Viva las vegan: A philosophy and a lifestyle
The first time one feels a mild bout of surprise along the course of understanding the concept, process and idea of veganism is by chancing upon Pythagoras’ name associated with it. He was among the first men known to have renounced animal meat in favour of a vegetarian diet, along with Greek philosophers such as Plato and Plutarch. However, vegetarians who also renounced dairy products were bestowed a moniker by a Donald Watson, in his quest to name his soon-to-be launched magazine — Vegan News, in 1944. Veganism is a lifestyle where one doesn’t associate themselves with any products or processes that involve animals. This lifestyle shift spills over to not just our food consumption habits but also consumption as a whole with clothing, cosmetics and entertainment coming under scrutiny. This choice is now growing into a movement gaining traction and finding loyalists around the world, with international artists and events using their platforms to send out this message. Nod to you Golden Globes 2020 and Joaquin Phoenix!
However, mired in myths, the concept of veganism is slowly breaking through barriers and percolating into middle-class households. The myths surrounding veganism include “It’s an expensive lifestyle”, “Ingredients for the diet are hard to procure”, “It’s a time-consuming process” and “Where do I get my proteins from if I don’t eat meat?”. While some of these points do stand their ground in a country that hasn’t adapted to the vegan wave as quickly as others, people across the food and beverage industry are noticing a shift.
At the helm of this movement in India is a robust group of people who actively ensure that their numbers grow exponentially every year — vegan activists. These are a growing number of people in every city who are choosing to pick up various methods to spread awareness about this movement. ‘Vegans in India’ is a public Facebook group that actively aims to tutor and advocate changes in vegan lifestyle and has over 23,000 members. Conversations on this open group range from predicted collapse of the beef and dairy industry by 2030 to criticism of UN organisations that invite food donations for eggs that are supposedly rich in protein and less cost-intensive.
At a slightly more micro level, such groups also exist in city-specific forms and act as a FAQ section for people who have recently shifted or are planning to shift to this lifestyle. For that is exactly what veganism requires — a lifestyle change that can be born out of various reasons. These reasons range from standing against animal cruelty to rising consciousness around health benefits, to attempting a change for the environment.
The Game Changers
A Netflix documentary called The Game Changers has left an indelible mark on every viewer, especially millennials who are sitting on the fence about the concept, willing to give it a shot. Word-of-mouth has been the greatest form of publicity for this documentary that follows American Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner John Wilks on his journey to unearth the mystery behind protein sources. The film is produced by the likes of James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic and Chris Paul. The reason perhaps why the movie strikes a chord is the removal of a didactic angle that is omnipresent in films of such tenor, to present a well-studied, scientific research that leaves no questions unanswered. However, it has also received heavy criticism from certain scientists and nutrition experts for peddling ‘pseudo-science’ backed by proof from questionable sources. While it is to be noted that executive producer of the film, James Cameron, is the owner of a plant-protein company — Verdient Foods Inc, John Wilks confidently put all debates to rest at a recent, four-hour long debate on air. The opinions of the nutritious angle in a vegan food diet is so extremely divided that it all eventually boils down to personal choice. Studies on this diet are multiplying manifolds and a repository of literature for and against the movement is being written every day. Making a studied choice shouldn’t be too difficult.
Exploring the diet angle
A vegan man to scale Mt. Everest is Kuntal Joisher, a 39-year-old software engineer, who has been vegan for the past 17 years. He has scaled Mt. Everest not once but twice from north and south side, with his latest expedition being in May 2019. Speaking at extensive sessions around the country, he reinforces the plant-based protein idea amongst youngsters, where ethics is the main driving force behind his choice. Building muscles too, he stresses, is easier on a plant-based diet. “Human beings are the only mammals that drink another mammal’s milk. There is no ethical way of getting milk from a cow,” he says when asked about ethical dairy farming and their growth in recent years. Joisher, too, mentions The Game Changers, citing many of his peers who are sports personalities now willing to take a relook at their diets.
Veganism in the food industry
With each passing day, the number of patrons at restaurants asking for vegan dishes is slowly but steadily increasing, with some kitchens going so far as to include vegan dishes exclusively on the menu. “Vegan desserts especially are big because they are difficult to make. We do get a lot of vegan requests from the ages of 24 to 38,” said Urvika Kanoi of The Daily, a cafe in south Calcutta. However, what catches our attention are vegan cafes that are cropping up in various parts of the country. While there is Ubuntu Community Cafe in Calcutta, there is Vegan Nation in Siliguri, the first of its kind in the township. Run by 33-year-old chef Abhishek Mittal aka Dylan, who used to see a lot of tourists in his cafe before, by virtue of Siliguri being the base for multiple journeys towards North East, Vegan Nation now sees locals dropping in while in search of something new to explore. “It is very important to keep an open mind and not aim to stop or change completely overnight. Reduce your intake and see how you are doing,” said Dylan.
Don’t be surprised if the menu at Ubuntu cafe in Dhakuria offers you Fysh fry, Grilled Shrymp, Kosha Mangsho — they are all plant-based versions of your much-loved dishes. Soya, wheat and seaweed form the main ingredients for the Fysh Fry while the Kosha Mangsho is made with vegetarian meat by a brand called Good Dot who deliver around India. The main ingredients for the meat are soya, wheat and South American cereal quinoa. Leading this Ubuntu community with a dedicated space is environmentalist-turned-social entrepreneur Abhinav Bajpai and Vikash Bihani.
The Calcutta leg of the vegan wave began as a movement a decade back and with Ubuntu at its helm, there are over 3,000 members. The oldest member is a 61-year-old gentleman who has been practising veganism for the last 31 years.
Brands like Raw Pressery and Urban Platter are selling on Amazon with the former selling tetra packs of almond milk and bottled juices and the latter selling various flavours of milk powder. These brands associate themselves with vegan awareness programmes like Veganuary and Save Movement India around the country to increase brand relevance and recall.
Cube of Truth
On December 14 and 15 last year, Goa witnessed an event called Face of Truth based on the Cube of Truth model, where activists and volunteers form a large cube shape facing outside, while holding placards and laptops that play videos of animal slaughter. Over 80 activists from around the country showed up at this first, pan-India event with few participants from the UK, US and Finland as well. The idea is to speak to interested people about the movement, keyword being ‘interested’.
“The conversation around vegans being aggressive with their stance arises out of a cognitive dissonance created from the challenging of your belief that proteins are only available in animal meat. Which is perhaps why, when questioned, it sounds aggressive to some. However, we try and converse with people who are on the fence or are genuinely curious to find out how their actions are impacting the climate and the world,” said Gemini Xettigar, a practising lawyer who also recognises herself as a full-time activist, based out of Goa. Xettigar has been associated with this movement for the past three years and was also at Miramar and Colva beach participating in the Face of Truth event last December.
Stress on lifestyle, and not just diet
Every vegan person you meet will stress upon their movement not being restricted to a dietary change. It is a lifestyle choice that goes beyond the kitchen and extends to “clothing, research, entertainment, religion or any other human purpose”, Xettigar points out. Being conscious of buying choices and brands that echo the efforts is of utmost importance. While most vegan clothing and accessories brands tend to be on the side of a higher price point, some affordable brands, too, are now starting to store vegan options. Bata, for instance, stores shoes for men that are not made from leather and instead a supplement. These brands are almost always born out of the need to look at the long-term picture of the world and the state we are headed towards. Sustainable brands like Arture or Corkiza use cork fabrics to create minimalist accessories that not only look great but are completely sustainable. Disguise Cosmetics is one such cosmetic brand that people are swearing by, where one can find anything from blenders to lipsticks. Priced at Rs 500, their Glow Multi-Sticks can be used as highlighter, lip topper or eyeliner.
However, a quick Google search revealed that once a well-loved brand, Kanabis, which made fashionable shoes has now gone out of business for an indefinite period of time, which gives rise to the question: are sustainable brands themselves not sustainable in the long run or is the environment still too nascent to find a larger set of loyalists?
What launched as a non-profit organisation in the UK, Veganuary has now shaped into a movement across the world, focused on changing consumer behaviour towards trying veganism for the month of January. One has to sign an online pledge and make a New Year resolution to try veganism for 31 days and see if it’s a sustainable choice in the longer run. During those 31 days, the organisation will send you daily updates to help you stick to your resolutions, with their bright and colourful emailers including healthy recipes, tips and general advice. According to 2019 Kantar data, India has contributed with the third-largest number of pledges with Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore in the top 20 cities around the world.
The idea of Veganuary is two-fold — the consumer end of it which encourages this lifestyle choice and the producer end where brands are associated with and encouraged to introduce vegan products and menus. Leading the India chapter of this programme is 26-year-old Delhi resident Akshita Kukreja. “Community events throughout the year along with brand tie-ups are our main methods of communication,” said Akshita who also runs Vegan Samooh, the independent Veganuary organiser of India.
Vegan Samooh conducts extensive film screenings of documentaries like The Game Changers. Their last screening, as a part of Veganuary, was A Prayer for Compassion directed by Thomas Jackson and produced by Sailesh Rao, with both being present at the event which was attended by over 130 people. One of the largest events expected this year is the Ahimsa Fest, which is slated to be held in Mumbai on January 26. Think flea market where art and food comes alive, only with all things vegan.
In 2019, more than 2,50,0000 signed up for Veganuary from 159 countries, with 47 per cent people choosing to stay vegan at the end of 31 days.
At an organisational level
At an ‘Asia for Animals’ conference in 2007, the need to place an apex body to look after animal welfare in India was recognised. Three years later, the Federation for Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) was born with the singular aim of uniting all animal rights organisations and movements around the country. For the last three years, Meghna Adhikari has been working in FIAPO’s Delhi office as a campaign coordinator, leading their vegan initiatives and associations. These range from vegan marathon in Chandigarh, slated for the month of February, to the Ahimsa Fest in Mumbai.
“We are around 40-member staff at FIAPO and our work extends to 78 cities in the country. The idea is to take the vegan movement to grassroot levels,” said Meghna. Their key responsibilities include building a network of shelters around India to establish standards and assessments to create an accreditation scheme, supporting plant-based businesses in India to promote veganism and building space for urban wildlife rescue rehab.
The Save Movement is another such organisation that began in Toronto and slowly spread to over 71 countries with over 900 chapters. India itself has a total of 22 chapters with the main focus being ‘Animal Save’ followed by ‘Climate Save’ and ‘Health Save’. All three movements are closely related to each other, points out Aprajita Ashish, the country liason of Save Movement India. “Animal agriculture contributes heavily to climate change and we try to explain to people the connection between the two. Health Save focuses on explaining the benefits of a plant-based diet. A ‘vigil’ is a part of Save Movement’s campaigns where people are encouraged to show affection to animals before they are slaughtered. The movement aims to eradicate ‘Species-ism’, much akin to racism or sexism where species shouldn’t be used as a discriminatory factor amongst living organisms.
The infamous B12
While vegans claim that every single plant contains all essential amino acids that we require from our food, there is a single mystery of the vitamin B12 that eludes vegans. While it is popularly known that animals are the only source of B12, in reality it is found in soil and water that animals consume. Animals thus are the middlemen, an extra layer to our path. The only solution to this is taking supplements of this vitamin. Every person is susceptible to a deficiency of this vitamin, irrespective of diet. “Walking barefoot on soil or taking supplements should be enough to support this dietary choice. The adversities of not making this choice is far more than a possible deficiency that may or may not happen and can easily be prevented as well,” said Meghna from FIAPO.
Ethical travelling is wonderfully described as leaving a place just the way you found it, as explained by Shreya Saha, one half of Travel Love Repeat, a Calcutta-based travel agency that is vegan, eco-friendly and zero-waste. Conceptualising newer ways to make travelling more sustainable with the least unavoidable bit of carbon footprint only, is the focus of organisations such as hers. Her agency has found ways to travel in South Asian countries, parts of Europe, East and North Africa in the most ethical manner. “We don’t take our customers to zoos or similar places with animals in confinement. Even our safaris are about capturing animals in their wild while we remain in captivity or the confines of our vehicles,” said Shreya.
Countries where hunting is allowed are banned from their list, which means South Africa remains off the roster. Supporting local businesses is also a point of concern for such ethical travel agencies. The 32-year-old who was a biology and chemistry teacher in Thailand for five years, Shreya and her partner Richie Sharma even provide travellers with their eco-friendly kit that has metal straws, refillable bottle, cutlery and glasses. Vegan food trails play a major role in all their trip planning, which are always in locations that have been personally veto-ed by either founding member. What about flights, the largest cause of carbon footprint at an individual level? “I wish people had the time to sail but alas! So, of course, we don’t suggest that. After flights, the bare minimum is what we suggest,” Shreya laughingly adds. Not just Indians, Travel Love Repeat even caters to an international clientele with a clear vision towards a sustainable future.
Do these numbers add up to a ‘woke’ India conscious of sustainability, climate change and animal welfare? The journey is just getting started and there are many more mountains left to scale. At a recent dinner at home, many hurdles were crossed to ensure a vegan meal for a singular guest amongst 12 others hankering for biryani from a street-side stall of great repute. At the end of the said meal, the vegan guest smiled cheekily as he took a kheer sandesh from the dessert platter. “I mean... sweets are so difficult,” he mumbled!
However, if all the conversations over the last few weeks are to be considered, it is the attempt, effort and consciousness that counts. From realising the truth behind your beloved brands to making a switch to something exponentially more beneficial — it’s a choice waiting to be made.
For some, the glorious ghee could be a taboo in the dal not because of its cholesterol content. It is prohibitive if one chooses to be a vegan.
You may think vegetarian and vegan are similar styles of eating. Well, the only similarity is that both groups do not consume meat, fish and poultry. Most Indian vegetarians are essentially lacto-vegetarians, that is, they consume milk and milk products and do not have any form of meat. A small group of vegetarians also consume eggs along with dairy products and are called ovo-lacto-vegetarians.
However, vegans, in addition to being vegetarians, go one step further and avoid all animal products, including dairy, eggs and even honey from their diets.
Different types of vegan diet
Raw: These vegans do not eat anything cooked or heated up, so this diet mainly comprises fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. They also do not eat any packaged or processed food. Some raw vegans will follow an 80/10/10 diet: 80 per cent carbohydrates, 10 per cent fat and 10 per cent protein. Some eat only raw food until 4pm and cooked meals for dinner after the said timing.
HCLF: High Carb Low Fat vegans eat large portions of carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables and grains and a very small amount of fat. Some will consume carbohydrates in the form of fruits and vegetables, others have a lot of potatoes, rice, pasta and even refined sugar. Healthy fats are consumed in the form of avocados, seeds and nuts.
Plant based: A plant-based diet is only about eating things derived from plants that have been grown in the soil. The food is not overcooked to preserve as much of the nutrients as possible. This group continue to use animal products like leather, wool, silk and honey. Their motivation to adopt veganism is healthy and they are not animal inspired.
People opt for a plant-based diet for various reasons, but the big three are personal health, ethical and environmental.
Health benefits: People adopt vegan diets for potential health benefits. Vegan diet provides more fiber, antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds. They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E, which leads to better health outcomes.
By avoiding meat and dairy, vegan diets effortlessly cut out a lot of saturated fats, coupled with high fibre. It has been shown to be effective in reducing LDL cholesterol, blood sugar, hence reducing the risk of heart disease. Some studies have elucidated that it can protect us from colon, breast and prostate cancers. It can lead to weight loss, too, and can be beneficial for people suffering from arthritis.
ETHICAL: They avoid meat because they are against killing animals for food. Some feel emotional about the treatment of animals raised on industrial farms. So the adoption of veganism stems from their love and care for animals.
It is believed that by cutting down meat and dairy consumption, we can reduce our carbon footprint and hence save the planet. Rearing animals for food requires large amounts of land, food, energy and water. The byproducts of animal agriculture pollute our air and water, primarily through greenhouse emissions. Afforestation is rampant to make room for animals to graze. Hence, proponents of veganism suggest that by selecting a plant-based style of eating, the environmental burden on the planet can be reduced.
Vegan gone wrong
Despite all the claimed health benefits of a vegan diet, it is still incredibly easy to be unhealthy on this diet because not all vegan diets are created equal. You could be eating refined flour, refined sugar, copious amounts of plant-based fats and still remain vegan. Many vegans substitute dairy products or meat with unhealthy processed foods. There also exists something called vegan fast food, which could provide empty calories, lacking micronutrients and fibre, similar to conventional junk food.
Total exclusion of dairy and meat from your diet can definitely leave you short on the protein requirement. Vegans are very likely to miss out on calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and iodine. B12 deficiency is commonplace in this set. Unbalanced and unplanned vegan diets can lead to anaemia, muscular weakness, softening of bones (osteomalacia) and hypothyroidism.
If you are vegan, plan your diet properly. You must include plant sources of protein like soya, legumes and so on and try to meet your calcium requirements from green leafy vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds and so on. You may need to take vitamin and protein supplements.
The truth is, veganism is not a diet or eating style, it is a philosophy. It requires a radical, complex and multifaceted lifestyle adjustment.
Hena Nafis is a consultant nutritionist and the owner of nutrition and lifestyle clinic Nutrience, and the health cafe, Eat Good Food