How to be a healthier vegetarian

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

For many Indians, a vegetarian diet is not difficult to follow. As much as 40% of the population is estimated to be vegetarian, according to a 2006 CNN-IBN State of the nation survey—31% of Indians are vegetarian and another 9% eat eggs.

There are, in fact, several versions of vegetarianism. Most Indians are lacto vegetarian, which means they include milk products and their derivatives, especially ghee, in their diet. The lacto-ovos have eggs and milk; the ovos eat eggs but don’t have milk; and ovo vegetarians do not have dairy items. Vegans do not have eggs and dairy in any form, even if it’s cheese or paneer.

In recent years, other vegetarian diets have become popular. The macrobiotic diet, for instance, consists mainly of wholegrain and beans, which means it eliminates all refined products like refined flour, white sugar and ghee. Then there are fruitarians and raw-food followers. And the pescetarians consider themselves vegetarian even though they eat fish.

Whatever the combination, vegetarian or plant-based diets that consist of grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are rich sources of carbohydrate and fibre. They provide complementary proteins—for instance, when red beans and rice are combined are eaten together, their proteins complement each other (100g of rice has 2.6g of protein, rice lacks the essential amino acid lysine and beans lack methionine). If you are a lacto vegetarian, you can get first-class proteins from milk, paneer and yogurt. Vegetarians get healthy omega fats from nuts and seeds like almond and flax seeds and healthy saturated fat from natural sources like ghee and butter. They also get innumerable antioxidants from a host of colourful vegetables.

Yet vegetarians do need to be mindful of some points for better all-round health

■ Vitamin B12 is a vital nutrient that is required for new cell synthesis, healthy nerve function and absorption of proteins is. Found primarily in meat, fish and poultry, it’s missing from vegetarian diets. Vegetarians must check their B12 regularly and take a physician-prescribed supplement if required

■ Similarly iron, a vital nutrient that is responsible for energy and concentration via efficient oxygen uptake, doesn’t absorb as well with vegetarian foods, even from rich sources like spinach, owing to the fibre these contain. To improve iron absorption, vegetarians should add lime juice or an acidic component like tomatoes to meals. Iron is best absorbed in an acidic medium.

■ Vegetarians must remember that carbohydrate calories convert to fat stored in the abdominal region, increasing waist girth, more easily than meat, poultry and fish. This is because the body can store limited amounts of carbohydrate in the muscle and liver as glycogen. Anything excess is quickly converted into fat.

This is why it is best for vegetarians to eat several small meals a day, stay active, sit less, walk more, and exercise a minimum of 60 minutes a day. It would be a good idea to choose high-fibre complex carbs like millet, bajra, jowar, nachni, brown rice over refined flour, and substitute table sugar with jaggery or maple syrup. Snack on fruit and seeds like apples and almonds together and stay away from refined foods like cookies, mithai, etc. to keep your weight in check.

Madhuri Ruia is a nutritionist and Pilates expert. She runs InteGym in Mumbai, which advocates workouts with healthy diets.

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