WKND Conversations: Why this heart surgeon became a vegan ambassador
Today, as a wellness crusader, Dr Bassem seeks to change dietary habits in the Arab world.
Dr Bassem Youssef, 46, had experienced a life-altering incident on September 15, 2013. The Egyptian surgeon-turned-political satirist-turned wellness crusader learnt about how one of his closest friends had recovered from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nervous disorder, after shifting to plant-based food. “I was sold out on the idea, and I changed my eating habits overnight on September 15, 2013,” says Dr Bassem during his recent trip to Dubai to promote his new Arabic show Isa’al Bassem (Ask Bassem) on Asharq News, a pan-Arab 24x7 television network and digital platform. “The paradigm shift made an immediate difference to my wellness quotient.”
The ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’, who was inspired by eponymous American political commentator and TV host’s The Daily Show, has been living in Los Angeles, where his comedy career has got a rousing second act among the vibrant Arabic-speaking diaspora. Also, his Plant B movement, a unique wellness initiative, is gaining enormous global traction. Dubai, which celebrates multi-culturism, he cites, could emerge as the centre of gravity for his new show that seeks to create public awareness about the importance of healthy living by tackling diverse wellness-focused issues. The timing of the event couldn’t have been more opportune, as January is being celebrated as Veganuary.
Known for his quick wit, Dr Bassem has evolved from a well-meaning surgeon to a vegan ambassador. His rise has been organic and meteoric, including finding a pride of place on Time magazine’s coveted list of the 100 most influential people in the world. An alumnus of Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine, he majored in cardiothoracic surgery in 1998. He went on to become a heart surgeon, but ultimately found his new calling when he began recording short YouTube videos that featured his satirical takes on society and politics.
Today, as a wellness crusader, he seeks to change dietary habits in the Arab world. “Over the last 30 years our diets have changed. Drastically. They’ve moved away from the incredible, nutritious foods that our surroundings provided us with and have been Americanised: highly processed, genetically modified and full of sugar, fat and salt,” he says.
The side-effects are alarming and he shares data to bolster his argument. “It’s estimated that 75 per cent of the Middle East’s population is overweight, 9 per cent suffer from diabetes and 50 per cent of all deaths are due to a heart condition,” he cites.
Fortunately, help is at hand, as he readily offers a course correction.
Dr Bassem, who became an American citizen in 2019 and is also trying his hand at stand-up comedy in his adopted homeland, has launched the Plant B 21-day challenge that encourages eating whole, plant-based food and see how you can lose weight, improve your wellness quotient and feel more energetic than ever. There are examples galore of personalities who have benefitted from going vegan.
Mohamed Hindawy, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) practitioner and owner of Mr Vegan, which promotes vegan sports supplements, is a classic case in point. “As a vegan for the last seven years, I’ve often been asked how difficult it is to practise sports that are very physically demanding, such as boxing and BJJ, while only consuming plant-based foods. I’ve experienced a perceptible positive impact on my energy levels, general health, the speed of recovery from injuries, and disease prevention.” Ali Majed Al Jallaf, an Emirati police officer, has an inspiring tale to share about how he survived cancer after switching to a vegan diet. Similarly, Saskia Van Gelder, 65, a master figure bodybuilder, has also managed to overcome challenging health issues such as diabetes and cancer by taking to veganism.
Catch Isa’al Bassem on Asharq News every Thursday at 5:30pm, Saudi time