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Should you turn vegetarian?

The answer lies in moderation and respecting your unique needs, advises Dr Anjali Mujherjee.

health and fitness Updated: Mar 29, 2007 12:46 IST

Vegetarian’ has become synonymous with ‘healthy’. Let’s see how far this is true and whether you really need to turn vegetarian. There is a lot of confusion regarding what constitutes healthy eating: For some it means eating only vegetarian food, for others, it is about all dairy products from their diet.

But the most basic principles of healthy eating are to shun all forms of refined foods, including maida and sugar, and opt only for whole grains. It is also impor tant to eat a variety of foods, and to reflect on and emulate the eating patterns that promoted longevity in our ancestors.

Having a personalised food plan also helps gain the maximum health benefits, as opposed to following a general health plan.

American doctor Nathan Pritikin first promoted a vegetarian diet rich in carbohydrates and low in fat as being capable of lowering cholesterol. In fact, many doctors in America support a vegetarian diet rich in carbohydrates, low in fat, and devoid of dairy products.

Though many people benefit hugely with such a diet, others continue to have high triglyerides levels due to increased blood levels of insulin — one of the most potent risk fac tors for heart disease.

Some people even develop skin allergies, food cravings, low immu nity, PMS, and hunger pangs on a high carbohydrate diet. A vegetar ian diet devoid of dairy products could be the remedy for heart dis ease and diabetes brought about by the typical American diet, which predominantly consists of burgers, red meats, french fries, potatoes, sweets and aerated drinks — poor nutrition choices.

The Japanese eat a lot of fish but record the longest life spans, the Eskimos eat the maximum fat and cholesterol in the world but still have the lowest incidence of heart disease, and closer home, people in rural India regularly consume fresh milk, poultry, eggs, fruits and vegetables but have a very low incidence of heart disease.

This illustrates that rather than eliminating major food groups, the answer lies in moderation, balance, understanding and respecting your unique needs.

For instance, some people thrive on a high fibre-high carbohydrate diet, others on a high protein diet, while some suffer from dry skin and low immunity on a low fat, low protein, vegetarian diet. Studies show that we are best suited to the type of diets our ancestors ate for thousands of years. People from India and China may do well on diets high in fibre and complex carbohydrates because this is what they’ve been eating for centuries. So what should we do?

Exercise regularly, do not consume maida, refined sugar, fried foods, processed, and canned meats. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables everyday along with whole grain cereals, pulses, and small portions of chicken or fish.

Drink vegetable juices. The incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes is high in the metros, even amongst vegetarians, simply because their diet lacks vegetables. Pizzas, pav bhaji, pulav, burgers, white bread sandwiches, dosas, idlis, pastries, chocolates, theplas, khichidi, parathas, etc are unhealthy food choices.

Many of these are very low in fibre and rich in oil and sugar. Instead, increase the fibre content in your diet by switching to bajri, naachni, jowar, soyabean, wheat and increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. Avoid overcooking vegetables and exceeding 2-3 teaspoons of oil each day, per person.

The bottom line is that while the scales do tip in the favour of vegetarianism, you must truly understand the basics of being one. Also, supplementing your diet with seafood can help achieve maximum health benefits. If you are not suffering from cholesterol problems, the occasional intake of chicken and eggs need not evoke pangs of guilt.