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Health and wellness

How vegan diet went from fringe to mainstream, and its advocates in Hong Kong and worldwide

More people are trying plant-based diets, whether for health or ethical reasons, concern for the planet or because the food tastes great; we talk to Hongkongers who are walking adverts for its benefits, and tap experts for the best advice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 7:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 7:41pm

When Penny Adams discovered she had stage 2 breast cancer, she switched to a vegetarian diet – but only when she ate at home. That was in 2003, about a year before the Australian teacher relocated to Hong Kong. In 2006 she became completely vegetarian – eschewing all meat, and in 2011, she switched to a vegan diet, giving up dairy products and eggs.

Today, Adams’ cancer is in remission. The 62-year-old has dropped her excess weight, suffers from fewer aches and pains than other women her age, has no problem walking long distances, and recovers quickly from exertion. She puts it down to her consumption of whole, plant-based foods.

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Over the years, Adams’ personal research into veganism has uncovered a correlation between dairy products and reproductive cancers and the inflammatory properties of meat and animal by-products. These findings, she says, convinced her that she made the right decision. “It’s wonderful to know that my dietary choices make the likelihood of a return of the cancer quite remote,” she says.

Adams, who now lives in Bali with her partner, Wayne Furlong, enjoys a healthy, whole food, plant-based diet of fruit, cereals, seeds, tofu, almond milk, leafy greens, coconut water, and soup.

Furlong, who is also Australian and who lived in Hong Kong from 2004 to 2016, feasts on porridge, muesli, rice milk, oil-free tempeh burgers, mushrooms, beans, rice, nuts, and fruit smoothies.

Since switching to a plant-based diet, the 63-year-old, who is also a teacher, has lost 13kg, resolved his high blood pressure and cholesterol issues – without medication – and rarely gets ill or feels tired.

For decades, veganism – a diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all animal-derived ingredients such as gelatin – was associated with the hippie movement. But today, this way of eating is no longer thought of that way. According to a report titled Food & Beverage Forecast, compiled by the New York-based food and restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman, plant-based foods are expected to be a top trend of 2018.

A well-designed [wholefood, plant-based] diet can help reverse many major medical problems
Charmain Tan

Strategic market research firm Euromonitor says that global sales of non-dairy milk alternatives – such as soy, rice, oat, and almond – more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to US$21 billion.

And the plant-based “meat” market is flourishing, too, with Allied Market Research forecasting that the industry will reach US$5.2 billion by 2020.

Popular vegan meat brands include the Canada-based Garden Protein’s Gardein line, which includes “meatballs”, “fish” fillets, “beef” strips, and other items made from soy, wheat and pea protein; Turtle Island Foods’ Tofurky, introduced in 1995 in the US, makes soy-based products such as deli slices and tempeh “bacon”; and the US-based Field Roast Grain Meat, which makes vegan sausages, roasts and burgers from ingredients such as vital wheat gluten, vegetables, fruit and spices.

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Vegan meat companies are also investing in making their products more meat-like, to appeal not just to vegans and vegetarians, but to carnivores, too. The revolutionary Beyond Burger, made from pea protein, beet juice and coconut oil, and available in Hong Kong, resembles real meat in that it “bleeds” like a traditional patty when cooked. It is even said to taste and smell like a grilled beefburger.

Beyond Meat, based in Los Angeles, produces the Beyond Burger, and has won over investors including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

It’s hard to tell how many vegans there are in Hong Kong, but, if the rise in the number of vegan restaurants is anything to go by, we can probably say that more of us are sampling the vegan lifestyle. According to Stevie Go, a volunteer with the Hong Kong Vegan Association, the number of all-vegan restaurants in Hong Kong rose from 11 to 21 between September 2015 and September 2016. He says that there now appear to be 28 such restaurants in the city, and that excludes temple restaurants.

Go believes the spread of information online has played a role in the growth of veganism around the world.

“Before the internet, most people had limited access to information that contradicted the messages from the meat and dairy industries, which are driven by profit,” he says. “But now, people can obtain information on their own, from sources motivated by objectives other than corporate profitability.”

Films that make the argument for veganism have also had an influence. These include Forks Over Knives (2011), which espouses the benefits of whole, plant-based foods; Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014), which looks at the effects of animal farming on the planet; What The Health (2017), which investigates the health impact of meat and dairy consumption; and the newly released Vegan 2017, produced by Plant Based News’ founder Klaus Mitchell to assess the vegan movement’s progress over the past 12 months.

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Reducing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products can help keep certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, in check, but not all vegan diets are good for you.

A vegan who subsists on nothing but crisps, soft drinks, white bread and other “junk” vegan foods, still consumes excess sugar, salt and fat, and should not expect to reap the disease-fighting and immunity-boosting benefits of whole vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and fermented foods like tempeh and sauerkraut.

To be a healthy vegan, a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet is the way to go.

According to Charmain Tan, an online dietitian at Seventeen Nutrition Consultants, a WFPB diet is centred on fresh, whole, unrefined, and minimally refined or processed plant foods. This way of eating is nutrient-dense, naturally low in fat, and high in fibre.

It’s wonderful to know that my dietary choices make the likelihood of a return of the cancer quite remote
Penny Adams

“A well-designed WFPB diet can help reverse many major medical problems,” says Tan, who lives and works between Hong Kong and the UK.

“If you have chronic kidney failure, for instance, the diet is suitable since it’s lower in protein and sodium than a non-WFPB diet and may therefore slow the progression of the disease.

“In addition, the diet is high in potassium and magnesium so it helps support healthy blood pressure. It’s also high in soluble fibre, which can lower blood cholesterol. Plus, the fibre content can help minimise hunger and cravings, thereby encouraging weight loss.”

Miles Price, a clinical nutritionist at Life Clinic in Hong Kong’s Central district, says a WFPB diet can also lower one’s risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and reduce the inflammatory load in the body, as experienced in patients with rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis, for example. As the diet is also rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, it can also help temper the immune response in the body.

Says Price: “All chronic diseases today have a common connection, and that is inflammation. Plants are one of the best ways to control and minimise the inflammatory cascade. A WFPB diet is supportive of specific organs in the body, particular the liver and colon, in its cleansing effect and its ability to optimise the organs’ function.”

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Plant-based foods should form the basis of any eating plan, but if you want to switch to a wholly WFPB diet, Price suggests buying organic produce if you can afford it; otherwise, wash all your fruit and vegetables thoroughly before consuming them, to eliminate as much pesticide residue from the skins as possible.

If you’re concerned about vitamin B12 deficiency – since this vitamin is found in animal products, but not generally present in plant foods – Tan says to buy foods that are vitamin B12-fortified. A supplement might be necessary if you do not consume enough.

If you think the WFPB is boring, think again. Peggy Chan, who founded the vegetarian restaurant-cafe Grassroots Pantry in Sheung Wan in 2012, says you can elevate any ingredient if you put some thought into its preparation.

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Chan, who is also Grassroots Pantry’s executive chef, says that the food she offers is not only creative and delicious but therapeutic. Her menu features dishes such as Yunnan hotpot, filled with seasonal wild mushrooms, Chinese greens, cabbage, and kelp and mung bean noodles; pulled jackfruit nachos made with chipotle cashew “cheese” and sprouted corn tortilla chips; and buckwheat pappardelle bolognese, which contains minced tofu.

Furlong, for one, loves this way of eating and says that he will never eat meat or animal products again after experiencing the benefits of a WFPB diet.

“The food is delicious,” he says. “It makes me feel good. I don’t ever want to go back to that sickly, overfed feeling from eating a meal heavy in animal fats.”