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Why are increasing numbers of Indians turning vegan?

Lounge speaks to Indians who have become vegan for health and ethical reasons to understand why more people are turning to a vegan diet

Turning vegan for health and ethical reasons.
Turning vegan for health and ethical reasons. (Istockphoto)

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From meat to milk, every edible animal food product has a plant-based and vegan substitute available in the Indian market today. As recently as early 2021, the options were limited but since the pandemic started and people had more time to think about their health and food, vegan products and veganism started growing in popularity in India. 

As if on cue, Jalpesh Mehta, founder of the conservation sector non-profit Empower Foundation, decided to give veganism a try in January. The 43-year-old Mumbai resident and a lifelong vegetarian made the choice for ethical and health reasons. “My work with the non-profit made me understand that meat, eggs and, even, milk and milk products come at a cost to animals. The other factor was my health. I was 90kg and I had to lose weight to ensure I did not face any medical conditions,” says Mehta, who lost 15kg since he turned vegan. “I did some digging through research and found that dairy adds to body fat and weight exponentially.”

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Manasa Rajan, holistic health coach and food product head at the nutrition business EatFit, confirms veganism is on the rise in India currently. “While vegetarianism was always a well understood choice and a norm in India, three things have made a shift for people to choose veganism: The awareness of the health impact of dairy consumption, the cruelty of the dairy industry, and the unveiling of the fact, that dairy is not a required part of our diet, nutritionally. As this has been the biggest myth propagated for decades,” she says. 

Veganism also has plenty of health benefits as Mehta found out. Not only does it help manage weight, by eliminating dairy and meat from their diet, people can reduce their cholesterol levels and hence avoid heart issues, Rajan adds. The increase in lentils and beans as a source of protein in the diet improves gut health and bone health effectively reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes and age-related bone issues such as osteoarthritis. Eliminating dairy also helps reduce the risk of PCOD in younger women.

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At this point in time there is plenty of choice for anyone deciding to give veganism a go. Bollywood star Riteish Deshmukh and his wife Genelia recently launched their vegan food company Imagine Meats adding glamour to the ethical food movement. Yoga Bar co-founder Suhasini Sampath said enquiries for vegan nutrition and protein bars are on the rise and they get plenty of calls about vegan options on a daily basis. Nut and plant-based milks are being offered by more players than ever before. This includes multinationals such as Hershey’s and local start-ups including Only Earth and Raw Pressery. Epigamia, famous for their yogurts and smoothies, has also got vegan alternatives. “Plant-based alternatives are taking over many snacking options,” Kunal Mutha, founder of Only Earth. Vegan products, though available only in big stores in urban India, can be accessed online by everyone across the nation.

Another reason for the growth of veganism is the fact that “consumers are now seeking out ‘better for you’ alternatives in the snacking category by being conscious of their eating choices,” feels Ankit Desai, marketing director, Hershey India. Desai noticed this trend and launched Sofit Almond Milk in India catering more towards the vegan and lactose intolerant consumers.

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However, in a country where food choices are largely based on religious belief and health reasons, it is often difficult to get the older generation to understand food choice based on ethical reasons. Anup Pani, a 41-year-old software engineer and omnivore-turned-vegan, found that out the hard way when he was invited to a friend’s place for dinner. His host’s mother had pulled out the finest ghee to make dosas for his son’s old-time friend. Pani explained to his friend’s mother that he can’t eat ghee for ethical reasons and his decision was based on principle. “She didn’t fathom my reasoning and I was served dosas made in ghee, which my friend told me months later. It is often difficult to explain to people food habits based on principles here,” he says.

Another trouble with being a vegan in India is that the choice is very limited when it comes to eating out. Mehta was a strict vegan for the first two months but once he started going into office and had client meetings he found it difficult to remain vegan. “There are vegan cafes but you have to search hard for them. Also, when we are in forest and rural areas, finding vegan food is a big challenge. So, now I am mostly vegan but compromise when I am out on work and the choice is between going hungry and eating paneer. I’d eat paneer any day,” he says, adding being vegan is also about convenience.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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