When it comes to food, most of us would agree that there is hardly a country in the world that can match India with regards to diversity, flavour and quality of ingredients. Even our deeper understanding and connection to food is unique. From its use in Ayurveda to the synchronisation of our food with festivals that are themselves linked to specific times of the year or seasons, and reaching all the way back to our early agricultural practices which reflect a reverence to nature — are all distinctly Indian and embedded into our collective memory.
Right from sixth millennium BC where contemporary archaeologists found species of rice, winter cereals (barley, oats, and wheat) and legumes (lentil and chickpea), through colonization where our farming practices and preferences changed, to the Green Revolution starting in 1965 where the focus shifted to high yielding varieties (HYVs) of plants and grains, India and her relationship with food has always been deep-rooted as well as complex.
Indian cuisine — like in most ancient cultures — is woven around food that was locally and seasonally grown. It was based on fresh produce and whole grains, such as rice, millets and legumes. Indigenous foods like tubers, grains, vegetables and fruits of every region were the staple foods. Dairy and meat were never a significant part of the food system, but instead reserved for festivals or celebrations. Before factory farming was the norm and profit was the bottom line, animal-based foods were not the mainstay except in regions where the topography or climatic conditions were not conducive to growing fresh produce.
Not so long ago, due to the reverence for cows and the close bonds that people shared with animals coupled with the lack of refrigeration, milk and milk products were sparingly used. With modern methods of industrial animal rearing, pasteurisation and refrigeration, dairy is now found in some form or the other in every meal of the day! In Ayurveda, too, ghee and milk were used not as remedies but more as carriers of medicinal herbs. Additionally, milk and milk products were not advised as a standard for all; their use instead depended on the person’s body type (dosha), lifestyle and stage of life.
As always in our past but especially nowadays — with nearly all animal-based foods being produced on large-scale, industrial farms that involve practices which are neither health promoting nor ethical, and which also result in extensive environmental degradation — opting for a plant-based diet is an excellent choice. In India, we are blessed with abundant sunshine and a profusion of locally-sourced fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds and legumes. Not only can we survive but we can actually thrive on a plant-based diet. We have no dearth of options!
However, most people are hesitant when it comes to moving towards a plant-based diet, even when they learn of the benefits of doing so. Many people wonder how they can get the necessary nutrition and meet their daily dietary requirements to remain healthy. People may feel they are getting a mixed message, because regrettably the focus of food has shifted to taste and convenience rather than health and nutrition, especially in urban centres. Over the past three to four decades, a great number of urban Indians have moved away from eating healthily and towards eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates (polished white rice and rotis made from processed white flour, for example); junk/fried/processed/packaged food; excessive sugar and oil; and eating out/ordering in. Their diet may be calorie sufficient (or over-sufficient when we take into account the rate of obesity) but nutrient deficient…and adding to that is a largely sedentary lifestyle.
Nonetheless, the concern for whether and how we can meet our protein, calcium, iron, etc on a plant-based diet is valid, but before we get into that let’s understand why choosing a vegan lifestyle is great for our health, in addition to being sustainable for the planet and standing up for the unethical treatment of animals.
A vegan diet is a sustainable diet, and one that can be followed for our entire life. It is kind on our body and also on the pocket (in the long run for sure)! It goes without saying that it is kind to animals. It can greatly aid in the reversal of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, as well as improve the condition of hormonal-related issues such as thyroid, PCOS etc. As a matter of fact, in 2016 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics took a firm position on plant-based diets, concluding that they provide health benefits for people at all stages of life, including women during pregnancy, athletes, infants and the elderly. In order to thrive on a vegan diet, though, we should plan it well so that we get the necessary macro- and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are substances that the body needs in relatively large amounts. Of the three macronutrients, two of them — fat and carbohydrates — are quite easily obtained and are stored in the body, unlike the third macronutrient — protein. Since the body does not store protein, we need to make sure that we have a steady supply. Let’s take a look more closely at where we can obtain protein, as well as other important nutrients on a plant-based diet:
Protein is used by our body to build and repair tissues. We also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Our protein requirement per day is approximately 0.8 grams per kg of body weight, though that can vary according to gender, age, activity level.
Protein sources: Lentils (moong, masur, chawli); beans (kidney beans, chickpeas, soya); peas; peanuts; amaranth; buckwheat; millets; brown rice; spinach; pumpkin seeds; hemp seeds; chia seeds…
Vitamin B-12 is a crucial B vitamin. It is needed for nerve tissue health, brain function, neurological function and the production of red blood cells. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for vitamin B12 for people over 14 is 2.4 mcg.
B12 sources: Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria; as such, the only “natural” source is bacteria-laden manure and unsanitized water. Since we should not be consuming these things, the best source of B12 is supplements or fortified foods such as nutritional yeast; yeast spreads; fortified non-dairy milks; some algae and fermented foods.
Vitamin D helps regulate the absorption and amount of calcium and phosphate in the body which are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. It also helps boost immunity by fortifying the white blood cells. We need an average daily intake of from 600–1000 IU (International Units) but we may require much more to overcome a deficiency.
D3 sources: The best source of D3 is the sun. Try and spend 20 minutes in direct sunlight every day. Urbanites are prone to Vitamin D deficiency, as many of them spend most of their time living and working indoors and avoid the sun. As well, smog and pollution in cities block the sun’s rays. It is for this reason that to prevent deficiency, it is advisable to take a D3 supplement on a regular basis.
For Vitamin B12 and D3 it is important to have an annual blood test to make sure our levels are maintained at an optimal level. As well, it is preferable to take low-level “maintenance” supplements on a regular basis, rather than high doses on a weekly or fortnightly basis for optimum absorption (unless, of course, advised differently by your doctor).
Calcium is a mineral that plays a major part of tooth and bone strength and health. We need calcium in order to circulate blood, move muscles, and release hormones. We need between 1000 to 1300 mg a day of calcium, depending on our age. As stated above, we also need to be sure to have proper amounts of Vitamin D in order to regulate calcium in the body.
Calcium sources: Sesame seeds; poppy seeds; amaranth; ragi (finger millet); beans and pulses (like soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas, urad dal…); green leafy vegetables (like radish leaves, fenugreek leaves, mustard greens and spinach); almonds; dried figs; fortified non-dairy milks…
Iron is an important component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that transports oxygen from our lungs to the tissues in the entire body. Iron is also necessary or physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning and synthesis of some hormones. Women need 15-18 mg (much more when they are pregnant or lactating) while men need 8-11 mg as their daily iron requirements. Vitamin C (see below) increases iron absorption.
Iron sources: Dark leafy greens such as spinach; lentils; soya beans and tofu; kidney beans; chickpeas; green peas; pumpkin seeds; sunflower seeds; water/garden cress seeds; whole grains; oats; almonds; dried fruits (dates, prunes, raisins, figs)….
Iodine is an essential mineral which is needed by the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormones which regulate metabolism. The recommended dietary intake for iodine is 150 (g (micrograms) per day.
Iodine sources: Iodized salt; Seaweed.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that are important in preventing and treating heart disease as well for brain health. Of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA; eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA; docosahexaenoic acid or DHA), plant foods typically only contain ALA. Rest assured, though: our body can convert ALA into EPA and to a lesser degree into DHA. The daily recommended intake of ALA for adults is 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men.
Omega 3 sources: Seaweed; algae; walnuts; ground flax seeds; chia seeds; basil seeds (sabja); hemp seeds…
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and is important for eye health, the immune system and for healthy skin, bones and other tissues in the body. Vitamin A also works as an antioxidant, fighting cell damage and thus helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly. The recommended intake of Vitamin A ranges from 700 to 900 micrograms per day.
Vitamin A sources: Dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach, mustard greens, fenugreek leaves); sweet potato; carrots; pumpkin; muskmelon…
Zinc is a nutrient that is linked to an improved immune system aimed at fighting off invading bacteria and viruses. The body also needs zinc to build proteins and DNA —the genetic material in all cells. The recommended daily amount of zinc is 8 mg for women and 11 mg for adult men.
Zinc sources: Legumes (like beans, chickpeas, lentils); nuts (like cashews, peanuts, almonds); seeds (like melon, flax, hemp, pumpkin, sunflower); oats; whole grains…
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin and one of the most important vitamins required by the body. Vitamin C is needed for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, and is a powerful antioxidant, helping to boost the immune system and to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Vitamin C also helps in iron absorption.
Vitamin C sources: Citrus fruits; amla; papaya; guava; berries; kiwi; cantaloupe; bell peppers…
– Vinita Contractor, Holistic Nutrition & Lifestyle Coach