Have you ever wondered what eating a plant-based diet might do for you? Have you toyed with the idea of eliminating meat, eggs, fish and dairy from your diet in order to find out?
If you’ve answered yes to either of these questions, then I invite you to come on a journey with me to find out more. You see, during lock-down I’ve been experimenting a lot with plant-based ingredients and just love what we’re eating. My diet has been primarily plant-based since November last and the changes in my body are noticeable. I have had arthritis in my knees and hands for a few years now and I’m happy to report that there has been a significant decrease in the swelling that comes with this condition. I had been a vegetarian since April and noticed very little change. The most marked change has been since I eliminated dairy. I have also lost just over five kilos and have never felt more physically strong than I do now. I know that I also have my alcohol-free life to thank for some of those changes.
The subject for this week’s blog has been inspired by the petitions I have seen on social media in the past few days calling for the closure of the wet markets in China. Understandably, people are concerned that COVID-19 originated in a wet market in Wuhan. It seems plausible that the infection was passed to humans by wild animals. Wet markets are an important source of fresh food for Chinese people and not all of them sell wild animals. While it is unacceptable to keep wild animals such as bats, rodents, reptiles, birds etc in close proximity within these markets, it is worth taking a step back for a moment to consider why there is a market for these creatures in the first place.
Eating to survive
Between 1959 and 1961, China experienced the Great Famine. Over 45 million people perished as a result of drastic changes in farming policy that were introduced by Chairman Mao. People were forbidden from owning farms and were forced into communal labour. Mao insisted on maintaining high grain export quotas despite the evidence of poor crop production in the countryside. As a result, people did what they had to in order to survive. Eating wild animals and any other protein sources they could find increased their chance to live. We would all have done the same, wouldn’t we? Sixty years on, and those wild animals are considered delicacies by the middle classes. People carry the memory of those harrowing times in their DNA and, in a way, these animals are a reminder of how far they have come since those dark days.
It makes me very uncomfortable to hear people judging the Chinese people for their practices. If we try and understand where these practices originated, perhaps we can approach this issue differently. Education is the only way to get people to change. As I said last week, we need to be the change we want to see.
Keeping disease at bay
Here’s a question for you: Are you concerned about the animals being kept in crammed conditions and murdered inhumanely? Or are you more concerned about the spread of disease that these animals might trigger?
I believe that some of our own intensive farming practices are no better. The only difference being that we use lots of antibiotics to reduce the risk of infectious diseases. The wide use of antibiotics could generate antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals which will pose a potential risk to humans. At the very least, we are being exposed to antibiotics through consumption of animal products. A growing body of scientific research shows that the antibiotics we take as medicine can affect our gut health. Studies have shown that the bacteria that live happily in our stomach and intestines are important when it comes to digesting food and processing fats. When these bacteria are disrupted by antibiotics, there is an increased risk of diseases such as obesity, juvenile diabetes, asthma and allergies. No wonder we have seen a massive rise in the sales of kombucha as more and more people realise the benefits of maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria, also known as probiotics.
And then there are the hormones that are added to animal feed to help them grow bigger quickly. I don’t know about you, but I’m not so convinced that these hormones don’t find their way into the milk that we get from those poor cows. A 2009 study found that children who consumed the most protein from animal sources entered puberty about seven months earlier than those who consumed the least. ‘It doesn’t matter so much if it’s milk, cheese, or meat—all these animal proteins have a clear impact on the human hormonal system,’ says Dr Thomas Remer, one of the authors of a research paper on Hormones in Meat and a professor at the Research Institute of Child Nutrition, in Germany.
Why go plant-based?
I keep hearing the same argument from people who are dubious about the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet. Where will I get my protein? What if I don’t get enough?
Well I’ve got news for you. According to the very well-respected doctor, Michael Greger, who has spent decades working in the area of clinical nutrition in the US, people are more likely to suffer from protein excess than protein deficiency.
But to put your mind at rest, here is a list of alternatives to animal protein. If you consider that 100 grams of chicken contains 31 grams, the plant alternatives can provide you with as much protein in addition to other important nutrients. Bear in mind, too, that the recommended daily allowance for an average adult is around 30 grams of protein.
Based on 100 grams of each of these plants, here are their approximate protein values:
- Tofu 17grs
- Lentils/Chick Peas/Beans 9grs
- Mushrooms 3grs
- Broccoli 3grs
- Cauliflower 2grs
- Sunflower seeds 21grs
- Pumpkin seeds 36grs
- Almonds 21grs
- Cashews 18grs
- Steel cut oats 16grs
Surprising isn’t it! Who knew that broccoli had protein in it? I didn’t until I started my quest for a healthier diet. And that’s just a small sample of things that I use on a regular basis to feed my family. I no longer worry whether we get enough protein or not.
In terms of calcium, we have three different types of milk on the go at any one time in our house. My husband likes soya milk, the kids like oat milk and I use almond milk which I also use for cooking. I made a divine bechamel sauce last week using almond milk that was so creamy and rich. While all these milks are fortified with calcium, I do insist that we all take a supplement of calcium which is combined with vitamin D3 to ensure good absorption. But it’s good to know that we also get calcium from nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables. Thankfully everyone loves kale in our house.
Apart from that, the only other thing we need to worry about in terms of vitamins and minerals that we might miss out on because of not eating animal products, is vitamin B12. We all take a supplement every few days to ensure optimum levels. I use nutritional yeast in cooking too as it adds great flavour in addition to providing us with important trace elements along with B vitamins.
Recipe for a good day
Here is a recipe for a delicious breakfast that will provide you with at least 50% of your daily protein requirements and loads of energy for the day ahead. I make up a batch of this on a Monday, keep it in an airtight container in the fridge and we have it for breakfast for a few days.
- 5 cups of steel cut oats
- 2 cups of rolled oats
- I grated apple
- Half cup of slivered almonds
- Half cup of sunflower seeds
- Half cup of pumpkin seeds
- Half cup of dried fruit such as apricots or cranberries
- Half cup of dried shaved coconut
- 200 ml of coconut water
Grate the apple into the container. Add all ingredients including coconut water and mix together. Refrigerate until use.
Serve with a good dollop of coconut yoghurt and fresh fruit of your choice. I personally love raspberries and blueberries if they’re in season.
If they don’t sell coconut yoghurt where you live, then fret not because you can make your own. Using two cans of premium coconut milk, warm the milk in a pot. Add a teaspoon of agar agar (vegan alternative to gelatine) and whisk. When it’s hot and all mixed, let it cool down to warm. Then empty the contents of two probiotics capsules into the mix and whisk it. Place the mixture in a glass container that can be sealed and leave in a warm place for 18 -24 hours without disturbing it. Transfer to fridge and use when cold.
Can I convince you?
I strongly recommend visiting Dr Greger’s website, nutritionfacts.org, to read more about the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. If he won’t convince you, then nobody will. Personally, my reasons for moving to a plant-based diet were three-fold:
1. Health – the benefits are backed by scientific research. A vegetarian diet can significantly protect us from heart disease and can reduce the risk of cancer by 8%. A vegan diet was found to reduce the risk of cancer by 15%.
2. Ethical – it is morally wrong to allow animals to suffer for our benefit when it is not necessary for our survival. I do not distinguish between my pet dog and a pig stuck in a factory, that never sees the light of day, forced to have babies in unnatural time-frames that are taken off them prematurely. They are crammed into trucks for transportation and according to Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ‘packed in so tight, their guts actually pop out their butts – a little softball of guts actually comes out.’ I have cut and pasted this description of what happens at the slaughterhouse directly from Peta’s website:
The sheer number of animals killed makes it impossible for them to be given humane, painless deaths. Because of improper stunning, many pigs are alive when they reach the scalding tank, which is intended to soften their skin and remove their hair. According to one slaughterhouse worker, “There’s no way these animals can bleed out in the few minutes it takes to get up the ramp. By the time they hit the scalding tank, they’re still fully conscious and squealing. Happens all the time.
3. Environment – the impact of animal rearing to our environment is significant and something that needs to be talked about. It is a fact that we could feed the entire world if we used our environment more wisely and planted crops instead. Meat production requires a much higher amount of water than vegetables. According to a report I read in the Guardian newspaper, the production of 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water whereas between 500 and 4,000 litres is required to produce 1kg of wheat.
I realise that there are many livelihoods that depend on farming animals, killing them and processing them but this does not make it right. The more people that shift to plant-based eating, the more opportunity there will be for farmers to diversify. It’s interesting how COVID-19 has galvanised people to eat healthier as is evident from the huge increase in demand for broccoli, cauliflower and kale in recent days. I paid $7 for a cauliflower today! But I didn’t mind really as I know that it was better than spending $40 per kilo for a piece of an animal that never got to experience the joy of being what it was meant to be… a wild animal.
I hope you are staying healthy and will be inspired to eat more of the things that are good for you. Thanks for taking the time to read this far.