The Indian vegetarian diet could be the main reason you are not losing any weight and instead keep on getting fatter every year.
The Indian vegetarian diet could be the main reason you are not losing any weight and instead keep on getting fatter every year. Everyone thinks that as a vegetarian, you only eat vegetables but this is not the case with the Indian vegetarian diet; it is mostly compromised of wheat and rice and the only vegetables consumed are usually starchy potatoes that are cooked (fried) beyond the point of recognition, killing most of the nutrients. Snacks meanwhile, are usually a fatty high carb mix that are just not good for you. Common examples include bhajias, samosas, chips or some Indian sweets. It is also clear that the diet severely lacks in protein.
There are many reasons why people choose to go vegetarian or vegan. Some are compelled by the environmental impact of confinement animal feeding operations (CAFO). Others are guided by ethical concerns or religious reasons. However, many people also choose a vegetarian diet because they’re under the impression that it’s a healthier choice from a nutritional perspective. This is not necessarily true.
Several studies have shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in B12, calcium, iron, zinc, the long-chain fatty acids EPA & DHA, and fat-soluble vitamins like A & D.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these nutrients on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Recent studies have found that 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are B12 deficient, compared to just 5% of omnivores. B12 deficiency can cause numerous problems, including:
• Memory loss
• Neurological and psychiatric problems
A common myth amongst vegetarians and vegans is that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewer’s yeast. But plant foods said to contain B12 actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the intake of, and increase the need for, true B12.
On paper, calcium intake is similar in vegetarians and omnivores (probably because both eat dairy products), but is much lower in vegans, who are often deficient. However, calcium bioavailability from plant foods is affected by their levels of oxalate and phytate, which inhibit calcium absorption and thus decrease the amount of calcium the body can extract from plant foods. So while leafy greens like spinach and kale are relatively high in calcium content, the calcium is not efficiently absorbed during digestion. One study suggests that it would take 16 servings of spinach to get the same amount of absorbable calcium as an 8 ounce glass of milk. That would be 33 cups of baby spinach or around 5-6 cups of cooked spinach. This suggests that trying to meet your daily calcium needs from plant foods alone (rather than dairy products or bone-in fish) might not be a great strategy.
Vegetarians eat a similar amount of iron to omnivores, but as with calcium, the bioavailability of the iron in plant foods is much lower than in animal foods. Plant-based forms of iron are also inhibited by other commonly consumed substances, such as coffee, tea, dairy products, supplemental fibre, and supplemental calcium. This explains why vegetarians and vegans have lower iron stores than omnivores, and why vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce non-heme iron absorption by 70% and total iron absorption by 85%.
This is another case where bioavailability is important; many plant foods that contain zinc also contain phytate, which inhibits zinc absorption. Vegetarian diets tend to reduce zinc absorption by about 35% compared with omnivorous diets. Thus, even when the diet meets or exceeds the required daily amount (RDA) of zinc, deficiency may still occur. One study suggested that vegetarians may require up to 50% more zinc than omnivores for this reason.
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA
Plant foods do contain linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), both of which are considered essential fatty acids. In this context, an essential fatty acid is one that can’t be synthesised by the body and must be obtained in the diet. However, research has highlighted the benefits of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA & DHA. These fatty acids play a protective and therapeutic role in a wide range of diseases: cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
While it is possible for some alpha-linolenic acid from plant foods to be converted into EPA & DHA, that conversion is poor in humans: between 5-10% for EPA and 2-5% for DHA. Vegetarians have 30% lower levels of EPA & DHA than omnivores, while vegans have 50% lower EPA and nearly 60% lower DHA. Moreover, the conversion of ALA to DHA depends on zinc, iron and pyridoxine—nutrients which vegetarians and vegans are less likely than omnivores to get enough of.
Fat-soluble vitamins: A and D
Perhaps the biggest problem with vegetarian and vegan diets is their near total lack of two fat-soluble vitamins: A and D. Fat-soluble vitamins play numerous and critical roles in human health. Vitamin A promotes healthy immune function, fertility, eyesight and skin. Vitamin D regulates calcium metabolism, regulates immune function, reduces inflammation and protects against some forms of cancer. These important fat-soluble vitamins are concentrated, and in some cases found almost exclusively, in animal foods: primarily seafood, organ meats, eggs and dairy products. This explains why vitamin D levels are 58% lower in vegetarians and 74% lower in vegans than in omnivores. A single serving of liver per week would meet the RDA of 3,000 IU. To get the same amount from plant foods, you’d have to eat 2 cups of carrots, one cup of sweet potatoes or 2 cups of kale every day.
With care and attention,it’s possible to meet nutrient needs with a vegetarian diet that includes liberal amounts of pasture-raised, full-fat dairy and eggs, with one exception: EPA and DHA. These long-chain omega fats are found exclusively in marine algae, fish and shellfish, so the only way to get them on a vegetarian diet would be to take a microalgae supplement (which contains DHA) or bend the rules and take fish oil or cod liver oil as a supplement. Still, while it may be possible to obtain adequate nutrition on a vegetarian diet, it is not optimal—as the research above indicates.
Also, it’s not really possible to meet nutrient needs on a vegan diet without taking quite a few supplements. Vegan diets are low in B12, bioavailable iron and zinc, choline, vitamin A & D, calcium, and EPA and DHA. So if you’re intent on following a vegan diet, make sure you are supplementing with those nutrients.
It’s worth pointing out that there are genetic differences that affect the conversion of certain nutrient precursors into the active forms of those nutrients and these differences may affect how long someone will be able to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet before they develop nutrient deficiencies. This explains why some people seem to do well for years on these diets, while others develop problems very quickly.
From an evolutionary perspective, it is difficult to justify a diet with low levels of several nutrients critical to human function. While it may be possible to address these shortcomings through targeted supplementation, it makes far more sense to meet nutritional needs from food.
So whether your goal is to lose, gain or maintain your weight, it’s important to know that eating a diet that is lacking in essential nutrients will not benefit you in any way, even if it seems like a healthier option.