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Singaporean bodybuilder ditched whey protein for plant-based substitutes, feels fitter

HONG KONG — Singaporean Luke Tan used to take whey protein, derived from cow's milk, for muscle growth. As a bodybuilder, he relied on this dairy supplement to deliver quick results.

Singaporean bodybuilder ditched whey protein for plant-based substitutes, feels fitter

Mr Luke Tan relies on plant-derived calcium, a whole food vegan diet and a varied exercise routine to keep his bones and muscles strong.

HONG KONG — Singaporean Luke Tan used to take whey protein, derived from cow's milk, for muscle growth. As a bodybuilder, he relied on this dairy supplement to deliver quick results.

Then, in 2012, he watched a documentary on animal cruelty. It affected him so much that he switched to a plant-based diet overnight. Since becoming a whole food plant-based (WFPB) vegan, he says he's the fittest and healthiest he's ever been.

"Before going vegan, I was supplementing with whey protein to help recover and build muscle. I was also eating up to 1kg of meat and seafood a day to fuel lean muscle growth," says the father of two.

"I was certainly big, muscular and strong — but I was far from healthy. I had high cholesterol and joint issues. After adopting a WFPB lifestyle, my body composition changed, I lost excess fat and my joint and digestive problems cleared up."

Mr Tan also discovered a plethora of plant-based dairy substitutes such as soy and oat milks, which he uses to flavour his coffee, and vegan cheese, which he eats occasionally when he makes pizza for his family.

"I realised that meat and seafood weren't essential to building lean muscle and that I didn't need dairy products for muscle and bone strength. Besides, cow's milk is not for us; it's for baby cows," he says. "It contains natural and synthetic hormones as well as antibiotics."

A personal development coach, Mr Tan has a certificate in plant-based nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Centre for Nutritional Studies in partnership with New York-based Cornell University's online learning platform.

Many of us were raised to believe that we had to have two or three servings of dairy products a day to get adequate calcium. But as more people like Mr Tan choose a vegan lifestyle, it is becoming clear that all the calcium we need is available in many of the foods we eat — including plants.

Ms Amanda Benham, a plant-based dietitian and the founder of PB Nutrition in Australia, says dairy products may increase our risk of developing cardiovascular diseases due to their high cholesterol and saturated fat content. Cow's milk also contains lactose, a type of sugar which can cause gas, bloating and diarrhoea in people who have trouble digesting it.

"While it's quite well established that adequate calcium intake is associated with better bone health and lower fracture risk, there are other sources of calcium besides dairy products," she adds. "Calcium is an element that ultimately comes from the ground, and cows and other herbivorous animals obtain their calcium from plants."

How much calcium do we need each day? According to the US National Institutes of Health, from the age of four onwards, we need about 1,000mg a day, and up to 1,300mg depending on age and gender.

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard and mustard greens, kale, and other greens are loaded with highly absorbable calcium and a host of other healthy nutrients. The same can be said for nuts and seeds such as almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame, chia and flax seeds, dried peas and beans, and fruits such as figs, oranges and papayas.

The best plant sources of calcium include Asian greens such as bok choy (one cup of cooked bok choy contains 160mg), kale, arugula (also called rocket), calcium-set tofu, almonds and tahini (a paste made of ground sesame seeds). A handful of almonds, about 100g, contains about 264mg of calcium.

Most plant milks, including almond milk, naturally contain some calcium, but many have added calcium, making them an easy way to get the mineral after giving up dairy products.

Of the plant milks, Ms Benham says that soy is the most nutritious, as it also contains important nutrients such as protein and iron. Fortified soy milk with added calcium and other nutrients is the most nutritious.

"Plant milks made from nuts, grains or seeds can also be quite healthy," she continues. "Flaxseed milk is a good source of omega-3 fats, which can be beneficial for heart, eye and brain health. It's also rich in lignans, which can reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancers. A mixture of soy milk and flaxseed milk would be a healthy combination."

Ms Benham does not recommend rice milk because it's low in protein, or coconut milk because it's high in saturated fat.

When buying plant milk avoid the flavoured varieties, which usually contain a lot of sugar. You may notice added oil and sugar in some unflavoured varieties, but as these are in very small amounts, they're not a big concern. Look for plant milks with at least 120mg of calcium per 100ml or 300mg per cup.

If you avoid soy milk made from soy isolates, Ms Benham says you may want to rethink your decision, since such products may be easier to digest than milk made from whole soybeans.

As well as getting enough calcium, it's important to consume adequate vitamin D and to do weight-bearing exercise regularly to maintain bone health.

Mr Tan gets all the calcium, protein and vitamins he needs from his nutrient-dense WFPB diet, which includes plenty of leafy greens, legumes and tofu. A varied exercise routine keeps his bones and muscles healthy and strong.

"My daily training comprises a range of activities, from CrossFit and rowing to running, swimming and functional-based movements. Besides diet and exercise, though, it's crucial to make time for physical recovery to keep your body in tip-top shape." SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

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