Did your list of resolutions for 2021 include eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on meat? And were you by the end of January back to your old eating habits—the apples you bought during your weekly grocery trip slowly rotting in the fruit bowl and your freezer stuffed with packets of all kinds of processed meats? Worse, did you have a strong sense of déjà vu—you had done this before, last year and the year before that?
Supriya Bhattarai, clinical nutritionist and co-founder, Mitahara, says she has many clients who are striving to make the switch from a non-vegetarian lifestyle to a vegetarian one. She too has been trying to cut down on meat for the past six months. There are good days and there are bad days. It’s definitely not easy.
But there are a lot of upsides to a vegetarian diet and therein lies its allure, says Bhattarai. A vegetarian diet, she adds, lowers the risk of many non-communicable diseases, like stomach ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues, as well as various cancers. Studies suggest a meatless diet could also help slow down aging.
“A plant-based diet is particularly good for those with heart problems. Removing meat from your diet is great for overall wellness,” she says.
Bhupal Baniya, nutritionist at Nepal Police Hospital, too recommends a vegetarian diet. He says if you can, you should definitely give up meat because its consumption comes with a fair share of long-term health issues.
The problem with meat today is that a lot of poultry and animals are bred and raised to be slaughtered. Animal cruelty aside, they are given hormones and antibiotics which we ultimately end up consuming.
“There are many antibiotics that were earlier used to treat diseases in humans, like tetracycline, that we are now resistant to. That’s because we consumed drug-fed poultry,” says Baniya. A meat-rich diet could potentially lead to kidney, liver, and heart problems, he adds.
“It’s not just meat, how we consume it is also problematic,” he says. Most of the times, we grill or deep fry meat (think sizzling barbeque or chicken lollipops). This coats your food with carcinogens.
Take it slow
Dr Ruby Bajracharya, dietician, ayurvedic doctor, and founder of Lotus Ayurdeva, supports Baniya’s claims. She says a non-vegetarian meal is acidic in nature and an acidic diet is what causes health problems, including cancers. On the other hand, a vegetarian diet, if you keep it as colorful as possible, could help prevent many illnesses.
“Try to include different kinds of vegetables in your diet. If possible, eat different things for lunch and dinner every day of the week,” says Dr Bajracharya. It would also be a good idea to have foods in their closest natural states, which is possible with fruits and vegetables.
According to the ayurvedic doctor, a simple home-cooked meal can be your key to wellness. If that doesn’t include meat, all the better. But she stresses on the need to be practical about your eating habits. If you have been eating meat, say daily, for as long as you can remember then you probably wouldn’t be able to give up cold-turkey. And neither should you.
Dr Ruby Bajracharya
“What you can do is reduce the frequency or the portion size and then slowly try to eliminate it from your diet. This is a far more sustainable way to give up meat in the long run,” she says.
Nutritionist Bhattarai agrees that if you want to give up meat it’s important not to rush it. The mantra here is to cut back and work on making meat less tempting. For instance, you could opt for pan-grilled meat instead of the fried version which is more addictive, making it harder for you to give it up altogether. You will, over time, find meat less palatable when you come to associate it with bland dishes.
The body, she adds, takes time to adapt to new foods and flavors. By lessening the quantity of meat and increasing the portion of vegetables, you will slowly develop a taste for vegetarian food as well.
“Start by paying attention to how you are eating meat and try to change that. You could also try abstaining from one item, like mutton, to start with,” she says. It’s what she has done: she has first given up red meat.
Find your why
Experts agree that it helps if you are clear about why you want to cut out meat from your diet. Is it because you love animals and want your meals to be cruelty-free? Is it because you are concerned about the meat industry’s impact on the environment? Or do you think a vegetarian/vegan diet is healthier and want to feel good in your body?
When you have a solid reason for doing something—especially something that requires a lot of discipline and behavioral changes—you are more likely to see it through.
Founder of Vegan Diary Nepal Kajol Sethia says she turned vegan because she loves animals. A plant-based diet has made a lot of difference in how she feels. Besides losing weight, a diet rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals has made her more energetic. Bloating, something she struggled with earlier, isn’t an issue anymore. She claims she is fit enough to run a 5k or 10k marathon and still not feel drained out. For that, she credits her food choices.
“Many people think being vegetarian or vegan is difficult as it limits your food options. But, in fact, it’s about removing certain things from your plate and replacing them with something else,” says Sethia.
For instance, if you are a non-vegetarian transitioning into vegetarianism, you could simply remove meat from your plate and replace it with eggs, cottage cheese, or mushroom. Similarly, if you are trying to go vegan then use oil in place of ghee and have tofu instead of cottage cheese.
The passionate vegan believes it has never been easier to find alternatives—with the concept of mock meats (a meat-like substance made from plants) and many online businesses delivering any fresh produce you could want at your doorsteps. Also, a dish is tasty because of the spices we use to temper it. Anything can be made mouth-wateringly delicious with the right technique.
Arm yourself with information
However, Sethia confesses that earlier she was ignorant about her food habits and consumed a lot of junk food. That took a toll on her health. Since 2015 she has made it a point to educate herself about food and nutrition, which has helped a lot. It is what she advises everyone to do before embarking on a new diet.
“You have to be aware of what you are putting in your body and how that can affect you. So, do your research to figure out what works for you,” she says.
But Google can be a rabbit hole, with a lot of myths and false claims. Where your health is concerned, you can’t afford to take chances. Consulting an expert at the start of your vegetarian or vegan journey might be a good way to go about it. A dietician or nutritionist will give you specific information and tailor a plan for you.
“You run the risk of nutritional deficiencies when you go plant-based or if you have been a vegetarian for a long time,” says nutritionist Baniya. You have to be especially careful about monitoring your vitamin B12 levels, ensure you are getting the needed essential amino acids, and meet your protein requirements through adequate intake of lentils and grams.
Making sustainable changes
Experts’ unanimous opinion is that these are minor hiccups that can be easily addressed. These days supplements are easily available to meet your nutritional requirements. A handful of nuts and seeds daily—like walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, to name a few—can be a good source of healthy fats that might be lacking in a vegetarian diet.
For a transition into vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to work, the best thing you can do is make small, sustainable changes that can become habits over time. Dr Bajracharya suggests making a change and diligently sticking to it for 21 days (three weeks) to build a habit and then for 49 days (seven weeks) to make it a part of your lifestyle.
Bhattarai suggests being a little more mindful about food and letting your body adapt to new flavors and ways of eating. For Baniya, a slow and steady approach is the best way. If you consume 10 kilos of meat a month, try having only five kilos for the next few months and then further reduce that, to eventually get to zero when you feel you are ready.
Sethia swears by cultivating a healthy relationship with your body and food. Food, she says, should make you feel good and be light on your body and conscience.
“If you want to follow a more plant-based diet but haven’t been able to do so, you haven’t found the right reason and approach yet. Work on them. And find innovative ways to include more greens in your diet,” she concludes.