Millennium Post

Being vegan in India today

Do you know that NASA plans to feed its astronauts a vegan diet on their next trip to Mars? And do you know the health secrets of celebrities like Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Clinton, Venus Williams? They follow a vegan diet to be in top health. If you want to live a healthy life, reverse certain forms of cancer, and not be beset with problems like heart disease and adult onset diabetes – or if you simply want to lose weight – then turn vegan. If you care about the environment and animals, turn vegan. If you want to be fit and full of energy, you can guess what to do. Eating wholegrain, oil free, plant based diets  are fast becoming the norm in today’s age of high cholesterol, obesity, lifestyle based cancers, hypertension and adult onset diabetes.

How easy is it being vegan in India today?  When I turned vegan in the year 2000, there were hardly any food choices for vegans. If you went out to eat, you could order any vegetarian Chinese dish as long as there was no paneer in it, but at Indian food restaurants, you had to specify over and over that you wanted a dish that had no doodh, no dahi, no butter, no cream, no ghee. The waiter would seem to have understood the order, and then invariably bring the dish with dahi, or cream, or butter! I sent countless dishes back to the restaurant kitchens, and spoke with countless chefs, begging them to make me some food other than dal, bhindi masala,  palak aloo, boiled vegetables … you get it! Very rarely, did I ever get my wish.

If I wanted to cook at home, the choice was as dismal. I was forced to cook simple, basic fare, as there were no decent vegan cooking ingredients available in the market. Yes, you got soya milk in different flavours, and yes, you also got tofu, but they tasted terrible! It was only one company making these products, and no one must have told them that their products tasted terrible! It seemed everything tasty was made in ghee, and I had to forgo Indian sweets for many years since not only did they contain ghee, they contained milk or its derivatives like khoya. If I had not turned vegan for animals, and if I was not passionate about animals, I would have given it up in a heartbeat, the food choices were so dismal.

My foreign colleagues waxed lyrical about vegan ‘cheese’, and fake meat sausages and fake bacon bits, fake chicken and even fake butter (I don’t mean margarine, since almost all margarine has milk in it, but actually vegan fake butter that tasted like the real thing), all things that were available easily in the western world, and all I could was listen and drool!

The years passed, and little by little, I noticed that with more awareness and demand, new products aimed at vegans were introduced to the public. International brands of organic soya milk became freely available in India, and big local companies started to produce soya milk for the domestic market. The term vegan began to gain popularity and people actually understood what you meant when you said you were vegan. In fact, one memorable afternoon, a chef in a restaurant in Mumbai, told me he had trained in New York and understood the term vegan! He then proceeded to make me a vegan dessert! This was progress for me!

Today, of course, it is very easy to turn vegan in India. Now in almost every decently stocked supermarket, one can find fake meat products. These products look and feel like their non-vegetarian brethren! It is possible to find great tasting vegan sausages and burger patties and mince pies, sitting cheek by jowl in the freezer section of supermarkets! Things are looking up! An Indian company has already started to produce fake meat products as they have seen the huge potential for these products. A word of caution: avoid consuming genetically modified soya products. The good news is that the soya from India is not genetically modified.

There are many alternatives to dairy milk now available in India, something that was seriously lacking all those years ago. The soya milk available today has the flavour of the soya bean removed from it, which makes it very palatable to the taste, unlike the options I had back in 2000. The milk tastes so good that one can even have a cold coffee or a hot chocolate with no compromise on taste. And you can also find almond milk, rice milk and cashew milk, all really tasty and all healthy alternatives to milk. One can have dahi wadas, dahi kadhi lassi and even milk shakes, all made with non-dairy milk. A popular coffee chain offers vegan coffees and vegan shakes.

Cooking traditionally non vegan dishes using only vegan ingredients is not only very possible but also fun. The key is to be creative and to substitute ingredients. Today, all restaurants offer vegan dishes and vegans are being recognised as a class of consumers, just like vegetarians and meat eaters. Forward thinking restaurants even offer pizzas with a choice of having them with or without dairy cheese, something that was unheard of in all these years.

Metros like Bangalore and Chennai have vegan cafes, Mumbai and Pune have vegan food delivery services, Gurgaon has a vegan ice cream parlour and the presence of vegans worldwide is on the rise.  I believe that the time is right for many more of us to turn vegan. We owe it to the cows, to the environment and to ourselves. And think about it – humans are the only species on earth who drink the milk of another species.

Your aim should be to get enough nutrients like calcium, iron, proteins, amongst other nutrients and Omega 3, from your vegan diet. If you consume a healthy diet which is rich in vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, walnuts and almonds, flax seeds, pulses and whole grains, avoid animal products, intersperse it with soya, use the correct type of fat for cooking (non refined cold-pressed oils or no oil), unless of course you are diabetic or have heart disease in which case any fat is a no-no, walk every day, you will do fine.

Some Persistent Health Myths Exploded:

Only vegans are deficient in Vitamin B12.

Veganism has been attacked as leading to a deficiency in B12, a vitamin essential to good health. But research is proving that even non-vegans, including hard-core non-vegetarians, can be deficient in B12. This deficiency seems to have nothing to do with the consumption (or not) of animal products. So whether you are vegan or not, monitor your B12 levels regularly, and take a supplement when needed.

Vegans suffer from Anaemia

It is a myth that one can only get iron from animal based foods. In fact, studies have shown no higher incidence of anemia in people eating a healthy plant based diet as compared to those who eat animal muscles and blood (which is where animals store their iron). A well balanced vegetarian diet, which includes legumes, green vegetables and whole grains can easily provide adequate iron and is healthier as it has no cholesterol or saturated fat in it. According to studies, milk and certain forms of calcium inhibit iron absorption. Eggs (especially yolks) also appear to inhibit iron absorption.  

Vegans have Calcium Deficiencies

A favourite question people ask is, but how do you get your calcium if you don’t drink milk! The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes, or ‘greens and beans’ for short. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and other greens are loaded with highly absorbable calcium and a host of other healthful nutrients. The exception is spinach, which contains a large amount of calcium but because of its high oxalic acid content, all of this calcium does not get absorbed by the body. In the book, I explain how to cook spinach so as to reduce its oxalic acid content. Chickpeas, tofu, baked beans all have plenty of calcium. These foods also contain magnesium, which we use along with calcium to build bones.

Additionally, plant protein does not cause calcium loss from bones, unlike animal protein. In a 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 women, those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than women who rarely drank milk. Similarly, a 1994 study of elderly men and women in Sydney, Australia, showed that higher dairy product consumption was associated with increased fracture risk. Those with the highest dairy product consumption had approximately double the risk of hip fracture compared to those with the lowest consumption. Go vegans!!

Note: To protect your bones you do need calcium in your diet, but you also need to keep calcium in your bones. So if you eat a varied and healthy plant based diet chances are very good that your body will get the calcium it needs to build strong bones. Just remember to keep your vitamin D levels under control so as to aid the absorption of calcium from the food you eat.
Vegans don’t get enough protein

Protein from animal flesh is not only second hand protein but animal meat is also high in
cholesterol and saturated fat. Studies show that the healthiest diet is one that is high in carbohydrate, low in fat, and moderate in protein. Increased intake of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is recommended for weight control and preventing diseases such as cancer and heart disease. High-carbohydrate, low-fat, moderate-protein diets are also recommended for optimal athletic performance. I believe that it is virtually impossible to not get enough protein as long as one consumes adequate calories from a nutritious plant based diet.

Anuradha Sawhney is the author of The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style
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