vegan dietA vegan diet is one which does not include dairy and meat products. Many people around the world follow this diet for various reasons ranging from ethical, health and environmental concerns. But how healthy is it? What are its ill effects? Can one turn vegan from a meat eater? Two of our experts – nutritionist Neha Chandna and Dr Nandita Shah, founder of SHARAN India and a vegan herself, answer some FAQs about following a vegan diet.

What are the health benefits of following a vegan diet?

Neha: A vegan diet is generally low in fat, and full of fibre, vitamins and minerals. This helps reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart attacks. Apart from this, it also helps to prolong the degeneration process of aging.

Dr Nandita: A plant based diet is free of cholesterol and contains phytonutrients which improve immune response. It makes you feel light and energetic.

What are the substitutes for dairy and meat products?

Neha: Dairy products and meat essentially provide calcium and protein to our body. So when you follow a vegan diet, you need to get your calcium and protein intake from vegan sources like soya, soya milk, lentils, chickpeas (chana), red kidney beans (rajma), sprouts, tofu, peas, almonds and walnuts.

Dr Nandita: There are a lot of varieties of plant based milks which people following a vegan diet can consume – soy, oats, almond, rice, sesame, coconut, etc. You can even get or make cheese, curd, ice creams, paneer without the use of dairy products. For recipe ideas, visit www.sharan-india.org.

Are there any ill effects of a vegan diet?

Neha: Though there are no ill effects as such, opting for a vegan diet can make you fell ‘less full’. If you were regular with meat and dairy products in your diet and suddenly decided to turn vegan you might feel the need to increase the quantity of your food as meat and dairy products have fats and proteins which give you a full feeling. When you omit them try increasing the quantity of dals, veggies, and salads to avoid hunger pangs.

What can go wrong if you do not follow a proper diet plan?

Neha: If you do not eat the required portions, your body will react to it in the form of excess weight loss, loss of muscle mass causing weakness, lack of strength and stamina, hair fall due to lack of protein and biotin, accelerated aging due to lack of nutrients.

Do vegans suffer from any serious ailments because of their dietary habits?

Neha: Vegans might suffer from some ailments if nutrition planning is not done correctly:

Calcium deficiency: Due to omission of milk and milk products, there may be increased risk of  bone mass loss, bone fracture and osteoporosis if calcium rich foods mentioned above are not included in the diet or if proper calcium supplementation is not given.

Vitamin D deficiency: There is small amount of vitamin D in milk and meat but in vegan diet, you need to emphasise on sunlight exposure for 15 minutes daily to avoid deficiency which can lead to poor calcium absorption and bone problems.

Vitamin B12 deficiency: Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal foods, hence it is important to include vitamin B12 fortified foods or supplements to avoid deficiency which can lead to weakness, confusion, tingling sensation in the feet, anemia, nerve and brain damage as well.

Dr Nandita also is of the opinion that following a proper diet is a must with regular monitoring of vitamin D and B12. She too advises to take supplements if your body is deficient.

Is it feasible to be a vegan for your entire lifetime?

Neha: Yes, you can follow a vegan diet for lifetime as long as it is nutritionally well planned by a dietician to make sure you get all the nutrients in the right amount and prevent deficiencies.

Dr Nandita: I think it is a bit difficult to make lifestyle changes and people who have lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, probably have a lot to change. However once a habit is changed, it’s easy. I have been vegan now for many years and it’s no problem, despite travelling all over the world for work. We are creatures of habit. Vegetarians may continue for a lifetime without meat, and Jews and Muslims may avoid pork or Hindus, beef, for a lifetime. It takes 21 – 30 days to make that habit change shift in our brain, so if we can do it for this period, all will be set. This is why we have a 21-day disease reversal residential programme. It helps re-program our habits. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains are available virtually anywhere.

How do dairy and meat products cause diseases like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, etc?
Dr Nandita: Meat and milk have the same composition – high protein, high fat and no fibre. That’s why vegetarians and non vegetarians get the same diseases. Today, all the lifestyle diseases we face are because of excess fat (which clogs the arteries and can lead to diseases of any part of our body), or excess protein. We don’t need dairy or meat for proteins, not even for essential amino acids. We can get them from the same place as all the other herbivores on the planet – plants. When we get them from any animal product, they are accompanied by fat and lack fibre. Our anatomy is designed like a herbivore’s so we need fibre.
 
Fat causes obesity because it creates more calories per gram than any other nutrient. It causes hypertension and heart disease because it clogs arteries. It causes diabetes because it causes insulin resistance. Fat causes cancer because of clogged arteries resulting in reduced oxygenation to the different organs of the body. Cancer cells survive low oxygenation and acidic medium but normal cells do not.

Here’s a sample vegan diet plan by Neha Chandna

  • Breakfast: 2 fruits + nuts + green tea
  • Mid-morning: veggie juice/coconut water/ 1 cup soya milk
  • Lunch: raw salad + 2 jowar/ragi rotis/ 1 cup brown rice + veggies + dal
  • Evening: 1 bowl sprouts salad/moong bhel/ chana chaat
  • Dinner: soup + salad / tofu stir fry + veggies +1-2 rotis
  • Bedtime: 1 cup soyamilk/groundnut milk

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  • MaryBeth Smith

    All green leafy vegetables contain lots of calcium. You mislead people about the supposed difficulty of getting enough calcium because dairy is omitted. Humans do not need to drink milk! As long as enough calories are consumed, there is no need to worry about getting enough calcium.
    I am also surprised that the doctors seem unaware of many studies that show that the countries that consume the most dairy products also have the highest rates of osteoporosis and related fractures. If dairy made strong bones, we should see the opposite effect. Animal products, including dairy, cause the blood to become overly acidic. The way we neutralize the acid is that the most readily available base, calcium, is leached from the bones. Humans don’t need dairy or animal products!
    It is true that if one only eats leafy greens, there are not enough calories. People can supplement with more plant-based foods, like whole grains (if tolerated), starchy vegetables like potatoes, and healthy fats from avocados and nuts.
    Dr. Joel Fuhrman, one of the leading proponents of a plant-based (largely vegan) lifestyle, advises that vegans need to be sure they get vitamin B12 and vitamin D through high-quality supplements.
    With obesity on the rise in every population that consumes a “Western diet,” dominated by animal products, it seems a little silly to discourage people from doing something so healthy as eating a vegan diet by telling them they will feel less full. They will also have less heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. I’m willing to feel less full.