Vegetarianism is fashionable these days. Many diehard carnivores are fast replacing tandoori chicken with its vegetarian counterpart, tandoori paneer. “Meats”, believe some vegetarians, are toxic and unnecessary. They also believe that vegetarianism is the way to living a pure life and to not include meat in their diet makes them more humane and saves the lives of animals.
Non-vegetarians retort that it is only because of the meat-eating practices of the hunter-gatherers and the survival of the fittest maxim that the process of human evolution was possible in the first place. They also argue that people having diets deficient in meats may suffer from a lack of protein, vitamins, iron, zinc and other nutrients.
And the debate rages
The benefits and shortcomings of both of these systems of eating are well known. Vegetarian diets are good because they give us fibre, roughage and lots of vitamins, and are low in calories. These diets also give us antioxidant protection and improve immunity. Grains and pulses also give us fibre, balance blood sugars and keep us energetic for the day, nuts and seeds provide us with healthy fat and the cancer-fighting vitamins A, D, E and K. However, vegetarian diets can be deficient in the important vitamins B12, B6 and B3. The iron in vegetarian food is not absorbed by the body as well as the iron from meat. And proteins in lentils and beans are incomplete because they lack the essential amino acid methionine, which is why lentils are best eaten with grains such as wheat or rice. Vegetarian diets must include some nuts, peanuts or cashew nuts to make the proteins in lentils complete.
Non-vegetarian food is a rich source of protein and fats that make up the body mass, i.e., muscles, lungs and digestive and other systems; they also contain hormones and enzymes and the very vitamins that vegetarian foods lack, B12, B6 and B3. Seafood, especially fish that have teeth, such as rawas, pomfret, mackerel and salmon, have healthy omega nutrition and are the exclusive providers of essential fats such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DPA). Besides, the iron in non-vegetarian food is of better quality, and better absorbed by the body. On the flip side, non-vegetarian food is also calorie dense, lacks fibre and has high levels of cholesterol. It may be tough to digest and is laden with saturated fats (fish are an exception to this).
Meat fix: Non-vegetarian food is a rich source of protein.
Clearly both types of food have their plus points and their negatives, which is why perhaps the best balance comes when the two systems are followed together.
Maximize the interdependence
• The rule of thumb is that it is better to have at least half a plate of veggies, in any form, raw or cooked, with a fist-sized serving of fish, poultry, and some grain in the form of rice or breads and rotis preferably made from multigrain.
• If you have diabetes or high cholesterol, avoid mincemeat, salami and sausages. These have very high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
• If you want to convert to vegetarianism, give up meat, but stay with the eggs and seafood at least three days in a week.
• Have eggs and seafood at least three days in a week.
• If you are vegan, which means you are the type of vegetarian who does not even have milk and eggs, keep a regular check on your B12 and calcium levels. For B12 and B6, try adding brewers yeast or marmite to your diet and take at least 500mg of calcium supplements or pills daily first thing in the morning. Also ensure that you consume flax and pumpkin seeds for healthy omega-3 fats.
• If you are a lacto-ovo (milk-and egg-consuming) vegetarian, you need to ensure that you have adequate iron intake. Ensure that you add some lime juice to your meals to maximize iron absorption. The vitamin C in lime juice or even tomatoes helps.
Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.
Write to Madhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org