Is Indian Vegetarian Diet Low in Protein?

A big number of Indians are vegetarians. As 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 for religious, spiritual, cultural, communal, and for health reasons. It also depends on the season and availability. Traditional diets all over the world are built around ingredients which are local and readily available.
In the beginning all human were hunters and gatherers. People foraged wild fruits, berries and meat of wild animals. The Last Ice Age also called the Last Glacial Maximum ended around 11,000 years ago. As the glacial ice retreated to the polar caps, this opened up vast acres of land for grains to flourish. The domestication of grains heralded agriculture around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (presently Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, Egypt). From there agriculture travelled westwards to Europe and eastwards to India around 9000 years ago. It was around that time cow were domesticated, and milk entered the Indian diet. Vegetarianism became main-stream in India when Emperor Asoka decreed against animal slaughter in 250BC. Next major change occurred after Columbus discovered Americas. Potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, pumpkin, squash, and Beans (like Rajma) entered the Indian cuisine. They were brought to India by the Portuguese from the new worlds (Americas) around 1500-1600 AD during the reign of Mughal emperor Jahangir. The process called the Columbian exchange also added many fruits like guava, grape, pineapple, papaya and many others to India. Now all these new world food have become an accepted and integral part of Indian diet over the last 400 years, and their non-Indian origin is lost to most. And, it remains unclear which local Indian vegetables and food these new world crops replaced and what was their nutrient value.
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. The Institute of Medicine's Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kg body weight. This means an adult who weighs 70 kilograms needs at least 56 grams of protein each day. The RDA for pregnant and nursing women is higher. For athletes, it is 2 gram per kg body weight. A well planned vegetarian diet can supply the required number of proteins using high protein food like milk, beans, nuts, and lentils. However, one thing is to be noted. 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 which are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. Animal protein contains all the essential amino acids, but plant protein does not. They need to be combined to make the protein complete like eating rice with lentils or rice and beans. Milk is an excellent source for vegetarian protein. However, most adults are lactose intolerant. They can have yoghurt, curd, kefir, cheese, paneer which are all high sources of protein. Other high protein sources are nuts like almonds, cashews, walnuts, and peanuts.

There is an important distinction between vegetarian and vegan diets. The vegetarian diet with copious amount of milk based products can, and has historically sustained healthy population. Vegan diet excludes milk, in addition to other animal products. Vegan diet will lead to deficiency in Vitamin B12, Zinc, and Iron unless chemical supplementation is done. With advent of modern pharmaceutics, dietary supplementation has become readily available. Many take multivitamins and mineral supplements. However one has to cautious about supplements. Their quality can vary as they are not regulated by the FDA. Multivitamins in excess has their own health hazards. There are Protein powder supplements made from whey protein derived from milk. Then there are plant based protein powders. However most are loaded with soy. Soy in excess can cause hormonal problems including low testosterone and thyroid deficiencies. In summary, plant derived food contain less protein than animal derived food. Standard Indian vegetarian diet is lower in protein content. However, a careful planned vegetarian meal containing high protein sources like milk, bean, nuts, and lentils can provide the required dietary allowance of protein for most of the population.

Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, FAPA - is an American Board certified - Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist. He is the author of 2 books- Stress Rescue & Sleep Coaching available at Amazon. He practices Psychiatry in Atlanta, GA. For more articles and queries, follow him on Facebook @ Dr.Panchajanya Paul.