The debate over choosing a vegetarian diet over a non-vegetarian one has been unending. While both have pros and cons – theoretical and medical backing – many people across the globe are increasingly moving towards a vegetarian diet.
The American Dietetic Association recommends planning your vegetarian diets to be healthy and nutritionally adequate. The benefits, which includes preventing certain diseases, apply to all, including infants, children, adolescents, athletes, pregnant and lactating women.
The 2019-21 National Family Health Survey, a large-scale, multiple-round survey conducted in a representative sample of households throughout India, asked women and men how often they consume various types of food (daily, weekly, occasionally or never). Overall, 29 percent of women and 17 percent of men were vegetarians, according to their measure.
Another 2021 study done by Pew Research Centre found that nearly four in ten adults in India follow a vegetarian diet – or 39 percent of the total population.
The general view is that vegetarian diets can be healthy but lack certain nutrients. Hence, experts suggest having a maximum possible amount of nutrition substitutes to make up for what vegetarians lack in their diet.
Track your protein intake
Scientific literature shows that reducing or excluding animal-origin foods may cut the risk of coronary heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes both of which contribute to a high mortality rate in the West. However, experts fear that possible nutritional deficiencies in a non-balanced vegetarian diet can reverse its health benefits.
Aniruddha Shankar, who has been a full-time diet coach from Delhi for the last nine years, suggests tracking protein consumption.
“A strong advice which I keep reinforcing to my vegetarian clients is to track their protein consumption using a calculator that I provide them. My clients [track this] against their minimum daily protein requirement which I recalculate periodically for each of them,” he says.
“If the clients’ diet is lacking in protein, they will experience hair loss after about three months, and nothing can fix hair loss quickly.”
“For women clients who are vegetarian, adequate supplementation of Vitamin D on the advice of a doctor is a must. In addition, women must take care to maintain adequate levels of iron” in view of their menstrual cycles, says Shankar. Men who are vegetarians should maintain adequate levels of Vitamin D and B 12.
The Vitamin B12 challenge
Vitamin B12 deficiency is common among vegetarians. The water-soluble vitamin, which is also called cobalamin, is crucial for building red blood cells and DNA and is found in good amounts in animal-based food products. In a paper, US research scientist Dr Lindsay H. Allen notes that because of Vitamin B12’s scarce presence in plant foods, it is important to introduce it in one’s diet through supplements or fortified foods.
“For the entire vegetarian lot, Vitamin B12 can be a challenge,” says Shankar. “Further, for all Indians who stay indoors at noontime, particularly women who have delivered or are planning to have children, lifelong Vitamin D supplementation would almost certainly be a must. Luckily, most water-soluble micronutrients are present in vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables.”
“Get your Vitamin B12 levels checked regularly and plan meals accordingly,” says Preety Tyagi, a certified health coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, New York.