Is a vegan diet practical or sustainable for those living in India

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Is a vegan diet practical or sustainable for those living in India
Representative image.Pixabay
  • While the effort and intent are laudable, the question remains are you really contributing to your or the earth's health by embracing veganism?
  • A poorly planned vegan diet can be quite harmful and can lead to various health risks, including a heightened risk of heart disease.
  • If it is the environment you are concerned about, then perhaps it is time to consider that splurging on imported avocados and almond milk is hardly sustainable.

“I ate a lot of meat — I ate my 10, 15 eggs a day. I had my 250 grams of protein in a day because I weighed 250 pounds… As I got older and I started reading up on it, I recognised the fact that you really don’t have to get your protein from meat — or from animals,” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood star and former California Governor says in the popular Netflix documentary, The Game Changers. That alone moved many meat lovers in India to go vegan, overnight. However, there ought to be more thought behind a life-changing decision like stopping the food you have been consuming forever. The documentary itself faced its share of criticism for scientific inaccuracies and promoting misinformation.

Whether it is to live a healthier lifestyle — to lose weight, counter diabetes, dairy intolerance, improve sexual health — or save the planet, several Indians are embracing veganism. Also, there is the added bonus that following a vegan diet is not too much of a segue for Indian vegetarians, barring giving up on milk, curd, or paneer. However, while the effort and intent are laudable, the question remains are you really contributing to your or the earth's health by embracing veganism? Is the diet even sustainable in the long-run, particularly if you live in India?

A poorly planned vegan diet can be quite harmful and can lead to various health risks, including a heightened risk of heart disease. So, before you pat yourself on your back for giving up on cow milk while sipping on almond milk, it may be crucial to consider all the factors below before embracing the new lifestyle.
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Is a vegan diet practical or sustainable for those living in India
Representative image.Pixabay

Affordability

Often considered a diet for the rich, the first thing to consider here is will you be able to splurge thousands of rupees per week on items like plant-based milk, vitamin supplements or expensive vegetables and nuts required to provide the nutritional balance you need. Then, there is the added consideration that even if you are lucky enough to afford it, are the items you are buying genuine or, for that matter, fresh? For example, a litre of almond milk can set you back 200-300 rupees, and avocados can cost anywhere from 200 to 300 bucks for one piece, and that too the quality is suspect.

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However, nutrition expert and author of Everyday Superfoods, Dr Nandita Iyer tells Business Insider that "apart from almond milk, substitutes like soy milk or oat milk can be easily be made at home or even bought at reasonably cheaper rates, but of course the flavour might be slightly different and takes getting used to." She also points out that if you are looking to give up on dairy from an environmental perspective, then almond milk is "definitely not an environmentally friendly option". But given the rising popularity, many Indian brands, like Bengaluru-based Good Milk, are producing vegan plant-based dairy products like milk, butter, yoghurt at relatively reasonable prices.

Age

The common consensus is that a vegan diet is less than ideal for both children and the elderly.

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Children - Providing a child nutritious diet is tricky even under normal circumstances, where there is no dietary restriction. During their formative growing years, depriving children of essential nutrients derived from milk products and meat may lead to various health issues in kids. While during the first six months, babies primarily rely on breast milk or infant formula, post that what they eat will essentially lay the foundation of their future health. Within one year, a baby is meant to triple its birth weight. And while plants can provide sufficient proteins, the issue is substituting essential vitamins (B-12 and D) and minerals (iodine, zinc, iron and calcium) that can only be substituted via fortified foods and supplements.

A study conducted in the The Netherlands on children between 0-10 years who are on a macrobiotic diet — a diet based mainly on whole-grain cereals, pulses, and vegetables — noted that "ubiquitous deficiencies of energy, protein, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, and riboflavin were detected in macrobiotic infants, leading to retarded growth, fat and muscle wasting, and slower psychomotor development." It further adds that the breast milk of mothers who are on a vegan diet contained less vitamin B-12, calcium and magnesium.

Seniors - While there are some health benefits of going vegan, it is essential that older adults get enough calories as well as nutrients to avoid the pitfalls of a vegan diet. Once again, planning meals is key because seniors need more protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B-12. For example, while an average adult would need a daily dose of 700mg of calcium, men over 55 and postmenopausal women need 1200mg of calcium daily. It is essential to consult with a certified dietician before senior adults decide to give up on meat and dairy.

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Is a vegan diet practical or sustainable for those living in India
Representative image.Pixabay


Actual dietary requirements

Compared to a diet that includes meat and vegetables, a vegan diet is believed to be higher in fibre but lower in protein, fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamins D and B-12. It is crucial to figure precisely what quantity of vegan alternatives you have to consume to make up for the switch. You may have to go heavy on the alternatives. For example, both fish and flaxseeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, but the human body doesn't absorb omega-3s from flaxseed as easily as it would from seafood.

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And while the other dietary requirements may have vegan alternatives, vitamin B-12 is an essential nutritional requirement that is absent in fruit or vegetables and present in meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Vitamin B-12 helps prevent nerve damage, and adults should consume 1.5 micrograms of the vitamin per day. According to a British Medical Journal study, while fish eaters and vegetarians had lower rates of heart disease compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians and vegans are believed to be more prone to strokes, possibly because of the B12 deficiency. While the quantity requirement is minuscule, B12 is only available via nutritional yeast (though the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics claim that this doesn't provide sufficient B-12) or fortified food, such as plant-based milk or vitamin supplements in a vegan diet.

Where it comes from

If it is the environment you are concerned about, then perhaps it is time to consider that splurging on imported avocados and almond milk is hardly sustainable. In addition to the air miles it consumes, which is definitely not good for the climate, there is an added burden on land and water resources, and increasingly, farmers are choosing to give up on sustainable farming practices and burdening the land by overgrowing these trendy products. For example, in Chile, which is one of the largest producers of avocados, the focus on growing water-guzzling avocados for profit has caused an acute water shortage in the country — for context, to grow around a kilogram (3-4 pieces), 1000 litres of water is needed.

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So, whether a vegan diet is actually contributing towards mitigating climate change or helping your health is a contentious issue, but it can, without doubt, be sustained here in India. Most of the supplements are easily available on places like Amazon, but yes, it will be on the steeper side. However, as and when this trend blossoms, it will lead Indian manufacturers to expand into this territory, and that will bring the costs down. Already there is a whole range of mock meat manufacturers making waves in the market. Dr Iyer tells us, "we have a huge bank of innately vegan recipes in Indian cuisine. For example, a lot of recipes from Kerala rely heavily on coconut milk and not regular cow milk. Even an entire sadhya meal that consists of 25-26 dishes can be entirely vegan and that is the beauty of Indian cuisine — I think it is the most vegan-friendly diet."

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