Plant-based diets are all the rage these days. There are full-fledged celebrity-endorsed documentaries (the Netflix hit GameChangers for one) as well as multiple scientific papers in top journals that testify to the benefits of such diets. Be it professional athletes, fitness trainers, nutritionists or wellbeing influencers, you’ll find a variety of people talking up the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet.
While the vegetarian diet one finds in India is largely plant-based, it is not entirely plant-based. Our vegetarian diet includes milk and a lot of milk products such as yoghurt, butter-milk, paneer, ghee, butter and cheese that we eat on a daily basis.
Plant-based diet started as a principle-based approach as animal products such as meat, poultry and milk often have a huge carbon footprint. Moreover, meat producing industries do resort to cruel processes, and use antibiotics and other drugs to make animals grow faster and bigger, in order to maximise production and profits.
Over time, many who switched to a plant-based diet and eliminated meat and dairy from their diets, started reporting health benefits such as lower blood pressure, better weight management, and healthier levels of cholesterol, among others. All this played its part in fuelling the popularity of plant-based diets, and today even someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger swears by a plant-based diet.
“A plant-based diet may help in keeping your blood pressure within normal range. Vegetarians have a lower risk of developing hypertension than non-vegetarians. It keeps your heart healthy. Meat contains saturated fat which can increase the risk of heart disease. To reduce the risk of developing heart disease you need to consume foods with anti-inflammatory properties which are abundant in green leafy vegetables, whole grains walnuts, olive oil, tomato and fruits,” says Dr. Sanjay Jain, consultant for internal medicine, cardiology and diabetology at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Indore.
He says that a plant-based diet may also prevent type 2 diabetes. “As animal-products-based diet includes more fat it may cause weight gain and indirectly lead to the development of insulin resistance and increase the risk of diabetes. A plant-based diet can help you to lose weight as whole grains and vegetables have relatively low glycemic index.” Jain adds that a plant-based diet also helps in decreasing the risk of cancer. “Plant-based foods contain nutrients like fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that protect us against cancer,” he says.
So what efficacy of plant-based diets depends on one’s health and fitness goals. “The debate over whether a plant-based diet is superior to one that includes meat is a complex and nuanced one. Both diets have their merits and drawbacks, and the answer largely depends on individual preferences and health goals,” says Shalini Garwin Bliss, executive dietician at Manipal Hospital, Gurugram. “When planned carefully, plant-based diets can be quite beneficial. For example, tofu, lentils and quinoa are excellent sources of well-balanced protein,” says Cult Fit’s head of nutrition Chandni Haldurai.
Apart from the fact that plant-based diets are also much more environmentally friendly, they are also more practical and economical. While some specialised vegan foods can be pricey, budget-friendly staples include grains, beans, and lentils. “The economic case in favour of plant-based diets becomes persuasive when you take into account the long-term health advantages and decreased medical costs. Meal planning and locating economical plant-based supplies are key to practicality, which may make it sustainable both for earth and your money,” says Haldurai.
Eliminating meat, dairy, fish, and poultry from your diet can lead to several health benefits, says Bliss. “These may include reduced risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels, better weight management, and improved digestion,” she adds. Haldurai points out that a lower consumption of saturated fat from meats and animal products means a lower risk of developing certain malignancies, and better weight control, which means your heart health is likely to improve. “Diets based on plants typically contain a lot of fibre, which promotes healthy digestion and lowers the risk of digestive problems. Additionally, they may improve general vitality by reducing inflammation and promoting a more alkaline body,” explains Haldurai.
No diet is without shortcomings, however. Just because a food is labelled as plant-based, vegan or vegetarian does not mean it will be healthy, warns Jain. He cites the example of highly processed foods rich in sodium such as french fries, foods made with refined grains like white bread, sugary drinks and soda. Dietary shortages are commonplace when a plant-based approach is not well-balanced, especially in vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids, says Haldurai. We need Omega-3 fatty acids for healthy skin, hair and nails and calcium is needed for bone health.
Some people may also find it challenging to adapt to the dietary restrictions, and social situations, in India, where butter and ghee are central to most foods. “Careful planning and education can help mitigate these challenges, making a plant-based diet a viable option for many. Ultimately, the choice between a plant-based or omnivorous diet should align with individual health goals and ethical considerations,” says Bliss.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.