Ask The Expert

Any questions regarding a vegan diet and nutrition? Clarify your doubts by writing to our expert, Dr. Uma Malhotra, and we will get back to you via e-mail within a few days.

I was recently diagnosed with heart disease after a serious heart attack. My doctor tells me that besides medicine I must eat a healthy diet, but has not given me any more details about what changes I need to make. I grew up vegetarian and used to be quite slender. However, my husband and in-laws love eggs and meat. So we all eat eggs in our breakfast and some type of meat for either lunch or dinner. I am also now overweight as are all the members in my family. Please advise what I should do. –Anu D., 60 y, Amritsar, Punjab

You are absolutely right to be thinking about making life style changes. A healthy diet and exercise can actually prevent four out of five heart attacks. Among the various types of diets a healthy vegan diet, also called a plant-based diet, has the most beneficial effects and the least risk for heart disease. Research has shown that such a diet may prevent and reverse atherosclerosis, which causes blockage in arteries reducing blood flow to our heart and other organs. The diet also reduces blood pressure, blood lipids, and weight, all of which in turn reduce risk for heart disease. These beneficial effects are related to the high amounts of fiber, healthy plant proteins, low levels of saturated fat and lack of cholesterol in these diets. Remember to include a good dose of exercise, such as daily brisk walking which is an excellent activity. As you make changes in your own life, hopefully other members of the family will learn from you and do the same. 

My family and I have been vegetarian for seven years and now wish to become pure vegan because I recently heard about the ill effects of dairy milk. I also learnt about cruelty to the cattle during milk production, some thing that I did not know before. However, I have not seen any dairy alternatives like soy or almond milk, in my area. I have also not seen any tofu and worry if I will be able to provide enough protein in the diet to my family. What can I do? -Sunita, 35 y, Sukher, Rajasthan.

I expect that you have all the resources for making healthy vegan meals where you are. You have easy access to a tremendous variety of legumes, such as channa dal, mung dal, chhole, all of which are great sources of protein. These along with whole grain rotis, vegetables, and fruit make for a diet that is well balanced and compassionate. Contrary to popular belief, grains and vegetables are also good sources of protein. Thus, protein needs are easily met with a diet that contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables. Cooking oil is a fabulous alternative to ghee.  Also include some nuts in your diet and if you like you can make butter, milk and cheese from nuts like cashews and almonds.  Along with your vegan diet, remember to take a vitamin B12 supplement, which can be found at your local chemist shop.

Do you believe that everyone should take B12 Supplements? What about those who never heard about it? Are all of them sick? If No then what could be the Reason? - Girish Shah (girishgshah@gmail.com )

Yes, I believe that a vitamin B12 supplement is a must for vegans. I also strongly recommend it for vegetarians, who may get some B12 through dairy or eggs, but it may not be enough. Some studies have shown that as many as half of those on a vegan diet may be deficient in the vitamin. B12 is produced by bacteria that live in the soil so whenever there is little peeling or washing of the produce, people may be able to get enough of the vitamin from the soil on the produce. However, that clearly is not a safe approach for getting the vitamin. Because animals ingest soil along with the plants they eat, those who eat meat get the B12 along with it. 

Vitamin B12 is important for forming new red blood cells and maintaining our nervous system. The body can store it for years, protecting us if we don’t get sufficient amounts now and then. However, a deficiency over time can cause serious consequences, including a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia, as well as damage to our nervous system causing a neuropathy and dementia as well as psychiatric disorders. Low levels in pregnancy increase the risk for neural tube birth defects. While some foods are fortified with B12, they are not a reliable source for the vitamin so I strongly recommend a supplement. This could be part of a daily multivitamin or an individual supplement, easily obtained at low cost from local chemist shops. While the recommended daily amount for adults is 2.4 mg, you can safely take higher doses, since our body absorbs only as much as it needs, and any excess passes through the urine.

I am a vegan on a reducing diet. I know nuts are also packed with goodness, but they have high oil content, so how many are "too many?" I am not eating too many other fatty foods for the most part but I do eat a lot of rotis, rice, and potatoes. But I'm also not losing weight and feel I need nuts for protein. – Reeta, Delhi

My advice is to be cautious with nuts. While, nuts contain healthy fats and antioxidants, which are good for health, they are also calorie dense. Consuming large amount is not conducive to weight loss. It is easy to indulge and eat nuts by the handful resulting in excessive calorie intake. I recommend limiting them to a small handful or about 30 gm each day. You could consider pre-portioning your nuts for a snack or choose nuts in the shell to avoid eating too many.

Importantly do not rely on nuts for proteins. Instead eat plenty of legumes such as channa dal, mung dal, chhole, all of which are great sources of protein. Contrary to popular belief, grains and vegetables are also good sources of protein. Thus, protein needs are easily met with a vegan diet that contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables. Consume whole grains, and add more vegetables and fruit to your diet. Also remember to include a good dose of exercise in your day.

Dear Madam, I'd like to know plant-based alternatives for vitamin supplements & calcium. When I realised that Shelcal too is made from Oyester shells, I stopped using it, but I fear I may not be getting sufficient calcium and Vitamin B12 from my vegan diet. Could you please list out plant-based calcium & vitamin B12 supplements, thank you! Best wishes, Aparna - Aparna ( tanu_jairaj@yahoo.com )

This is a great question. You are correct that many vitamin formulations contain animal derivatives. Several use gelatin, derived from the connective tissues of cows, pigs, or other animals, to coat the vitamins to make them easier to swallow. I see two parts to your question. First, pertains to your fear that you may not be getting sufficient calcium and vitamin B12 from a vegan diet. While, it is accurate that a vegan diet may not provide enough Vitamin B12, the same is not necessarily true for calcium. With a well-planned nutritious vegan diet, most folks get enough calcium to meet their needs. However, some groups, such as children, teens and postmenopausal women, may require calcium supplements, especially if their diet is not well balanced.

 Many plant foods contain enough calcium in just a few servings to provide the recommended daily value. Plant foods particularly rich in calcium include leafy greens, such as turnip, mustard and collard greens, chia seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, and several types of beans, including, soy, navy, pinto, and garbanzo beans. Some calcium is also derived from fortified grains, tofu, soy, hemp and almond milk, as well as cereals. Today, the World Health Organization’s recommendation for calcium is just 500 mg per day, along with 800-1,000 IU of vitamin D to aid absorption. It is important to note that some health issues may in fact occur by taking too much calcium over an extended period of time. Taking excessive calcium can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, while calcium supplements may pose a higher risk of developing kidney stones and possibly artery disease. Research also suggests that our body absorbs calcium best from food. Thus, it’s best to get calcium from food if possible and this is easy to accomplish with a balanced vegan diet.

There are several companies that manufacture vitamins and supplements completely free from animal products. These include Garden of Life, Deva, Unived, Inlife, Yogabody, Live Wise, Jarro, Natural Vitality, and Natural Bounty. I expect that many of these will be available at your local chemist shop or could be obtained online.

I am 2 months pregnant and want to become a vegan currently. Is this the right time to turn vegan or I should wait until delivery. . My gynac told me to not try anything new during this period. He said you can do it later after delivery. Please suggest - Bernadette ( bernadette26@gmail.com )

A well-planned plant-based diet is suitable at every stage of life, including pregnancy and breastfeeding. The diet provides all the nutrients you and your developing baby need. Moreover, besides being a compassionate choice, vegan pregnancies have some health advantages too. They are associated with a lower risk of preeclampsia, excessive gestational weight gain, and gestational diabetes.

It is indeed fine to make changes in your diet during your pregnancy. Key is to ensure that you are eating a well-balanced nutrient dense diet and not consuming empty calories from processed foods and sweets. During pregnancy, nutrient needs increase.  Specifically, women require more calories, protein, calcium, iron and folic acid. It’s easy to meet these requirements by eating a variety of plant-based foods, including beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Plant foods particularly rich in calcium include leafy greens, such as turnip, mustard, and collard greens, chia seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, and several types of beans, including, soy, navy, pinto, and garbanzo beans. Some calcium is also derived from fortified grains, tofu, soy, hemp, and almond milk, as well as cereals.

Pregnant women need to double their iron intake and ensure that they are getting adequate amounts of Vitamin B12 and folic acid. Iron is abundant in plant-based. Beans, dark green vegetables, whole grains, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, all contain plenty of iron.  However, Vitamin B12 is not found in plant-based foods so vegans require a supplement regardless of pregnancy. During pregnancy I expect that your doctor will prescribe you a prenatal vitamin that contains iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, and other micronutrients, to ensure that you are getting sufficient amounts of these nutrients.