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Ask the Doc: Is an Indian Vegetarian Diet Deficient in Protein?

By Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD Email By Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD
June 2017
Ask the Doc: Is an Indian Vegetarian Diet Deficient in Protein?

Many Indians are vegetarians. As the Indian diaspora has spread around the globe, many have carried their culture, including vegetarianism, with them. Atlanta has a high Indian population and many of them are vegetarians. We see vegetarian restaurants and grocery stores all around greater Atlanta. Many Hindus, Buddhists, Jains eat vegetarian food which includes all plant-based food, along with milk and honey, and devoid of any meat, fish, or eggs. People choose their food preferences for religious, spiritual, cultural, communal, and/or health reasons. It also depends on the season and availability. Traditional diets all over the world are built around ingredients that are local and readily available.

Proteins are the building blocks of life. They are important for growth and repair. Proteins also act as enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Protein deficiency can make one tired, sick, and stunted. A well-planned vegetarian diet can supply the required number of proteins [see (see nal.usda.gov/fnic/interactiveDRI] using high protein foods such as milk, beans (like rajma), nuts, and lentils. However, we must note that not all protein is created equal. The body has to break down the protein from food into amino acids, which it then uses to build its own proteins. There are nine amino acids humans cannot synthesize: phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Animal protein contains all the essential amino acids, but plant protein does not. It needs to be combined to make the protein complete as in the case of eating rice with lentils or rice with beans. Milk is an excellent source for vegetarian protein. However, most adults are lactose intolerant. They can have yoghurt, curd, kefir, cheese, paneer—all are good sources of protein. And so are nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, and peanuts.

Meat    25-35
Peanut   25
Almond  21
Fish      15-20
Egg       10-13
Beans      10
Lentils      9
Cheese   5-25
Milk        3-4

There is an important distinction between vegetarian and vegan diets. The vegetarian diet, with copious amounts of milk-based products, can and has sustained healthy populations historically. The vegan diet excludes milk, in addition to other animal products, and leads to deficiency in Vitamin B12, zinc, and iron unless chemical supplementation is done. With the advent of modern pharmaceutics, dietary supplementation has become readily available. Many people take multivitamins and mineral supplements. However, one should be cautious about supplements: quality can vary since they are not regulated by the FDA. Multivitamins in excess have their own health hazards. Also, protein powder supplements vary: some are made from whey protein derived from milk, while others are plant-based—but most are loaded with soy, which, in excess, can cause hormonal problems including low testosterone and thyroid deficiencies.

In summary, plant-derived food contains less protein than animal-derived food. The standard Indian vegetarian diet is lower in protein content. A carefully planned vegetarian meal containing high protein sources (milk products, nuts, beans, and lentils) can provide the required dietary allowance of protein for most of the population.

Guest columnist, Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, is an American Board Certified Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist, and a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine.



[Gulshan Harjee, M.D., is a board certified internist in private practice with an emphasis on prevention. Please email your health and medical questions for consideration in this column to: gharjee@comcast.net. The material in this column is of a general nature, and must not be construed as specific medical advice. This column rotates monthly along with the Fitness Lifestyle column by Aarti Patel.]

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