By KEVIN TAN and PHYLLIS HO
These days, going vegetarian or vegan isn’t just a health consideration or religious practice. It is a lifestyle statement, a philosophy, a way of life.
Thanks to the countless pop culture references to veganism, like Brandon Routh’s vegan supervillain in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the eye-catching viral tactics of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the lifestyle is now firmly in the public consciousness – for better or worse.
While there aren’t any statistics to back this up, Malaysian Vegetarian Society (MVS) secretary general A. Krishnamoorthy, 44, says more young people are now choosing the vegetarian lifestyle.
“Many people believe in the ‘Go Green. Stay Healthy.’ motto. It seems to be more of a lifestyle nowadays than for religious reasons. We’re seeing more and more vegetarian eateries opening up,” said Krishnamoorthy.
And the main reason why people are becoming vegetarians? It’s mainly on environmental grounds, and out of compassion for animals.
Chong Mean Jern, 18, for instance, became a vegetarian two years ago after reading about a vegetarianism awareness event, and her reason for doing it was simple – “to save the planet”.
“Overall, vegetarianism is good for the environment, animals, and your own health. I learnt online that we are frugivores, the biological term which means that our bodies are adapted for a diet of fruit, root vegetables, nuts, and seeds,” she said.
Adjusting to life as a vegetarian was not easy for Chong, though.
“It was really hard for me at first because I was a meat-lover too,” she admitted. “Every day is a struggle between giving up and sticking to it.
“My dad still tells me not to be too strict with my diet because I need enough nutrients as a teenager. And that’s the problem – everyone has this misconception that only a diet with meat can give your body complete nutrition.”
Joyce Ang, 19, faces similar challenges being a vegetarian. Her compassion for animals drove her to adopt vegetarianism two years ago.
“I read something in the newspaper about animal cruelty, specifically on dolphins and seals. I thought to myself, ‘if killing dolphins and seals is cruel, what about killing cows and chickens for our pleasure?’” she said.
Like Chong, Ang has also been teased by friends for being a vegetarian.
If you did a quick Google search on vegans or vegetarians, you’ll most likely find some memes or posters poking fun at them.
Ang said: “I’ve seen stuff like that before, but it really doesn’t affect me. It’s their own personal opinion, and I have my own.
“I’ve even had friends who’d wave like a fried chicken in front of me to tempt me. But since I became a vegetarian, I’ve never really had the urge to eat meat.”
Mahesh Kumaranand, 43, owner of vegetarian restaurant Radhey’s in Kuala Lumpur, says vegetarians are often stereotyped as boring people who miss out on “good” food.
That’s what motivated Mahesh and his wife Anitha Anand, 37, to open his restaurant two years ago – to show people that vegetarians too get to enjoy good food.
Anitha said: “Vegetarians also want to enjoy different kinds of cuisine, and they can!”
MVS secretary general Krishnamoorthy says vegetarian restaurants have been mushrooming around the Klang Valley, and Mahesh says his restaurant has seen more and more customers in the last two years.
“We never fail to see new faces coming to our restaurant. Not all of them may be vegetarian, but it’s good to see people opening up to vegetarian food,” said Mahesh.
How to be a healthy vegetarian
CONSULTANT dietician Goo Chui Hoong, co-author of the book Food for Your Eyes, believes that the key to a successful diet is balance.
“For those who would like to adapt to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, they should complement the diet with well-balanced meals,” she said.
The main difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet is that the former completely shuns animal products like meat, milk, honey, and eggs.
There are a number of vegetarian diets – lacto-vegetarian (consumes dairy products like milk and cheese), ovo-vegetarian (consumes eggs but not dairy) and pescetarian (consumes fish and certain forms of seafood).
According to Goo, there are many benefits to the vegan and vegetarian diet. For starters, fruits and vegetables contain a lot of fiber.
“You’ve probably heard your mom say eat more fruits and veg because it’s good for you. It’s true. For the human body to maintain a healthy digestive system, you would need to consume food items that are rich in fiber.”
Goh added that fiber can also help to reduce the risk of heart diseases and diabetes. “Besides that, fruits and vegetables contain a lot of antioxidants that can help to prevent colon cancer.”
However, Goh said there is a misconception that leading a vegan or vegetarian diet can help a person lose weight.
“It’s not entirely true as it also depends on what’s in the food. For example, if you’re consuming dairy, you should be aware that some dairy products contain saturated fat which is very bad for you.”
Goo recommend putting some thought into what’s in your food and how it’s prepared.
“You should look into how your meal is prepared. Some vegetable dishes have a lot of oil, salt and other preservatives in them.”
She also explained that one of the major drawbacks of a meat-free or dairy-free diet is losing out on essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12.
“You need calcium for strong bones and teeth while vitamin B12 helps to keep the nerve system and blood cells healthy. So if you’re opting for a dairy-free or meat-free diet, ensure that you make for it with food items like calcium-fortified soy milk. You can also take supplements for vitamin B12.”
Adding food item like lentils and rice can help make your vegetable platter a more balanced meal.
“One common tip is to have a colourful platter. Let your plate reflect a variety of nutrients in a fun way. For example, orange-coloured food like carrot contains a lot of beta-carotene that is good for your vision. Dark leafy vegetables contain a lot of vitamin C and earthy-toned food like grain and brown rice contain a lot of vitamin B-complex.”