A growing number of people are excluding meat from their diets. We spoke to Pauline Menezes and Dr George Jacobs from the Vegetarian Society of Singapore about the motivations and the implications of a vegetarian or vegan diet.
VEGETARIAN VS VEGAN
Vegetarian diet is a broad term to describe diets that are devoid of ingredients of animal origin, at varying degrees. A vegetarian diet in the west generally means a diet comprising plants, egg and dairy.
In the Chinese community, following a vegetarian diet usually comprises plants and may include egg, but usually no pungent spices (onions, garlic, scallions, chives and leeks). Dairy is not a common ingredient in traditional Chinese culture and cuisine. Some Buddhist vegetarians completely omit all animal products, whereas most Indian vegetarians consume plants and dairy products.
Though a vegan diet is not a new concept, the term was first coined by Donald Watson in 1944, co-founder of the Vegan Society UK. A vegan diet is defined as a diet that is devoid of all animal products and derivatives, as well as any ingredient and process that requires animal products or causes animal suffering.
For example, white/refined/processed sugar requires a filtering process that, in some manufacturing processes, utilises animal bone char while others use plastic or synthetic pallets. Similar, wines require a filtering process that in some wineries utilises fish swim bladders (isinglass) while others use synthetic filters.
WHY GO VEG’?
After talking to Pauline and George, it seems there are as many reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet as there are vegetables in the earth.
Obviously, culture and religion play an integral role for the majority of vegetarians in the world. Millions of vegetarians simply follow the diet of their upbringing, practising the ancient wisdom of their parents and forebears. Others are motivated mainly for reasons related to health.
“Ill health can jolt individuals into adopting a healthier diet and a vegan one devoid of saturated animal fats, as all animal products contain saturated fats,” said Pauline. “A high-fat diet can contribute to the top three health problems of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and many types of cancers.”
Another group of vegetarians is motivated by a desire to excel in sports. Apparently, many high-performance athletes are discovering that a vegan diet helps improve performance and speed up recovery.
“From the strongest man, to the fastest and oldest in their respective sports, just to name a few, many top-level athletes are practising a healthy vegan diet. Some well-known names from the last decade are Billie Jean King and Carl Lewis to more recent names, Venus Williams, Scott Jurek, Patrik Baboumian, Mac Danzig… and the list keeps growing,” said Pauline.
Of course, compassion can also be a strong driver to adopt a vegetarian diet. For animal lovers who do not wish to contribute to the suffering of animals, vegetarianism is a natural choice.
GOOD FOR PEOPLE AND PLANET
There are two main environmental reasons to move towards plant-based diets. The first is the sheer inefficiency of animal-based foods.
“We have to feed many kilograms of plant foods to animals to obtain just one kilogram of meat. It's just like human children; they do not gain one kilogram of weight for every kilogram they eat,” explained George. “The inefficiency of animal based food means that we have to cut down more trees and use more water and other inputs.”
The second argument in favour of plant-based diets is that animal-based diets contribute significantly to global warming.
“The UN report Livestock's Long Shadow estimates that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all the cars, planes and other transportation vehicles combined,” revealed George. “For example, the approximately 70 billion land animals whom we eat every year produce huge amounts of waste, which contains such powerful greenhouse gases as nitrous oxide and methane.”
A vegetarian diet cannot only save the lives of untold millions of animals, but could also help save the planet. Food for thought indeed.
A NOURISHING VEGETARIAN DIET
Many skeptics emphasise the potential shortcomings of a vegetarian diet in terms of protein intake. However, this potential pitfall is easily avoided.
“According to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a varied diet of legumes, grains, vegetables and fruits contains all of the essential amino acids we need,” said Pauline. “Many nutrition authorities, including the American Dietetic Association, believe protein needs can easily be met by consuming a variety of plant protein sources over an entire day. However, nutrients that vegetarians may need to focus on include protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12.”
As with any diet, the golden rules of variety, moderation and balance apply to a vegetarian diet. Natural and unprocessed are better than artificial and highly processed – for example, brown rice is better than white, and whole fruits are better than fruit juices. Pauline suggests that the ‘Power Plate’ concept, which is being increasingly favoured by nutrition authorities over its precursor, the ‘Food Pyramid’, is a good approach to take to a vegetarian diet.
Pauline made it simple for us. “With every meal, just divide your plate into quarters and each quarter should contain at least one food from each of the following four food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes. Nuts can be consumed, but just a sensible handful per day. If you are unable to obtain any food from any of the quarters, you can make up for it at the next meal of the following day or so.”
In short, a good vegetarian diet looks very much like any healthy diet – only without the meat, poultry and fish.
With thanks to:
Author of award-winning planting-cookbook, ‘At Home From Pot To Pot: Bringing the joy and health benefits of plants into the home’ (Marshall Cavendish Cuisine 2016), Pauline has been a volunteer officer for Vegetarian Society (Singapore) for many years. She holds a degree in Mass Communication and certifications in plant-based nutrition from eCornell and in cooking from Rouxbe cooking school.
Dr. George Jacobs
President of Vegetarian Society (Singapore)
George Jacobs has a doctorate in Educational Psychology and works in the areas of vegetarian activism, language education and student-centred learning. He serves as president of Vegetarian Society (Singapore) and as a member of the International Council of the International Vegetarian Union.