Going vegan in India

Going vegan isn’t just about avoiding meat. It’s an all-embracing philosophy that affects how you approach life as a whole

woman holding paper bag with fresh vegetables

To say that life is difficult for vegetarians in the West is a bit of an understatement. I saw this first-hand during my five-year stint in the US when I had to travel and eat with vegetarian friends. Many a times, at a restaurant, they would order something like vegetarian fried rice only to find prawns or egg mixed in it. Not only are the choices for vegetarians limited but the concept of vegetarianism itself isn’t understood very well. To add to the confusion, there are celebrities like Madonna, who declare themselves vegetarian and then talk about how they eat fish at least once a week! Our friends at the restaurant got around their problem by picking out the meat from the food. That’s when I had an idea —I told them to mention that they were vegans [pronounced vee-gens] before placing their orders. That did the trick and they were never again served anything with meat.

This was only possible because veganism, a philosophy that shares a lot with vegetarianism, is a fairly popular trend in the US. It has been around for a long time, having emerged in Britain as far back as 1944. In fact there is also a day dedicated to it—the 1st of November every year is celebrated as “World Vegan Day”!

This isn’t your mother’s vegetarianism

Vegans are basically people who do not eat or use anything that is of animal origin. According to Donald Watson, one of its earliest advocates, veganism “is a way of living that excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for any commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.”

Most vegetarians in India are either ‘lacto-vegetarians’ [meaning they have milk and milk products] or ‘lacto-ovo vegetarians’ [they have eggs along with milk and milk products]. Vegans avoid many foods that vegetarians would normally have, such as milk, curd, butter, ghee, paneer, cheese, milk-based sweets [rosogullas, kheer, barfi, ice-creams, chocolates] buttermilk, eggs [including cakes].

The problem with the sugar we use is that it could have been refined with animal bone charcoal

For most vegans, this is a lifestyle and not just a diet. They also believe in not harming animals or using them in any way—that means they avoid anything of animal origin like leather, fur, wool, silk and even pearls.

How practical is it?

In a country like India, where dairy products are an integral part of the diet and even the Gods are appeased with ghee and milk, the biggest challenge lies in saying no to the likes of palak paneer, shrikhand or a plate of simple curd rice on a hot summer day! However, since people in India have had centuries of expertise in making delicious vegetarian dishes, being a vegan here doesn’t have to mean living on salads and fruits.

The hard part, rather, is finding acceptable substitutes for foods that are to be avoided. You do have options, though. In place of milk, you could use soy, coconut or rice milk. For those who love paneer, tofu makes for a great substitute. Similarly, jaggery can be used instead of honey and even sugar. The problem with the sugar we use is that it could have been refined with animal bone charcoal, which vegans object to.

Does it help you lose weight?

Vegan or not, ultimately, the portion size you eat is entirely in your hands. And if you don’t regulate how much you eat, you will gain weight. Also, keep in mind that a food being vegan doesn’t automatically equate to being low-calorie. Samosas, vadas, potato chips, pakodas, sweets made without ghee or milk [like sheera, besan laddu, carrot halwa], a vegetarian thali without the curd, paneer or ghee all qualify as vegan foods but could add to your waistline.

Vegan or not, ultimately, the portion size you eat is entirely in your hands

There are other health benefits in going vegan, though. Some studies have shown that avoiding animal foods can reduce the risk of heart diseases and high-cholesterol as cholesterol is present only in animal foods.

Rising popularity

In India, the vegan philosophy is rapidly gaining popularity among vegetarians and animal-rights activists. Today, almost every city in India has a ‘vegan club’ where people meet to exchange news, views and recipes. In Bangalore, the Vegan Bengaluru Club, which started in 2008, organises potluck lunch meetings almost every month. Today, there are also many restaurants all around the country that serve vegan foods and desserts.

It looks like it’s just a matter of time before Indians are as familiar with the concepts, beliefs and lifestyle of being vegan as they are now with being vegetarian.

Is the vegan diet balanced?

It can be, as long as you supplement your diet when you need to. Listed below are some of the main nutrients that vegan diets are deficient in and the foods that you can eat to make up for those.

Protein: Vegans in India shouldn’t worry about fulfilling their protein requirements as they would get enough through their lentils and pulses.

Calcium: Giving up dairy products doesn’t mean your diet is now calcium-deficient. There are other sources available such as fortified soy milk, soybeans, almonds, green leafy vegetables and even okra [bhindi].

Iron: You can get your iron through green leafy vegetables, dry fruits, soy beans, dals, pulses and even watermelons. Iron found through animal sources is absorbed by the body better than iron available from plant sources. To counter this, include adequate amounts of vitamin C [by squeezing lime in your food or citrus fruits], which will help you in improving your absorption of iron.

Vitamin D: The simplest way to get your daily dose of vitamin D is to soak up the sun! About 15 – 20 minutes of sunshine a day is all that is needed.

Vitamin B12: This is a big challenge for vegans as this vitamin is found entirely in animal-based foods. Using a supplement or eating fortified foods like cereals would be your best bet to meet the recommended dietary allowance.

A version of this was first published in the August 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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