When veganism first made headlines in India in the early ’90s, most people scoffed at it as just another frivolous diet fad borrowed from the West. Besides non-vegetarians who mocked it gleefully, even vegetarians found themselves skeptical of the vegan food philosophy that rejected all dairy products. After all, it is hard to imagine an Indian household without the mandatory provisions of milk, paneer, ghee, butter, and dozens of dairy goodies that we have traditionally relied upon so earnestly for our well-being. More than anything else, veganism seemed like bad news for our bones. For those who have walked late into the debate and need more clarity on this lifestyle choice, vegans in addition to being vegetarians do not use animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics and soaps derived from animal products.
COMPASSIONATE FOOD CHOICES
The concept first found a footing in the West in 1944, when Donald Watson, an English animal rights activist founded the Vegan Society in Yorkshire. In a land where vegetarianism itself was regarded as an alien idea, becoming a vegan would have been understandably unpalatable. Watson, however, found it easier to give up all kinds of meat when he was just 14, after having witnessed the slaughtering of a pig in his uncle’s farm. At 32, he also gave up all milk-related products, impelled by a compassionate reasoning that milk was meant for calves and not humans.
“At the heart of veganism is compassion, a belief that animals have the same right to live as you do,”says Shankar Narayan, founder of the Satvik Vegan Society in Byndoor in Karnataka, one of the earliest vegan groups in India. “Animal rights apart, there are also scientifically proven facts on how becoming a vegan can actually do wonders for your body. However, it is not exactly an easy shift for vegetarians either as all of them are lacto-dependent on a daily basis. The thought of giving up your chai and coffee without that dash of milk may seem putting off at first. Some people are able to turn vegans overnight, while others can take months, even years to make the full leap. The trick is to find your own pace.”
REVISITING THE MENU
Narayan, who turned vegan in 1991, admits that his wife and he still face friction over his lifestyle choice, though his 18-year-old son has turned vegan a few years ago. The apparent lack of sufficient protein in vegan diets is the fuel of all debates targeted against veganism, observes Narayan, but he disagrees with the point emphatically:
“What most people don’t take into account is that a reasonable variety of protein-containing food is all that is needed to ensure a healthy protein intake. Grains and pulses are good plant-based protein sources. The key is to balance it out through the right food combination.”
The counter argument against dairy products is worth a thought, especially when you consider the operational dynamics of the dairy industry. Dairy cows are milked 300 to 500 times a year, which means they are artificially inseminated and injected with hormones so that they remain pregnant and lactating. A significant amount of sex and pregnancy hormones estrogen and progesterone are therefore part of your regular milk. In 2006, Harvard researchers published the results of a meta study that surveyed 100,000 women in the age group of 26 to 46. Those who had the highest intake of meat and dairy products also had the highest risk of breast cancer.
HEALTHIER, SIMPLER, BETTER
“I was lactose intolerant for many years, but I didn’t take it seriously,” says Aparna Lokesh, Chennai-based investment banker. “The complaints were of the mild variety, such as a slightly constipated feeling on most days and a general lethargy. My mum assumed that I had a sluggish digestive system and would make all kinds of homemade Ayurvedic digestive concoctions to ease my tummy. In 2013, when I was battling surplus weight of 18 kilos,
I decided to overhaul my whole lifestyle, starting with a random New Year’s resolution. Maybe, I would not have taken the resolution as seriously, if I had not signed up for Dr Nandita Shah’s 21-day Peas vs Pills vegan programme on a colleague’s recommendation.”
Aparna came back from the programme with clearer skin and a rejuvenated digestive system. “I realised that for the first time in my life, my body felt good inside, cleaner and invigorated somehow. The bloating disappeared completely and my skin looked radiant. Imagine that three quarters of us actually lack the enzyme to properly digest cow’s milk and we don’t even know about it.”
Dr Shah has helped many people all over India, including celebrities such as actor and animal activist Amala Akkineni, make the switch to veganism. Besides talks and lectures, she also conducts cooking classes that demonstrate innovative techniques to create substitutes for your favourite dairy products. One of the many cheese recipes taught by her, for instance, is made with cashew and tahini as the base. “The main challenge to overcome is the human mindset which has never made room for alternatives beyond milk,” says Dr Shah. “You will be surprised to know that there are hundreds of recipes which can mimic the taste of things you can’t imagine doing without. Peanut milk, almond milk, soymilk, coconut milk are healthier and often tastier alternatives, if only you are prepared to eliminate the mental hurdle that has conditioned you to believe that these things are possible and nutritionally even more sound. For instance, people think the best option to replace milk in baking is oil or butter, but you can try mashed banana instead and the results are just as yummy.”
The many who ridiculed veganism when it arrived are now amazed at the fast pace at which the trend is growing all across the country—from big cities to small towns. FabIndia has launched a vegan, plant-based butter; Organics Sansar is a newly-opened vegan-friendly store in Indore; Surya Brasil is a newly-launched vegan cosmetic brand; Carlsberg has launched a vegan beer; Green Path service apartments in Bengaluru are fully vegan-friendly right from their linen to the food made in their kitchen; and the many vegan restaurant options that are fast mushrooming all over India, including Carrots in Bengaluru, White Cub dairy-free desserts joint in Gurgaon, VeganeR in Chennai, and Quesso Risorante in Mumbai.
It is not enough to go blindly vegan, though, as Anuradha Sawhney, author of The Vegan Kitchen and founder of Pune-based vegan tiffin service Back to Basics, found out the hard way. “Following a vegan diet is not going to do you any good, unless you have got your nutrition plan in place,” says Sawhney. “I was vegan for 10 years when a routine blood test revealed extremely high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. That’s when I figured out that not eating animal products or giving up dairy-based food was not enough, as I was eating chips, wafers and samosas, just because they were vegan options. I was not eating enough of whole grains and fruits.”
Dr Vinita Aran, senior diet and obesity consultant at Apollo Clinic in Mumbai, says, fundamentally, vegetarian food in India lends itself to a good vegan diet. “For instance, the protein quality is improved remarkably in the cereal pulse combination in many of our dishes: dal chawal, cholebature, dal roti. There is a particular amino acid missing in cereal and also one missing in pulse. When you combine both, it gives you the ideal protein quantum. Eat enough of sesame seeds, which are a good source of calcium, and flax seeds for omega 3 acids. A potential inadequacy of vitamin B12 can be a problem for vegans but that can be compensated by eating a good-sized bowl of sprouts every day. Being vegan is a healthy lifestyle option undoubtedly, provided you are scrupulously conscientious about your food choices. Speak to your diet consultant and stick to the programme. Have your supplements if you need to, or you may develop deficiencies in the long run. If that sounds like a lot of trouble, remember that nothing good comes easily enough.”