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Global Development Institute

Is variety the spice of life? India’s nutrition experience

Nidhi Kaicker, Vani Kulkarni and Raghav Gaiha


This paper departs from an influential study by Deaton and Dreze, in which decline in calorie intake over the past few decades is attributed to lower calorie ‘requirements’ as a result of improvements in sanitation, health and more sedentary lifestyles, in order to address the central question of whether more diversified diets result in greater consumption of expensive calories and consequently in a reduction of calorie intake. We do so using the National Sample Survey (NSS) consumer expenditure data for 1993–94, 2004–05 and 2011–12. The study was motivated by a classic contribution by Behrman and Deolalikar and its elaboration by Jha et al; the former offer a quantitative explanation of the phenomenon that calorie elasticities are substantially lower than food expenditure elasticities: food variety per se is valued so that people purchase increased food variety as their incomes increase, even though this may not alter their calorie intakes much. Our analysis corroborates the fact that dietary diversification is associated with higher costs of calories, mainly because of reliance on more expensive calories (eg through a reduced dependence on cereals, which are the cheapest sources of calories), determined by a taste for variety in both rural and urban areas and across expenditure deciles over the period 1994–2012. Our analysis also confirms that higher costs of calories and greater affluence are associated with a reduction in calorie intake. Hence, closer scrutiny of food preferences and taste for variety is necessary to understand nutritional deprivation better and to design more effective policies to ameliorate it.


Calories, diets, taste for variety, cost of calories, reduction in calorie intake, India

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