Human beings are of diverse types with varied behavioural patterns and cultural backgrounds. It is said that no two people can ever be the exact same. However, there are some fundamental needs that all human beings desire which include oxygen, water, food, sleep and shelter. Psychologist Abraham Maslow lists food as the primary component for physical survival. In today’s world, food production and consumption have major risk factors for the health of human beings and the environment.
As the global population expands, the increase in demand for food is at an all-time high. A major area of concern is the ability to provide healthy food for the ever-growing demand pool in a sustainable manner. Data released by the United Nations reveals that an estimated 821 million people in the world - that is 1 out of 9 people - were undernourished in 2017. The excessive demand for food also has far-reaching negative consequences for the environment.
What is a plant-based diet?
In recent years, there has been a growing trend of making a case for plant-based diets. The central factor of that kind of diet is plant-based food which form the core factor. On the other hand, a meat-based diet is quite obviously the diet where animal products form the central component.
Plant-based diet comprises food entirely sourced from plants, including vegetables, seeds, pulses, nuts, legumes, grains and fruits. The Sanatana Dharma concept related to this divulges that it is, along with the moral upliftment of human beings, the most effective input for a healthy body and for longevity of life. What is a plant-based diet? Is it the same thing as vegetarianism or veganism? The emergence of a strong narrative around plant-based diet offers the most effective alternative to meat-based diet.
What is veganism and why is it becoming popular?
In 1944, a group of people divulged from the Leicester Vegetarian Society in England and created the Vegan Society. In addition to non-consumption of meat, they also chose to avoid eggs, dairy products, and any other animal derived food. Veganism can be defined as a way of life that adopts an attitude against cruelty towards animals.
Several studies have shown that a reduced consumption of meat has lower risk factors for Alzheimer’s as well as cancer and heart diseases. Research has also revealed that a vegan diet has a direct correlation with lower body weight and body mass index (BMI). Additionally, as people are beginning to realise the imminent need to conserve and protect the environment, a vegan diet offers the most conducive option.
Is a vegan diet nutritious?
Experts agree that a well-planned vegan diet can provide ample amounts of nutrition to the human body. While many people still believe that meat and dairy products are the best sources of protein, plant-based food items have proved the contrary. To name a few, all beans, lentils and legumes are excellent sources of protein. Soy products like tofu and soya milk are rich in protein and are known alternatives to animal products and can be used in a variety of ways. In fact, these products are also filled with other nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12. Seitan is an effective mock meat and is sourced from wheat gluten. It contains about 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. It is also filled with other nutrients such as selenium and small portions of calcium, iron and phosphorus. Similarly, there are many other plant-based food items that can be part of a vegan diet and provide adequate nutrition to the human body.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
M.L. McCullough’s article in the Journal of Nutrition titled, ‘Diet Patterns and Mortality: Common Threads and Consistent Results’ (2014) analysed various dietary patterns that were associated with healthier and longer lives. Findings revealed that the three diet plans that consistently had a low mortality score all included high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and legumes and low consumption of red and processed meat. The conclusion was that diet patterns that had a low risk of mortality were “built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, which is supported by extensive scientific evidence.”
What do our scriptures say?
Discussions on the benefits and importance of a plant-based diet can be cited from Hindu scriptures in India. The Dharmagranths suggest that such a diet is the most apt to enhance human physical and mental health and need to be adopted as a mantra to live a healthy and meaningful life. The Bhagvad Gita contains a passage that translates to, “Persons in the mode of goodness prefer foods that promote the life span, and increase virtue, strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. Such foods are juicy, succulent, nourishing, and naturally tasteful.”
We need to take necessary steps to secure ourselves from deadly diseases and reduce our carbon footprint. The fact remains that this cannot happen overnight. It is a process and it starts with teaching children in homes and schools. If we start young, the chances of success are much higher.
Meat-based diet and ills of consuming it
Research has found that human beings began to increase their meat consumption as they progressed in the evolutionary ladder. Meat is an effective source of energy and also contains some essential nutrients, including protein and micronutrients. Additionally, for some, there may not be any other viable alternative to a meat-based diet for the lack of opportunity to grow or purchase alternative food sources. However, this diet has far reaching negative consequences.
There is well-documented research that has highlighted the extremely negative impacts of consumption of meat on human health. The WHO estimates that 60% of discovered human infectious diseases and 75% of emerging pathogens originate in animals. The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has marked processed meat consumption and red meat as carcinogenic to humans, based on evidential links with colorectal cancer.
The environment is also severely affected by the consumption of meat. Livestock farming has recorded high rates of emission of green-house gases and other pollutants, can enable soil erosion, and in some areas, put immense pressure on scarce water resources. The Environmental Protection Agency have raised concerns over the raising of animals for food as one of the largest contributors to water pollution. The high risk of meat consumption has been recorded by the Union of Concerned Scientists in their listing of meat eating as a severe environmental hazard. UN FAO has found that emissions from global livestock amount to an estimated 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. This represents 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
While there are personal and environmental health reasons to forgo meat, a compelling argument lies in the ethics of it. Animals, like humans, are living beings who experience emotions. Farm factory sites would have you believe otherwise. Livestock are kept in cramped rooms, in unsanitary conditions, inflicted with disease and are eventually killed for meat. Consequently, in areas that have wild animals near farms, the wild animals are mercilessly hunted in an attempt to protect the livestock. The egg farming and the dairy industry have their own tales of horror.
The Indian cuisine is made up of a wide range of food products, each with their own traditional and regional story to tell. The diversity in soil type, climate, culture, ethnic groups and occupations allow for a cuisine that is different in every part of the country.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission released its global report on nutrition and called for a global shift to a more plant-based diet. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has committed to make the 21st Century India’s century and also made a call for increased self-reliance in our living. This is a golden opportunity for India to lead the way forward in the creation of a healthier post-Covid world. As an aspiring world power, our moral responsibility lies in leading by example.