“So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way. It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.”
Albert Einstein wrote these words in a letter dated 30 March 1954, a year before he died, suggesting that he had switched to vegetarianism. It seems to have been an odd lifestyle choice to make for a German scientist living in the US in the 1950s. Meat was, and still is, eaten aplenty in both the country of his birth and the country he resided in. Perhaps, Einstein had intuitively grasped something more than six decades ago that nutrition experts and health organizations are now advocating in droves.
Experts around the world are advising people to eat a more plant-based diet, or a vegetarian diet, because it is healthier. In the Indian context, it becomes important to first define what these experts mean by vegetarian, because following an Indian vegetarian diet does not always mean you’re eating healthy. For instance, a diet consisting of polished rice, fried snacks, refined flour, sweets, overcooked vegetables and ghee-laden dals is a poor diet that invites obesity and other health problems like malnourishment. On the other hand, a diet which includes fresh fruits, wholegrains, seeds and nuts, vegetables, dals and beans, cooked in small amounts of healthy oils such as olive and coconut oils, is a well-rounded vegetarian diet.
There is enough research to show that such a vegetarian diet has fewer calories, lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, and more fibre, potassium and vitamin C than other diets.
Anoop Misra, chairman of Fortis C-DOC Centre of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology in New Delhi, agrees: “With 65% of Indians being vegetarian, knowing what constitutes a healthy vegetarian diet is essential. Many Indian vegetarian diets are far worse for our health than a non-vegetarian diet.” Besides, just being a vegetarian is not enough. You have to make other lifestyle choices, because if you are eating right but smoking regularly and drinking too much alcohol, a vegetarian diet isn’t going to protect you from diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
Veganism, where you also eschew animal products like eggs and milk, is a dietary trend that is becoming increasingly popular. Ryan Fernando, chief nutritionist and co-founder of Qua Nutrition clinic in Bengaluru, says he recently found an upside to being a vegan. In his experience across seven nutrition clinics in the country, he found that vegans have a better cholesterol blood profile than vegetarians. “When we removed the dairy (products) from the diet of vegetarians, we found an increase in HDL, or good cholesterol and a reduction in LDL, or bad cholesterol,” he says. He, however, doesn’t recommend giving up dairy products unless the doctor finds your blood cholesterol to be too high.
What’s more, vegans and vegetarians need to be careful about supplementing their diet with iron, calcium and vitamin B12, found naturally in larger quantities in animal products. These nutrients are critical for our bone and heart health, and for the proper functioning of blood and nerve cells.
In a 2014 study published in the Nutrients journal, which studied all the vitamin B12-containing plant food sources, purple laver or dried purple seaweed was found to be a powerful source. The researchers from Tottori University, Japan, found that just 4g of the seaweed completes your daily vitamin B12 needs. Vegetarians can also opt for fermented foods like yogurt and cheese, which are a good source of the vitamin. However, you need to consume about a litre of low-fat yogurt to get your daily dose of vitamin B12, which is about 2.4 micrograms. If you are a non-vegetarian, this amount of B12 is found in 100g of cooked tuna fish, while other meats, except chicken, have similarly high but varying amounts.
Being vegetarian is also environmentally friendly. Last month, in the Frontiers In Nutrition journal, a study compared the ecological impact of being vegetarian versus being omnivorous (an omnivorous diet includes both plant and animal-based foods). The study found that with vegetarianism the environmental impact is 2.8 times lower than with an omnivorous diet. But if you can’t give up meat, then know this: According to the same study, if you eat meat twice a week in an otherwise vegetarian diet, you can reduce your environmental impact by one-third of what it is as a seven-days-a-week meat eater.
Remember, there is a strong correlation between eating for wellness and eating for environmental sustainability. It seems that what is good for our bodies is good for the environment too.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert, life coach and a clinical scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.