Veganism gaining ground in Singapore
Singapore — Having abstained from meat and eggs over the last eight years, engineer Varun Kumar ought to have found it easy to drop cow’s milk from his diet when he decided to turn vegan this year.
But the transition was a struggle for the 31-year-old, who used to mix ghee into his food and drink at least a glass of milk daily. Lacto-vegetarians omit meat and eggs from their diets but consume dairy products, while vegans abstain from all animal products.
For Mr Varun, whose family members are Hindus, the psychosocial barriers of omitting milk from his diet proved to be more challenging than giving up familiar foods.
“A variety of Indian dishes and desserts are prepared using ghee, butter or milk, and that meant that my family has to prepare my meals separately. They also cannot understand why I want to drop milk from my diet because cows are sacred to Hindus and cow’s milk is considered beneficial for health,” he said.
Mr Varun turned to a local support network called PlantForward by local non-profit group Animal Allies, an outreach project of the Vegetarian Society Singapore (VSS) that provides support to help people go vegan.
Since its launch in March this year, 131 people have joined the support group’s WhatsApp chat or Facebook group, where experienced vegan volunteers are on hand to provide informal support.
There, Mr Varun found the emotional support and nutrition-related information he needed to ease his transition to a vegan diet.
“Psychologically, it can be very difficult to make the switch when everyone else around you isn’t doing the same thing. But meeting like-minded people from the support group has helped me a lot,” said Mr Varun, who decided to go vegan after watching a documentary on the dairy industry.
The majority of PlantForward’s members are millennials and teens who have questions on how to eat healthily and affordably, satisfy their cravings for comfort foods and dine with meat-eating family and friends while making the transition, said Mr Michael Broadhead, volunteer coordinator at Animal Allies and executive committee member of VSS.
People who require additional support are referred to a mentorship programme by Vegan Outreach, a United States-based non-profit organisation which connects them to a volunteer vegan mentor in Singapore, he said.
“There are barriers to a vegan lifestyle in today’s culture, so we try to support people to reach their goals. When going vegan, the most challenging aspect is dealing with family and friends who are unsupportive. Globally, research has shown that having available resources and support helps people who are trying to reduce meat consumption to overcome these barriers,” said Mr Broadhead.
IS IT BETTER FOR HEALTH?
Veganism is gaining ground in Singapore. Local vegan Jaslyn Goh, founder of online vegan mart Souley Green, said the number of orders she gets per month has increased about threefold, from five to six orders per month when the online store first launched in May this year.
Mainstream restaurants and eateries including McDonald’s and the Soup Spoon have also jumped on the green bandwagon by including meatless options in their menus.
There are currently over 500 restaurants offering vegan and vegetarian dining options in Singapore, according to the HappyCow app, which lists vegan and vegetarian restaurants and health food stores around the world.
While some people give up animal products for moral or environmental reasons, many do so to adopt a healthier lifestyle, said VSS president George Jacobs.
“Slowly but surely, the myth that you need meat to be healthy and strong is disappearing. Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that there are health advantages to a plant-based diet, such as a lower risk of heart disease and cancer,” said Dr Jacobs, who switched from a vegetarian to vegan diet 10 years ago.
Ms Jaslyn Goh adopted a vegan diet initially to manage severe acne. She said a vegan diet has helped calm the painful breakouts, and she feels less lethargic now than when she was consuming meat, dairy and eggs.
According to Ms Lynette Goh, senior dietitian at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics’ Clinical Services, vegans tend to have a lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol from cutting out meat, which may lower their risk of heart disease.
A plant-based diet may also reduce cancer risk due to its higher intake of nutrient-dense foods such as fruit and vegetables, whole grains and fibre.
But whether any particular diet is healthier than another is subjective, she said.
“A vegan diet can be healthy if the person meets all nutritional requirements and follows the general guidelines of a healthy eating pattern. On the other hand, it may not be as healthy if the diet is high in saturated fat or refined sugars. Some vegans fall into the trap of loading up on unhealthy food to fill their stomachs when they don’t get adequate essential nutrients such as protein to fill them up,” said Ms Lynette Goh.
The VSS and Animal Allies advocate a “wholefood, plant-based” diet, which focuses on nutrient-dense foods and minimises highly refined and processed foods. For example, eat baked potatoes but not potato chips, said Dr Jacobs.
PROPER PLANNING IS CRUCIAL
While a vegan diet is suitable for people of all ages, including children, it has to be planned well to meet each individual’s nutritional needs, said Ms Lynette Goh. She advised seeking professional help from a dietitian before embarking on a vegan diet.
High quality plant-based protein from soy, nuts and legumes can substitute meat protein when taken in the right amounts, she said. The Health Promotion Board recommends taking two to three servings of meat or its alternatives (tofu, pulses, lentils and the like) per day.
But while plant protein can replace meat protein, it cannot truly be a substitute for all nutrients as certain nutrients like vitamin B12 and D have no plant-based equivalent.
“Pure vegans who do not include milk products and eggs are at a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies and should ensure that they find other sources of nutrients to replace those usually found in animal foods. If the diet is not carefully planned, one may miss out on some essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and calcium,” said Ms Lynette Goh.
She added that a vegan diet may not suit certain groups of people such as the underweight or malnourished, as well as those with medical conditions such as cancer or who are recovering from illness.
Diet need not be an all-or-nothing choice, if the focus is on health, said the experts.
“There is no real need to cut out all meat products from one’s diet,” said Ms Goh.
A healthier lifestyle also involves more than dietary changes, added Dr Michael Wong, director of the Health for Life clinic at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and a family physician at the hospital’s Department of Family and Community Medicine.
“People with chronic disease should also look at other aspects of their lifestyle. Lifestyle changes such as being more active and less sedentary, not smoking, not drinking excessively and watching out for one’s weight and waistline will also help to improve their health status,” said Dr Wong.