Is vegetarianism the key to a good life? The answer may not be that simple or straight forward. This has been an age-old debate that is still prevalent with no concrete consensus or conclusion. But then, the current COVID-19 pandemic situation has taught us that more often than not, a majority of the ingredients that are beneficial to health and immunity are available in your kitchen or garden. This should give a fair indication of the importance of vegetables-spice, roots, fruits and nuts included in your diet. A healthy body is the need of the hour and only this can house a healthy mind. To achieve a healthy body, a balanced nutritious diet is a must.
In vegetarianism, the diet may include plant-based products and with or without egg and/or dairy products.
- Ovo-Lacto vegetarian diet includes both egg and dairy product
- Ovo-vegetarian diet includes only egg
- Lacto-vegetarian includes only dairy products
A typical vegetarian meal would be a combination of the following and has the enumerated nutrients and health benefits associated.
Cereals & pulses
Cereal is the edible component of the grain of the cultivated grass, which includes germ, endosperm and the bran. Eg: wheat, rice, oats, barley etc. They are rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, proteins, minerals, fats and oil.
Pulses are edible seeds of the legume family. Eg: kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, Bengal gram etc. Pulses typically contain about twice the amount of protein found in whole grain cereals. Like other plant-based foods, pulses contain no cholesterol. When combined with food high in vitamin C, the high iron content in pulses makes them a potent food for replenishing iron stores.
Cereal grains combined with pulses are a good combination for vegetarians because, pulses are deficient in one of the amino acids (methionine) but rich in another amino acid lysine, whereas, cereals have high methionine and low lysine content. Thus, the combination of cereal-pulse is needed to ensure the body gets the required protein from these sources. Eg: Rice or Chapati with dal/ khichdi/ idli or dosa with sambar.
Fruits & vegetables
Fruits are high in fibre, low in calories and rich in vitamins such as A, C, K, folates and minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Unsaturated fats and phytochemicals (chemicals obtained from plants) are also pr esent.
Colourful vegetables and fruits like carrot/beetroot/tomatoes/ bell peppers / orange/ pomegranate/ apples/papaya etc provide your body with the necessary antioxidants.
Make sure that you include 1 cup of any leafy vegetable like cabbage/spinach/methi/red cabbage/moringa leaves along with a variety of colourful veggies in your daily diet. It can be added to your salad/dal or pulse preparation or can be consumed in the soup form. Starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato, tapioca, yam are also rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals but they have 3-4 times more carbs than non-starchy types. As a result, it is important to consume starchy vegetables in moderation, especially if you are a diabetic or looking to lose weight. Also, include 100-150gm of fruits in your daily diet.
Nuts & seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in protein, healthy fats, fibre, minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, plant iron and zinc, and contain vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamin E. Regular consumption of nuts, seeds and legumes are recommended for vegetarians. They are a good substitute for meats, fish and eggs as they contain protein, fat, iron, zinc and niacin.
They are also ideal to substitute unhealthy snacking habits with. Instead of eating a biscuit or piece of cake as a snack, try having a handful of raw or dry-roasted nuts and seeds every day.
Spices like ginger, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, turmeric, black pepper, fenugreek, and garlic contain compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and help in building immunity, improving digestion and heart health, stabilising blood sugar levels. So add a dash of it to your meal preparations.
Though these spices provide innumerable benefits they should be used in moderation. The excessive use of spices in food can harm your health; hence striking the right balance is important.
The dairy group provides many nutrients to the diet including calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin D (in products fortified with vitamin D), riboflavin, vitamin B12, protein, potassium, zinc, chlorine, magnesium, and selenium. You should ideally include at least 2-3 servings of food from the dairy group such as milk/paneer/curd/cheese in your daily diet to get the recommended allowance of each nutrient. A vegetarian meal with the above nutrient-packed components is sure to be a healthy treat. But then common questions that arise include – Wouldn’t meat and fish be better sources for:
It’s an age-old thought that if you are a vegetarian then you are not meeting your protein requirements enough. That is not true as you can still get enough of this muscle-building nutrient with a plant-based diet. One can include foods that provide a serve of protein, like 1 cup of legumes, 2 eggs, 170g tofu or a small handful of nuts and seeds. Dairy foods are also rich in protein, so stock your fridge with mostly reduced-fat milk, yoghurt etc.
The B12 element
This is the key element for the proper functioning of your blood and nerves, as well as fuelling your DNA. Our daily requirement for vitamin B12 is quite small. Hence for vegetarians, this vitamin can be given in the form of a healthy natural supplement which does not harm the body but this should always be discussed with your doctor first.
Omega 3 fatty acids(Long-chain)
Soybean, canola, wheat germ and walnut oil, flax seeds, chia seeds and broccoli, all have a decent amount of omega-3. But these need to be taken in balanced amounts.
Among other functions, iron helps to transport oxygen around your body. Some grain foods actually have iron added to them during manufacturing, so chances are that your bowl of cereal for breakfast contains some iron – do check the ingredients.
Other sources of iron include legumes, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. There are various iron-rich smoothies that could be made from veggies and fruits. Iron from these sources is known as ‘non-haem’ iron and is not absorbed as well as ‘haem’ iron from meat. A good trick for vegetarians is to complement any dietary sources of iron with vitamin C, as it helps your body absorb the iron. This means a good ol’ squeeze of lemon juice on your spinach, or a fresh orange in the morning with your breakfast will enhance the absorption
Vegetarian-friendly sources of zinc include nuts and seeds, cheese, legumes and eggs. Some grain foods are fortified with zinc, like breakfast cereal. Be sure to check the ingredients list for added nutrients. This will help to understand that there is no such risk in being a vegetarian and that it does not lack any nutrients as such. All you need is a well planned and balanced diet with all essential ingredients included.
The bottom line
Vegetarianism is a choice and the reasons for it may vary from belief systems, social and emotional affiliations, medical conditions or just a personal decision to do so among others. Be assured that from a health and wellness perspective, the choice of being a vegetarian does not disadvantage you in any way and has its advantages too. It is important to be mindful as to your diet and also ensure the right balance of nutrients is included. Combine this with a healthy lifestyle consisting of regular physical activity/exercise and avoiding smoking and consumption of alcohol and you have the perfect health formula.
On a lighter note, as they say, one of the largest, strongest and most intelligent of mammals on earth – the elephant, is a pure vegetarian. So, that should alleviate your concerns, if any. PS- Sharing a sample diet plan herewith which would help you on your journey
Sample South Indian Vegetarian Diet
Morning- 1 Glass Lime Juice + 1 Fruit
Breakfast- Idli/ Dosa /Upma/ Uthappam + Sambar/ Tomato-Onion or Ground nut Chutney + 1 Glass Milk/ 1 Cup Curd
Lunch- Plain or any flavoured Rice/ Chapathi/ Pongal/ Millets + Sambar/Dal /Rasam/ Paneer/Chick Peas+ Poriyal + Mixed Vegetable Salad + Curd
Evening- Coffee/Tea / Green Tea + a Handful of nuts and seeds/ Roasted Channa (Sundal )
Dinner- Rice/ Chapathi/Upma + Sambar/ Dal/ Green Peas/ Soy beans/ Curd + Poriyal/ Mixed Vegetable Salad
Bedtime- 1 Glass Luke Warm Turmeric Milk
Sample North Indian Vegetarian Diet
Morning- 1 Glass Lime Juice + 1 Fruit
Breakfast – Roti/Paratha/Vegetable Poha/ Vegetable Daliya +1 Cup Dal/ Sprouts + 1 Glass Milk/ 1 Cup Curd
Lunch- Roti/ Rice + 1 Cup Dal/ Rajma/ Chole + Sabzi + Mixed Vegetable Salad + Curd
Evening- Coffee/ Tea/ Green Tea + a Handful of nuts and seeds / Roasted Makhana
Dinner- Roti/ Rice / Paratha + Dal /Paneer/ Curd/ Sprouts + Sabzi/ Mixed Vegetable Salad
Bedtime- 1 Glass Lukewarm turmeric Milk