Vegetarianism is nothing new to India but since the rest of the world has recently begun embracing it, there has been a lot of concern over if and how vegetarians get the nutrients they need for healthy living.Getting all the nutrients for vegetarians is a concern in India, not just because of not eating meat, but the combination of a vegetarian diet and the unhealthy lifestyle changes that have occurred in recent years, all causing nutrient deficiency. This is particular concern for vegetarians who need balanced nutritional meals everyday to get essential nutrients. Office goers, students, even people eating in a paid mess, many times do not have the full thali— roti, subji dal, rice and dahi — which gives you most of the nutrients you need. Instead of rice and dal, vada-pav, biscuits or the like, is substituted.

Every committed vegetarian should pay special attention to seven key nutrients to ensure that their diet is also a healthful one. This is a common sense approach to getting the nutrients you need, no complicated numbers or scare tactics.

1. Iron

Lack of iron has always been a problem especially for Indian women, nearly 50% of women are anemic or have iron deficiency. Iron serves as an essential part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood from your lungs to every body cell.

Iron comes in two forms: heme, which is better absorbed, and non-heme, which is not absorbed as readily. All plant-based sources of iron are non-heme, which is why iron intake requirements are higher for vegetarians than it is for meat eaters. The absorption rate of this type of iron is much lower than iron found in meat sources. According to the Institutes of Medicine, vegetarian men and post-menopausal women need 14 mg daily and pre-menopause vegetarian women should aim for 33 mg each day. A few simple steps can influence the absorption of iron:

Select a variety of plant-based iron-rich foods daily, such as legumes, nuts and seeds, raisins, molasses (kakwi), jaggery and grains, and broccoli.

If you are relying on spinach or other green leafy vegetables for your iron then note that an acid in these veggies called “oxalates” binds with the iron, making it unavailable for the body. Our meals usually have green chillies, tomatoes, amchur powder and tamarind which cover you for vitamin C.

Use cast-iron pots and pans to cook your food, especially acidic foods such as tomato sauce. This will increase the amount of iron in your food.

Do not drink tea or coffee with your iron-rich foods. The tannins in the tea and coffee can decrease the absorption of the iron.

2. Vitamin B-12

Vitamin B-12 is responsible for red blood cell growth and nervous system maintenance. Natural sources of this vitamin are meat, dairy and eggs, so vegetarians often lose out. Go too long without adequate B-12 and you may find yourself at risk for macrocytic anemia, a type of abnormality in red blood cell development, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, memory loss, dizziness, mood changes, and loss of vision. To ensure you get enough B-12, have dairy products daily. If this is not possible then consider a supplement.

3. Calcium

Most of us know that the mineral calcium is important for bone and overall health, but many people just do consume enough. Adults 18 to 50 years old need 4 servings per day while those 51 and older need 5 servings daily. One serving equals one cup of milk=one cup of dahi = ½ cup of paneer equals =42 grams of hard cheese = 1.5 cups of tofu = ¼ cup powdered milk. Calcium can be a concern for those vegetarians who do not have any milk or dairy products. If you consume less than the required amount or none at all, keep your body’s blood-clotting and bone-building abilities up to par by including non-dairy calcium foods like chickpeas, broccoli, dried figs, cabbage, and green leafy vegetables in your daily diet. Ragi(nachni) is also high in calcium.

4. Vitamin D

Our bodies produce the bone-forming vitamin D when we expose our skin to the sun, but the days of cloud cover, long winters, indoor jobs, and videogames means that we are not getting our daily targets. Vitamin D is can be found in salmon and egg yolk and there aren’t many vegetarian food sources for vitamin D. This vitamin has come in the news lately because of its role in calcium absorption. Without sufficient vitamin D, calcium is not absorbed properly, that is why most vitamin d supplements are combined with calcium. The current recommended intake for vitamin D is 600 International Units (IU) for adults up to age 70 years, and for adults 71 or older the recommendation is 800 IU.

5. Zinc

Zinc is crucial for metabolism, immunity and healing. Meat, seafood and animal products are high in zinc but zinc found in plant foods has a lower absorption level. To maximize your zinc intake:

Include a variety of zinc-rich foods throughout the day, such as whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, and dairy products.

To increase the amount of zinc absorbed from plant foods, soak nuts, beans, and legumes overnight. The yeasting of bread can also increase zinc absorption, as well as the sprouting of brown and green lentils(matki and moong).

6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Another headliner in recent years– there is a substantial amount of research showing that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits. These healthful fats help with inflammatory diseases, lowering blood pressure, lessening the joint pain of arthritis, decreasing the risk for coronary heart disease and protecting against depression. Only fish eaters can get omega-3 very easily, and that too eating fatty fish. Pomfret and prawns do not qualify. Incorporating a sufficient amount of plant-based foods high in the omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can optimize your omega-3 intake. While ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil are probably the best choices for vegetarians, other foods to include in your diet are walnuts, soybeans, soybean oil, olive oil. Add flaxseed to your salads, roti atta, even kheers – it works as a great alternative to nuts.

7. Protein

Comprising of a mix of essential amino acids protein is necessary for muscle building, tissue repair and immunity boosting so it is important we get enough of it. Two large katoris of pulses such as dal, matki, masoor, moong, etc. and 2 servings of dahi or milk is sufficient protein for the day. If milk is not to your liking, then have more dahi or lassi. Adding soya bean powder to your atta will also boost your protein.

Nuts, soy, sesame seeds are protein sources as well and they are commonly used in subjis.

This is not meant to scare you vegetarians — there are many benefits to eating a vegetarian diet. Eat balanced meals and zero in on these nutrients to help you make the best decision for optimal health.

Here’s to being a healthy veggie!

Published in Pune Mirror, August 1, 2011