Now that you've decided to pass up those luscious kebabs and greasy tikkas (spicy cutlets) for tofu and sprouts and turn to vegetarianism, you might think life's going to be a peach. Right? Well, not exactly. For even as vegetarianism cuts a swathe across the globe as a movement - with singers Britney Spears and Madonna endorsing its multifarious virtues - new research highlights that the trend isn't entirely free of pitfalls after all.
Undoubtedly, vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle choice. And, as doctors point out, it protects its followers from a slew of lifestyle-related disorders like cardiac ailments, hypertension, cancer, gallstones and obesity. In fact, the US-based World Cancer Research Fund says that cancer risk plummets by almost 40 per cent if one sticks to plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and limits the intake of grilled, cured and smoked meats and fish.
But herein lies the rub. A lot of vegetarians - whether converts or not - are so restrictive in their diet that they end up suffering from nutritional deficiencies and immunity-linked disorders. According to Delhi-based nutritionist Dr Shikha Sharma, this restrictive diet lies at the root of many problems that vegetarians encounter. Many complain of anaemia, osteoporosis and low bone mineral density - which makes the bones weak and vulnerable to fractures. "I get many vegetarians at my clinic who live on potatoes, white flour and polished rice day in and day out. Nothing could be worse. A healthy diet ought to have a lot of variety from all food groups."
Another disconcerting trend, according to Dr Sharma, who herself turned vegetarian a decade and a half ago out of choice, is that there are increasingly faddist vegetarians - mostly young girls - who in their quest for a `svelte' figure give up non-vegetarian food without fully understanding the bodies' requirements. "It is this ignorance that is most harmful. Such people develop a weakened immune system, stress, and several vitamin-deficiency disorders," she elaborates. "The whole point of being a veggie is to lead a healthy life and not become vulnerable to diseases. But a careless dietary regime throws such things out of gear."
A limited vegetarian diet has other drawbacks as well. For instance, vegans (who eat only plant-based foods) are at a very high risk of nutritional deficiency. This is because they shun not only animal flesh but also all dairy products (like milk, yoghurt and cheese) from their diets. Cautions nutritionist Dr Ishi Khosla: "There's a very strong anti-milk lobby operating these days. But care has to be taken before giving up milk completely, especially by lactating and pregnant ladies, because this can lead to a severe deficiency of Vitamin B12 and calcium which is imperative for a child's growth. If you want to avoid milk completely, you must take a substitute - like soya milk, for instance."
Milk-deficient vegans, according to Khosla, are extremely prone to nerve disorders. Vegans and ovo-vegetarians (egg eaters) may suffer from a deficient vitamin D and calcium intake which can lead to rickets in kids while insufficient calcium may cause osteoporosis in adults.
The trend is most noticeable among urban citizens, especially youngsters who are being bred on weight loss programs with half-baked knowledge about the human anatomy. Doctors warn that it is this lack of awareness which is harmful.
Also, what vegetarians should keep foremost in mind is that fruits and vegetables alone - which many think is their ticket to good health - don't guarantee a robust existence. A healthy diet must comprise of a lot of variety, more so if you are vegetarian. Sprouts, seeds, legumes, paneer (cottage cheese), cheese, curd, dairy products, enriched cereal products and vitamin-fortified milk must embellish your daily intake. "Just excluding meat and dairy from one's diet isn't going to make you healthy," Khosla says emphatically. "A vegetarian diet has to be particularly well-planned or else it can compromise on micro and macro nutrients which can lead to ill-health," says Khosla.
In fact, in the late 1990s, research conducted by American nutritionist Susan Barr examined the link between a vegetarian diet and spinal-bone mineral density. Barr studied a group of 44 pre-menopausal women - half of them vegetarian and the other half non-vegetarian - and concluded that the former group had a far lower mean bone-mineral density - 1.148 as against 1.216 for the meat eaters.
Pregnant women too are at a health risk since inadequate caloric and protein intake from an all-veggie diet can lead to a low birth-weight baby. Dr Sharma, too, advises that vegetarian women ought to take extra precautions during pregnancy by fortifying their diets with extra minerals, proteins and calcium.
Also, mothers of pure vegetarian children ought to be extra careful as many exclusive vitamins, minerals and micronutrients (iron, zinc and copper, for instance) - which are irreplaceable for strengthening a child's immunity system - are found readily in meat but not in vegetables.
Also, results of many clinical studies worldwide have proved that DHA or docosahexaenoic, a fatty acid or an Omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated acid found in eggs, fish and animal organ (liver, kidney) meats is instrumental in building coordination of the brain and eye amongst children.
Cells in the brain, retina, heart and other parts of the nervous system have connecting arms that transport electrical currents sending messages throughout the body. DHA ensures the optimal composition of these cells for the most effective transmission of these signals.
Research in the field of neurology and nutrition has shown there is an intimate connection between a DHA-rich diet and proper cognitive development in children between two to five years of age. In other words, there is a delicate balance between brain development, nerve growth and DHA. This Omega-3 acid also helps in controlling stress triggered off in children due to changes in environment and social groups by regulating the levels of adrenaline rise in the blood, elevation of which can cause stress.
In other words, as good doctors advise, be a vegetarian by all means. But there's a caveat you can't afford to miss: Don't follow a restrictive diet. The bedrock of all healthy diets is built on drawing essential minerals, vitamins and nutrients from all food groups. Otherwise, a `healthy' lifestyle choice may well end up being a millstone around your neck.