

  • A marked increase in the consumption of animal products (especially animal fats) but a relatively modest increase in that of vegetable products.
  • Among vegetable products, a large increase in the consumption of wheat, starchy roots, vegetable oils, sugar and sweeteners, and fruits (while that of rice, pulses and other cereals declined).
  • Among starchy roots, a sharp increase in potato consumption, given its salience in energy-dense food products (e.g. fries and potato chips).
  • A change in the use of wheat due to a move away from the traditional chapatti to more commercialized and westernized bread products.

The health implications of the dietary transition are not clear-cut. A more varied and nutritionally balanced diet and higher levels of food hygiene are associated with better health. But there is a trade-off as more energy-dense foods are linked to a higher incidence of diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer. Although India lags behind other developing countries in the epidemiological transition – decline in infectious disease mortality compensated increasingly by higher mortality from chronic degenerative NCDs – there is some evidence of the transition taking place. The estimated deaths from NCDs are projected to rise from 3.78 million in 1990 (40.46 percent of all deaths) to 7.63 million in 2020 (66.70 percent of all deaths). Worse, many of these deaths occur at relatively early ages; about a quarter of the deaths occurred in the 35-64 age group in urban areas.

From this perspective, findings on eating out are based on an analysis of a nationwide household survey, India Human Development Survey 2005 (IHDS), conducted jointly by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research. The focus is on the socio-economic status of households eating out, and their spatial distribution. The latter disaggregates household locations into rural and urban areas, and urban slums. A further disaggregation separates six metros from the rest.

Let us first consider a classification of households eating out by amounts spent. Eating out is pervasive going by the fact that more than a quarter of the households (about 28 percent did so). However, a large majority of those eating out (about 69 percent) spent under 99 rupees per month, and about a quarter spent over 200 rupees per month.

About a quarter of the Scheduled Castes (SCs), about 27 percent of the Scheduled Tribes (STs), and about 31 percent each of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and others ate out. It is significant that even some of the most deprived and socially excluded groups – especially the SCs and STs – have switched from traditional staples to fast foods and opted for greater variety in food consumption. This is further corroborated when the sample is split into the poor and non-poor households using the official poverty line. While a much larger proportion of the non-poor households (about 32 percent) ate out, those among the poor (about 14.50 percent) were far from negligible. A more disaggregated classification of the households into four monthly per capita expenditure classes (less than 300 rupees, between 300-500 rupees, between 500-1000 rupees, and greater than 1000 rupees) further dispels any doubts that eating out as a manifestation of dietary transition is mostly a middle-class phenomenon. About 21 percent of the households eating out had expenditures below 500 rupees, with the majority (about 79 percent) from the lower and upper-middle income classes (i.e., between 500-1000 rupees, and greater than 1000 rupees, with the median expenditure being 633 rupees). Within the low income households too (less than 500 rupees), the share of those eating out was 17 percent, as opposed to double that among the lower and upper-middle income households.

Additionally, eating out was not confined to the urban areas. About two-thirds of the households that ate out were rural, about 31 percent were urban, and the remaining (about 3 percent) were in urban slums. About 35 percent ate out among rural households, about 34 percent among urban households, and, surprisingly, about 45 percent in urban slums.

Confining to the six largest metros (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad), some additional insights are obtained. About 34 percent of the households in these cities ate out, as compared with about 27 percent elsewhere. Over 47 percent of the former spent 200 rupees or more per month on eating out, and less than one-quarter of the latter did so. Eating out is thus more pervasive among the metro residents, who also spent larger amounts. A majority of the upper-middle income class households in the metros (about 56 percent) ate out, far in excess of those elsewhere (about 40 percent). Also, while more than half of the former spent amounts exceeding 200 rupees per month, about 43 percent of the latter did so.

In conclusion, eating out as a manifestation of dietary transition in India is far more pervasive than a middle-income class urban phenomenon. That this is more typical of large metros is hardly surprising, given the more rapid lifestyle changes, greater exposure to the media, and easier access to eating-out facilities. However, there are also unmistakable signs of dietary changes in the rural areas and among low-income households in response to growing affluence and the ease of eating out.

Vani S. Kulkarni is a Lecturer in South Asian Studies at Yale University. Email:

Raghav Gaiha is a Professor of Public Policy, Faculty of Management Studies at the University of Delhi. Email:

This piece draws upon an ongoing study (jointly with Raghbendra Jha) of Dietary Changes, Malnutrition and Non-Communicable Diseases in India


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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