CHENNAI: Where will I get my proteins? How can I increase my calcium intake? Am I doing the right kind of fitness training? Do children and pregnant women have food restrictions? These are some of the questions that Dr Nandita Shah gets from participants at her plant-based diet workshops and lectures. For the past 14 years, she has presented health workshops in India and abroad, inspiring others to make dietary and lifestyle changes resulting in positive health. She conducts specific health workshops like reversing diabetes and reversing heart disease and hypertension as well as organising a residential 21-day health retreat. Dr Nandita is also the founder of SHARAN, an organisation devoted to disease reversal through food.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet means eating only those foods that come from plants. It means no meat, fish, chicken, eggs, not even honey or dairy since all of these foods require the exploitation of animals. Although we have been brought up thinking that we, humans, are omnivores, the scientific truth is quite different. Every animal eats according to instincts. On a farm, we would be instinctively attracted to fruits and vegetables. But seeing a chicken, a goat, a cow, or even a fish swim in an aquarium would not make us salivate. These are not our foods. Nor is milk, for that matter, as every mammal produces milk only for her young, and we are not calves. No animal in nature drinks another animal’s milk. Instinctively, every human child loves its mother’s milk but refuses cow’s milk when it’s first given.
Anatomically too we have the features of herbivores and not those of omnivores or carnivores. We have learned to eat foods that are not suitable for us through social conditioning and marketing. Now if we see a plate of chicken or mutton, curd or cheese, we may feel like eating it because of this conditioning. Eating foods that are not suitable to our species is a bit like putting diesel in a car that runs on petrol. It doesn’t promote health.
What’s the difference between plant-based and vegan diet?
A plant-based diet is only concerned with the diet. Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible, all forms of, exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
What comes under whole-food plant-based diet?
We are the only species that make our food less nutritious before we eat by refining it. The maximum nutrition in plants is found just under the skin, and when we remove the skin we are losing not only a lot of nutrition, but also a lot of fibre.
Some refined foods that we commonly eat are sugar, oil, white rice and white flour. But juice, jaggery and even soy and coconut milk are refined because the fibre is removed. Most packaged and ready-made foods are full of refined products. Also peeling fruits and vegetables renders them less than the whole. Fruits such as apples, chickoos, guavas etc should never be peeled. Similarly, no vegetables except onion, garlic and certain yams and tubers should be peeled.
What are some of the benefits of plant-based diet?
Freedom from minor complaints like colds, coughs, fever, headaches, body aches, acidity, constipation, skin diseases etc, but also prevention and often reversal of major illnesses like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, cancers and even degenerative conditions like cataracts.
When did you adapt to a plant-based diet? What were the challenges and how has it transformed your lifestyle?
I started adapting to a plant-based diet in the early 1980s, after I understood the cruelty aspects of dairy. As I was already a vegetarian, this change made me a vegan. At the time, veganism was unheard of in India, so some of the challenges were social. However, I do feel that it’s all in the mind. I had travelled the world being vegetarian, and I faced no problem anywhere. Similarly being vegan is a mindset. Once we are clear about what we want to do, the fruits and vegetables and other vegan items will be available everywhere. The biggest change is the change in the state of mind. It has made me a calmer person. One of the reasons people are so stressed these days is because they are indirectly consuming the stress of animals in our food chain through the adrenaline present in their secretions or body parts.
Are there markets that cater to a plant-based diet?
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and grains are available everywhere. Perhaps ready-made alternatives may not be easily available, but our basic Indian food — dal, chawal, roti, sabzi — can be vegan by default. It’s true that there may not be enough restaurants that serve high-quality vegan meals everywhere. As the demand increases the supply will increase. Nowadays in the west, there are may pure vegan restaurants, and most restaurants, including fast food outlets, cater to vegan clients. Nowadays there are hundred per cent vegan fast food outlets as well, and there are high-quality replacements for all kinds of animal-based products from milk and eggs, to chicken, meat and fish.
What should we keep in mind while starting to experiment with plant-based diet?
It is wise to do overall basic blood tests including vitamins B12 and D so that you know the state of your body before embarking on this lifestyle. Even though a whole plant-based diet will definitely improve health, there are possibilities that health is already compromised before you start. If tests are not done before starting then there is a chance later to blame the issue on the change in diet. Vitamins B12 and D can be low in anybody whether they are vegan or not and these are very important for our body.
Our website, www.sharan-india.org provides a wealth of information on how to embark on this lifestyle and also has many recipes.