Vinita Contractor, Founder, Down 2 Hearth, a nutrition & health consultancy charts her journey to becoming vegan
A Mumbai-based nutrition coach, wellness chef, food consultant and the founder of Down 2 Hearth, Vinita regularly conducts whole food plant-based (WFPB) cooking, fermented foods and baking workshops. Having studied Ayurveda and nutrition, she offers health consultations for weight loss and lifestyle disease reversal through holistic approaches. Her forte is health and wellness retreats away from the city. A plant-based recipe developer, she curates menus for restaurants and cafes. She also has a YouTube series on vegan cooking, highlighting easy substitutes and tasty dishes that encourage those who want to adopt a vegan lifestyle, while promoting healthy, conscious and green living.
“Veganism brought a far more compassionate, aware and disciplined approach to life. I started relooking at my food not just from a nutritional point of view but also at its carbon footprint. I realised the importance of seasonal, local and organic food. And that just feverishly substituting foods would lead to imbalanced growth. For instance, instead of cow’s milk, if everyone switched to almond milk or soy milk, how would it impact the earth, the farmers and our bodies? I realised that moderation is the key in every sphere.
I turned vegan nearly four years ago. Little did I know that it was touted as the biggest food trend then, and that it would become a part of a larger movement which had already been steadily growing. Veganism has changed my life completely.
I stumbled upon this by chance. On my family holidays we usually prefer unique experiential trips such as trekking, camping or local homestays. This time, our family had made a short trip to Sadhana Forest in Auroville, a vegan community which had transformed 70 acres of barren land into a thriving forest in just 11 years, with the help of volunteers and donations.
We were volunteering during our stay, helping create bunds, watering saplings, and preparing meals in the community kitchen, contributing to the sense of community along with other miscellaneous activities. Talking to the co-founder, Yorit Rozin, something inside me woke up, and I made a decision to go vegan. This was, in my mind, the least I could do to lead a more sustainable and eco-sensitive life. For me, veganism was about making a compassionate choice towards the environment, the animals and towards my own body.
Introducing veganism to my family
When we got back from the trip, my husband and two sons, then aged seven and nine, made a conscious decision to adopt veganism too. We watched a few documentaries such as Forks over Knives, Earthlings, Vegucated, Hungry for Change etc. We picked non-graphic and age appropriate parts of documentaries to show to our kids, and they instantly declared they would not consume milk henceforth. We as parents presented both sides of the story and gave them lots of inputs, so that they took a stand based on their own feelings and not because of us. We were anyway aware as a family about organic and sustainable living, and this just completed the circle. From the point of view of transitioning, it was not difficult for the kids, because I ensured that they didn’t miss anything. I immediately got into action as I knew I would need to find substitutes for all the things my kids loved. Cheese, ice cream, and of course, Nutella! I found how easily coconut, almond, cashews, peanuts, soy, flax and chia seeds could substitute milk, cheese, curd, paneer and eggs respectively. I attended a dairy alternative cooking class and spoke to a couple of friends who were vegans. I started experimenting, spent hours scouring vegan recipes and creating new ones. I found Peta India, Minimalist Baker, Forks over Knives and Wellness Mama as very useful resources.
But at school and at birthday parties they had to explain their stand. Initially, that was hard. With time they managed to convey their thoughts and beliefs eloquently, and today their friends make sure that there are vegan options for my boys at birthdays!
Building a knowledge base
I had always known that we didn’t need dairy to thrive and be healthy, but I wasn’t aware about the ecological impact of it. I lived with the false belief that animals would never be ill-treated because of their religious significance. Living a conscious, healthy and sustainable life was something I was always committed to. Though I had worn various hats as a banker, a teacher and a mother, I always found myself drawn to educating myself in the health and wellness space and implementing what I learnt in my life.
After turning vegan, my primary concern was to ensure my children could meet their nutritional needs on a plant-based diet. I voraciously read books, watched health documentaries and spent time reading articles online. Watching Forks over Knives and Cowspiracy made a huge impact on me. I also read the China Study: the Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health, abook that gave me all the information I needed to know regarding how a healthy vegan diet can benefit people. I was fortunate to attend a talk by vegan mountaineer Kuntal Joisher, who scaled Mt. Everest! His story not only inspired me, it also pushed me to find my own Everest. I decided to found Down 2 Hearth. I took a course on plant-based Nutrition at ECornell and also studied raw vegan nutrition and a wellness culinary course at Rouxbe. I began conducting whole food plant-based workshops, where I taught people how to cook oil-free, dairy-free and sugar-free organic food. After a while, I trained myself to undertake personal health consultations.
Initially, there weren’t as many ready, high quality options available for cheese, curd, mayo etc, so there was no option but to make them yourself, but today the market is flooded with so many vegan options. Eating out was limited to a few specialised restaurants and South Indian or South East Asian restaurants. Now, the situation is different, and so many cafes and restaurants offer vegan options. For potlucks, I always found it easy to carry a big portion of dessert or salad, enough for all. That way I was assured of something wholesome and satiating to eat. It was a good way to start a conversation and pique the interest of others. Travelling always still means planning in advance, doing a bit of research beforehand, and stocking up on granola bars, nuts, seeds or trail mixes and picking up fresh fruit often enough. It is getting so much easier with vegan-friendly apps such as Happy Cow and resources like VeganFirst.com.
One diet doesn’t fit all
It is always challenging to explain one’s stand without somehow undermining the other’s point of view. It shouldn’t be about being morally more superior than another. Veganism for me about so much more…
I started consulting and supporting clients on their journey to transition to a vegan lifestyle, working towards their health goals or reversing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cholesterol, hypertension etc. I began to find out that not everyone could eat everything that is ideal. Some couldn’t handle raw foods or greens, others couldn’t digest a lot of beans and the likes. This sparked my interest in Ayurveda. I felt that something as sound and time-tested as Ayurveda would do wonders when combined with a whole food plant- based diet. I took up a course on an Ayurvedic diet from the Kerala Ayurveda Academy. My key take away was that it mattered how well a person digested their food rather than how varied, exotic or nutrient–rich their diet was. Knowing one’s constitution paves the way to know what foods suit that individual. I was pleasantly reassured that there is a lot to adopt from Ayurveda without including ghee, curd or milk. I now plan individual diet plans for people by keeping their basic constitution (prakruti) in mind. The movement is growing and more and more people are getting drawn to it, especially sports persons and animal lovers.
And this brings me to where I began. A vegan diet is a choice for compassionate living, for oneself, for the planet and for the animals. My journey from here on is to continue spreading awareness about the benefits of a plant-based diet, supporting people on their journey to good health and taking on exciting projects, reaching out to different places and as many people as possible!