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The great Indian calorie debate: Explaining rising undernourishment during India’s rapid economic growth


  • Smith, Lisa C.


The prevalence of undernourishment in India – the percent of people consuming insufficient calories to meet their energy requirements – has been rising steadily since the mid 1980s. Paradoxically, this period has been one of robust poverty reduction and rapid economic growth. The reasons for the apparent reductions in calorie consumption underlying increased undernourishment have been the subject of intense debate both within India and internationally. This paper critically reviews this debate, finding that is has taken place outside of the context of India’s recent nutrition and epidemiological transitions, which appear to have brought with them increased, not decreased, food consumption. The debate has also taken place under the unchallenged assumption that the data on which the conflicting trends are based, collected as part of the country’s Household Consumption and Expenditure Surveys (HCESs), are reliable. The paper provides supporting literature and empirical evidence that a probable key source of the calorie decline is incomplete collection of data on food consumed away from peoples’ homes, which is widespread and rapidly increasing. Complete measurement of this food source in the HCESs of all developing countries is vital for accurate measurement of both undernourishment and poverty – and for resolving the Indian calorie debate.

Suggested Citation

  • Smith, Lisa C., 2015. "The great Indian calorie debate: Explaining rising undernourishment during India’s rapid economic growth," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 50(C), pages 53-67.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jfpoli:v:50:y:2015:i:c:p:53-67
    DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2014.10.011

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    2. John Gibson, 2016. "Poverty Measurement: We Know Less than Policy Makers Realize," Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 3(3), pages 430-442, September.
    3. Gibson, John & Boe-Gibson, Geua & Stichbury, Glen, 2015. "Urban land expansion in India 1992–2012," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 100-113.
    4. Carpena, Fenella, 2019. "How do droughts impact household food consumption and nutritional intake? A study of rural India," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 122(C), pages 349-369.
    5. Yu, Xiaohua & Abler, David, 2016. "Matching food with mouths: A statistical explanation to the abnormal decline of per capita food consumption in rural China," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 63(C), pages 36-43.
    6. Yu, X. & Zhang, X. & You, L., 2018. "Does The Granary County Subsidy Policy Lead to Manipulation of Grain Production Data in China? Evidence from a Natural Experiment," 2018 Conference, July 28-August 2, 2018, Vancouver, British Columbia 277298, International Association of Agricultural Economists.
    7. Anirban Dasgupta, 2021. "Peasant Production in India: How the ‘Need Economy’ Facilitates Accumulation," Development and Change, International Institute of Social Studies, vol. 52(2), pages 217-240, March.
    8. Chandana Maitra & Vani Sethi & Sayeed Unisa & Sriram Shankar, 2019. "Household Food Insecurity and Maternal and Child Nutritional Status: Evidence from Maharashtra," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 65(S1), pages 63-101, November.
    9. Deepthi E. Kolady & Shivendra Kumar Srivastava & David Just & Jaspal Singh, 2021. "Food away from home and the reversal of the calorie intake decline in India," Food Security: The Science, Sociology and Economics of Food Production and Access to Food, Springer;The International Society for Plant Pathology, vol. 13(2), pages 369-384, April.
    10. Conforti, Piero & Grünberger, Klaus & Troubat, Nathalie, 2017. "The impact of survey characteristics on the measurement of food consumption," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 72(C), pages 43-52.
    11. Biswabhusan Bhuyan & Bimal Kishore Sahoo & Damodar Suar, 2020. "Quantile Regression Analysis of Predictors of Calorie Demand in India: An Implication for Sustainable Development Goals," Journal of Quantitative Economics, Springer;The Indian Econometric Society (TIES), vol. 18(4), pages 825-859, December.
    12. Nidhi Kaicker & Vani Kulkarni & Raghav Gaiha, 2018. "Is variety the spice of life? India’s nutrition experience," Global Development Institute Working Paper Series 282018, GDI, The University of Manchester.
    13. Balarajan, Yarlini & Reich, Michael R., 2016. "Political economy of child nutrition policy: A qualitative study of India’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 62(C), pages 88-98.
    14. Fiedler, John L. & Yadav, Suryakant, 2017. "How can we better capture food away from Home? Lessons from India’s linking person-level meal and household-level food data," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 72(C), pages 81-93.

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