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“We have to keep it a secret” – Meat consumption in India

Image: Valeria Boltneva, Ham burger with vegetables, Pexels, Pexels Licence

This study interviews urban Indians, mainly people living in Mumbai, on their meat consumption habits. It finds that there is a difference between public and private eating patterns, because of the social stigma attached to eating meat despite rising consumption.

While only around 25-40% of people in India identify as vegetarian, around 80% follow Hinduism, which has some teachings that recommend vegetarianism. Some of India’s other religions also promote vegetarianism, e.g. Jainism and Buddhism.

The findings of the interviews include:

  • Eating meat is often seen as wrong based on religion or caste, and in some cases there are particular days or religious festivals during which meat is not consumed.
  • Participants who eat meat reported some disapproval from neighbours or friends, e.g. people refusing to attend a wedding celebration because meat was served.
  • Some participants reported meat-eating being seen as modern, novel and linked to freedom from their family’s expectations. One participant said “There's almost stigma in the word traditional”.
  • Several participants noted that their friends maintain religious dietary restrictions when at home (with family), but eat meat when at a restaurant with friends.
  • Some interviewees said they might face ostracisation or abuse from family or religious right-wing groups if it were known that they eat meat. 
  • Some people said they lie (e.g. to their family) about where or what they ate when out of the home.
  • Another context in which people might secretly eat meat is in the home, when vegetarian family members will not see. 
  • Some of the reasoning for eating meat in secret was to avoid confrontation and keep other people happy. The authors note that Indian society is collectivist in some respects, and in collectivist cultures, meaning can be derived from social relationships and maintaining harmony.
  • Some interviewees mentioned other people helping them to maintain a facade of not eating meat, e.g. by washing dishes that have had meat on them, or hiding food under the table in the presence of certain people.
  • Other participants thought that people should not lie about what they eat.
  • Family members sometimes did find out about meat consumption, e.g. through social media or from neighbours. Reactions included shock, shame and a feeling of betrayal.



Meat consumption is on the rise in India. However, most studies on meat consumption have been conducted among Western audiences and there are relatively few insights into meat consumption in emerging markets, especially India, which tends to be stereotyped as a vegetarian nation. The aim of this qualitative study was to explore meat consumption practices among urban Indians aged 23–45 years. The sample comprised mainly Mumbai residents. The research methodology used constructivist grounded theory. Semi-structured face-to-face in-depth interviews was the main mode of data collection and the research used an iterative study design along with an inductive analysis approach. A key finding was that while meat consumption is on the rise, there are social stigmas still associated with it. This has led to discrepancies between consumption behaviours occurring in public (frontstage behaviours) and those carried out in private (backstage behaviours). Using Goffman's theory of self-presentation, the study provides insights into various ways in which backstage meat consumption occurs in collectivist Indian society today. The backstage setting can comprise places outside the home, such as restaurants, and in some instances, segregated ‘safe’ spaces within the home itself. Within these spaces, the study explores how certain consumption taboos are quietly broken while actions are taken to present appropriate frontstage appearances before various audiences. This study contributes to the relatively sparse literature on meat consumption in India while also using Goffman's theory to highlight the discrepancies between public and private consumption behaviours within the collectivist Indian context.



Khara, T., Riedy, C. and Ruby, M.B., 2020. “We have to keep it a secret”–The dynamics of front and backstage behaviours surrounding meat consumption in India. Appetite, 149, p.104615.

Read the full paper here. See also the TABLE explainer What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?

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