A non-vegetarian diet, high in animal protein, saturated fat and refined sugar, is known to be strongly associated with most cancers and degenerative diseases like arthritis, heart disease, diabetes. So should we switch to vegetarianism as a way of life? Although there are many benefits in following a vegetarian diet, it involves complications too. Being a healthy vegetarian takes commitment to ensure that you are replacing the nutrients you have cut out from animal foods with plant-based alternatives.
Essential nutrient sources for vegetarians
People following vegetarian diets can get all the required nutrients if they eat a wide variety of foods to meet their nutritional needs. Here are some of the most nutritious food sources for vegetarians:
Vitamin B12: Dairy products, eggs, vitamin-fortified products such as cereals, breads, semolina and wheat grass juice.
Vitamin D: Milk, mushrooms, vitamin D–fortified orange juice and cereals.
Calcium: Dairy products, green vegetables, broccoli, dried beans, soy and cereals.
Protein: Dairy products, eggs and other soy products, all pulses, sprouts and nuts.
Iron: Eggs, whole pulses and grains, dried fruits and leafy green vegetables.
Zinc: Nuts, fortified cereal, pulses, whole grains, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
The confusion of switching to vegetarianism as a way of life can be cleared only by understanding the basic principles of healthy eating. In reality, most Indians are vegetarians. Most non–vegetarians in India eat fish, chicken and eggs two to three times a week, which should not pose problems. It’s certainly better to be a vegetarian only if one knows the true meaning of being one. Ironically, the concept of vegetarian food for most vegetarians is a mishmash of refined, low-fibre and predominantly grain-based foods like kadhi-chawal, vegetable biryani (with only a sprinkling of vegetables), chole bature, cutlets or baked dishes. Potatoes form more than 50 per cent of their total vegetable intake.
Each one of us is different with a unique biochemistry. So notice how your body reacts to vegetarian food. Until then, follow the 80:20 rule — eat 80 per cent of your diet as whole grains and pulses, fruits, vegetables and include 20 per cent of milk products, fish, eggs and chicken occasionally. This will ensure that you get all the health benefits that a vegetarian diet offers and yet be able to enjoy small amounts of animal protein. Whether you are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, choose to eat more fruits and vegetables and reduce the intake of saturated fats, fried food, refined flour, refined oil and refined sugar.
Dr Anjali Mukerjee is a nutritionist and the founder of Health Total, a nutrition counselling centre.