Being Vegan: Veganism takes food world by storm

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Being Vegan: Veganism takes food world by storm

Vegan-ism is taking the food world by storm. Celebrities are endorsing it - but critics claim it's not a tenable option. Is that really the case? We find out how you can make being vegan work as a life choice, report on its pitfalls, its health benefits and its aim to champion the cause of reducing carbon footprints

By Mary Paulose

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Published: Fri 31 Jan 2014, 4:40 PM

Last updated: Tue 19 Jul 2016, 8:10 PM

Among the popular lifestyle keywords doing the rounds in the last couple of decades has been "vegan". Increasingly garnering a celebrity following and feted as the healthiest dietary habit to adopt - yes, vegan is apparently better than vegetarianism - it has been around for a while. Yet, the association with the term remains surprisingly contemporary. "Vegan" always sounds like the latest fad - but it's been a way of life for centuries in the east, especially the subcontinent, and grown popular in the Western public imagination in the last few decades.
Still, misconceptions about veganism abound. For one, most people can't distinguish between the former and vegetarianism. Veganism is a refined form of vegetarianism that excludes meat, eggs, milk and all dairy products and even cooked or processed foods that contain any animal-derived ingredients or dairy products. True vegans also abhor animal-derived non-food products, like leather or fur items.
To get a bite of the vegan trend, we queried some of the local vegans and experts around in the UAE. For many of them, adopting veganism has been a fairly recent development, fuelled ?by a quest for healthy habits and a cleaner lifestyle. And we came away with a surprising find: veganism is not just about the health benefits and how good they feel on consistently eating vegan. They also realised how easy it is to be vegan.
Dubai-based South African Alison Andrews runs an impressive website - - and is also one of the group organisers of the group (with 607 members) 'Raw Vegan' in Dubai. Her interactive site is filled with information ?on how you can kickstart your vegan journey, vegan and raw food recipes, kitchen essentials, supplements, managing weight loss and even a free ?e-book on how to go raw vegan. She became a vegetarian in 1999, 15 years ago, and started transitioning towards vegan in 2005. "It was more of a gradual slide into veganism, starting in the later part of 2005," Alison says.
Alison Andrews What Alison does - as a vegan practitioner and lifestyle instructor - is guide others into making the transition to veganism. "I started Loving it Raw in 2009; the free info on the site reaches people all over the world and helps break down the barrier between feeling overwhelmed and realising: hey, I can do this! Anyone can drink a smoothie or fresh juice or make a salad, but sometimes when you hear about a vegan and 'raw food diet', you feel very daunted and think it is this scary 'out there' thing. In fact, it is very easy and accessible for everyone to move towards plant-based living," she says.
The team behind another popular local site - - prefer to remain anonymous, and their goal too, is to make life easier for vegans in Dubai by giving tips and helpful information. "Actually, we were omnivores all of our lives. Vegetarianism was a foreign/unusual concept for us, let alone veganism! The change happened when we decided to become vegetarians for ethical reasons, around three years ago. At the time, we didn't even know what vegan meant. A year later, we decided to become vegan," the Dubai Vegan Guide spokesperson says, over email.
"Veganism reinforced the 'you can do it' attitude in us. When people first think of becoming vegan (or even vegetarian), the first thing they think of is 'I can't give up meat, dairy and eggs'. That's exactly what we thought at first. Now, looking back, we wish we knew how easy it is. The fear of not being able to consume meat, dairy, and eggs, was blown way out of proportion."
UAE-based Kirsty, who runs the House of Vegan blog, says she turned from vegetarian to vegan in 2011. "I came across a video on the internet called MeatVideo, which revealed the horrors of the dairy industry. I knew I could not consume dairy or eggs again; I had no idea that is what happened. I just always wish I'd been born with this knowledge, this lifestyle, this education that I have now," says Kirsty. "Many just do not realise the kind of factory farming that goes on in the dairy industry."
Leena Al Abbas, practising vegan, founder of the 'Vegans in Dubai' group and founder-CEO of the Organic Glow Beauty Lounge, the UAE's first eco-friendly and organic salon, says the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle are plenty, and clinically proven. "However, in addition to the health benefits, veganism teaches a person how to be more ethical and kind to animals. One becomes a more conscious consumer as you will be aware of what you are consuming," Leena says.
"I have a lot more energy and ability to focus now," points out Alison. "Niggling health complaints like constipation and allergies are long gone. My ageing process slowed down a lot. I'm 37 now but people rarely think I'm older than my mid-twenties. With reg-ards to my outlook and attitude, I am much more compassionate and empathetic, and much happier. I was always an optimist, but now my state of mind is almost over-the-top positive."
"It brings me so much peace and contentment inside and out. As soon as I became vegan, I felt a greater connection with the world, to others, to myself," said Kirsty.
Members of the Dubai Vegan Team say that when they first moved to Dubai, they were frustrated by the lack of a comprehensive resource for vegans here. They had to spend hours online trying to find bits and pieces of info on vegan-friendly restaurants, vegan grocery stuff, beauty products etc. So, they decided to do something about it.
Around five months ago, they launched their website and created a ?Facebook page, aggregating all the Dubai vegan-related info they could find. For example, you'll find a list ?of vegan-friendly restaurants categorised by cuisine. A section is also dedicated to tips while dining out. On ?the Facebook page, albums are categorised by supermarkets and their vegan offerings.
The others have a different take, however. "It is easy being vegan anywhere you are," claims Leena. "The UAE is not any different, on the contrary, we are blessed to live in a country which has a lot of diversity, including a huge choice of cuisines from different countries and cultures to choose from: Indian, Lebanese, Thai, Japanese, etc. I never have any problems eating out, as there are always vegan items on the menu. Being vegan for six years has taught me which foods I can have on the menu and, if in doubt about a dish or ingredient, just ask!"
Alison says that she is aware that for someone who hasn't cemented it in their minds, it might seem much more difficult. She finds great vegan options at almost all restaurants, but it often does involve a bit of juggling of the menu ("Can I have this without butter? Or that without cheese?"). Most ?places are very accommodating, and at restaurants serving Thai or Japanese or Lebanese cuisine, there are generally lots of options that are already vegan and don't even require any change-ups.
Dubai Vegan Guide concurs that in terms of the number of dishes to choose from, Indian and Arabic cuisines are very vegan-friendly. "As a vegan, you can have a feast in Indian and Arabic restaurants, with so many vegan options to choose from. Japanese and Chinese cuisines also have a decent number of vegan items. You can substitute tofu for meat in most dishes. Also, surprisingly, vegan sushi actually tastes good, because Nori gives it the fish flavour," says the team.
Another thing that makes it easy to be vegan in Dubai is the high number of vegan products available in supermarkets, such as tofu, a variety of non-dairy milk (such as soy milk, almond milk, quinoa milk), vegan burger patties etc.
"The attitude towards vegans varies a lot. In many restaurants, most waiters don't know what the term means. That's why it needs to be stressed that 'we're vegetarians plus we don't cons-ume dairy and eggs'. In terms of social circles and people you meet, some are curious and want to know more. Others are rude and try to convince you that what you're doing is ridiculous," says Dubai Vegan Guide.
Other misconceptions vegans face are - "you can't skip meat and still be healthy", "you can eat fish, right?", "you can't get enough protein" or "vegans only eat salads".
"A lot of people think that vegan food is super light and healthy. But you can also prepare it in a very unhealthy way. For instance, you can have a baked potato or french fries - both are vegan," adds the Dubai Vegan Guide team.
"Veganism is a lifestyle change that shouldn't be seen as 'giving up' foods," says Leena. "The key point is to experi-ment with various foods, ingredients, herbs and spices to create various nut-ritious vegan dishes. When I became vegan, I became more aware of foods I never knew about and enjoyed eating more varied foods."
"In our opinion, the number one advice is to take it one step at a time," say the Dubai Vegan Guide team. "Don't overwhelm yourself. We can't overemphasise this enough. One thing they can do, is try one vegan meal - a lot of people haven't even experienced a vegan meal (most meals have meat or are vegetarian) - and build on that... Maybe later you can do two vegan meals a week, and gradually take it from there. The cool thing is that almost any dish can be veganised starting from burgers and ribs, and ending with a carrot cake."
Many people don't know this, but any dessert can be made vegan without you even noticing the difference in taste. Vegan butter, soy milk, and flax seed gel can be used in place of butter, milk and eggs. If you enjoy the meaty texture and the umami flavour, they recommend having tofu, seitan, and temphe. When prepared properly, they have a meaty texture and they absorb the flavour of the other ingredients and spices used.
"When you become vegan, your taste buds also change, so you may not crave familiar tastes anymore and new tastes will be generated from different ingredients, such as tofu, pulses, nuts, greens, etc," confirms Leena.
Protein deficiency is an argument often used against veganism, but there are many vegan food items that are high in protein, such as legumes (lentils, beans), nuts (walnuts, almonds), seeds (pumpkin seeds), grains (quinoa) and meat alternatives (tofu, temphe, seitan). A well-balanced vegan diet gives the body more than enough protein.
"Plant-based protein sources have healthy fibre and complex carbs. Animal products are usually high in cholesterol and fat. Eating too much animal protein has been linked to the development of endometrial, pancreatic, and prostate cancers; by replacing animal protein with plant protein, you can improve your health while enjoying a wide variety of delicious foods," informs Kirsty.
"It is a head and heart decision to turn vegan," says Alison. "If you want to be vegan purely for your health, that's great, but then there would always be temptations to 'cheat'. But this would still be a lot better for your health and the planet than no change at all. Watch some amazing documentaries like Earthlings and Vegucated. If you're iffy on the health side, then watch documentaries like Forks Over Knives, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and Eating." -

Sensiti-sing diet
Some people think that vegans care about animals more than they care about humans. But according to Dubai Vegan Guide, in their experience, and that of vegans they know, it's quite the opposite. It's made them much more sensitive to humans' pain and suffering
By the word
The term 'vegan' was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson when he co-founded the British Vegan Society, at first to mean "non-dairy vegetarian" and later to refer to "the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals"

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