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According to reports, an increasing number of people have been making the transition to plant-based diets over the past few years. Perhaps it was the pandemic, or maybe it was an increased consciousness about our impact on the greater environment—either way, this mode of eating (and living) has been gaining popularity everywhere.
While there is no doubt that there are multiple health and environmental benefits of going vegan, what about potential health risks? We speak to the experts at Bupa for advice on how to maintain a wholesome diet and lifestyle while going vegan. And if you are still on the fence, read till the end for Maria’s journey to becoming a vegan in Hong Kong.
A vegan is someone who doesn’t consume any animal products—think meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey. Vegans also take precautions to stay away from animal-derived products, like gelatin (which is made from animal collagen) as well as certain food supplements.
A life away from the many delicacies Hong Kong has to offer may seem like a cruel fate, but holding these gastronomic temptations at arm’s length may do more good than harm. A vegan diet includes a lot more fruit and vegetables, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre, which are all good for your body. On top of consuming more vitamins and healthy substances, a diet low in saturated fat—usually found in meat and dairy products—can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and the wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help decrease your risk of developing diseases like bowel cancer.
If you are looking to lose weight, veganism might be the diet. By replacing red meat and dairy with fruits and vegetables, you’ll naturally consume fewer calories, so it’s optimal for people who wish to lose weight in a healthy way. Maintaining your weight at a healthy level can decrease the chances of developing diseases like diabetes and heart conditions.
Becoming a vegan is not just for your health—it can also be for the sake of the planet. As the effects of climate change are showing themselves in increasingly obvious (and catastrophic) ways, people are reassessing how they live, travel, and eat. As it eliminates all animal products, a vegan diet is beneficial for the environment, because it is a lot more sustainable to grow plants for food in comparison to raising livestock.
Committing to a plant-based diet may sound like a great habit, but there’s a lot of room for unhealthy food, too. Consider crisps, made up of potatoes, vegetable oil, and artificial flavourings, or alcohol. Both are completely vegan, but objectively bad for your health.
We’re not asking you to eliminate your cravings entirely—we understand all too well the occasional craving for a not-so-healthy snack. To maintain an optimal dietary balance, follow this Vegan Eatwell Guide so you get all the nutrients you need without animal products. Aim for five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, and balance this with other important food groups… and maybe, just maybe, you’ll have some space for a vegan snack after all.
But don’t go foraging for the nearest bag of crisps in the name of veganism just yet! Here are some of the major food groups and vitamins that you’ll need to include in your diet to maintain your health, and our suggestions for vegan substitutes.
A carefully thought-out dietary plan will be enough to maintain a good diet, but there is always a risk of nutritional deficiencies. If you are planning to pursue the vegan way of life, make sure that you are intaking the right minerals, vitamins, and food groups. Many choose to ensure this with nutritional supplements, so that is something you may consider as well.
As protein is a major food group, not only do we need a lot of it, but we also need a wide variety of different kinds of protein to get the right mix of amino acids, which helps to build and repair cells within our bodies. Our usual Hong Kong diet of dairy and meat gets the job done (and maybe even does the job too well), but for our vegan and plant-based friends, a more thorough consideration of food sources is required. But have no fear, for there are good (and delicious) sources of plant-based protein, such as:
We have all heard of omega-3 fatty acids: they are an essential part of your health, lower your risk of heart disease, and play a role in brain development and vision. We also know that the best source of omega-3 is oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, a food source that our vegan friends will not have as part of their diet. But if you don’t (or can’t) eat fish, here are some other food sources that also contain varying levels of omega-3 fatty acids:
Tip: If you’re looking to go the extra mile, there are also vegan-friendly omega-3 supplements on the market that are made from algae.
Like many other vitamins, B12 is vital for your health, and a lack of B12 in your diet can result in fatigue, anaemia, or even nerve damage. Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is most present in animal products, which our friends with vegan inclinations won’t be able to consume. But to adapt to the rising numbers of vegans, there are an increasing number of fortified food and supplements that have added vitamin B12 into their products, including:
Tip: Take care to always check the food label, because not all food products mentioned above are fortified with vitamin B12.
Good ol’ calcium—the must-have mineral for healthy bones and teeth. Consumers of milk, cheese, and other dairy foods will have no fear of calcium deficiency, but those who do not consume these products will have to be a little warier. Make sure to eat other plant-based foods rich in calcium to reach your daily required intake levels:
We’re not asking you to chomp down on a chunk of metal—iron is an crucial part of our diet, as our bodies need it to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around our bodies. Iron also supports your immune system, and plays a part in regulating your neurological functions.
Iron from meat can be easily absorbed by the body, but that cannot be said for iron from plant food sources, especially for premenopausal vegetarian and vegan women, who are more susceptible to iron deficiencies. However, you can maintain a plant-based diet and consume enough iron to maintain a healthy lifestyle. For the best of both worlds, try eating:
Tip: You can also increase your iron absorption rate by upping your intake of vitamin C, which is prevalent in citrus fruits and strawberries.
Like iron, this mineral is important for your well-being and plays a significant role in keeping your immune system strong. It also has a part in maintaining your growth and development. Akin to iron, plant-based zinc absorption happens at a slower rate than zinc from animal origins, like eggs. Someone who is going vegan should include the following in their diet:
Still not sure about whether you should transition to veganism or at least a plant-based diet? We spoke to Maria, 52, who shared her personal experiences with a vegan diet.
“I became a vegan four and a half years ago when I was moved after watching Earthlings (2005). It took around three months of abstaining from meat, and lots of books, articles, and nutrition classes, before I took the plunge to adopt a full-fledged vegan diet.
“As an office worker who spends most of my time outside of my home, I usually eat at restaurants. It was really hard in the beginning; most salads have meat in them, and even at a vegetarian restaurant, you didn’t know if a dish was also vegan. Now, I eat vegan salads when I’m out and replenish my diet with fruits and soy products at home. It’s particularly difficult to get sufficient vitamin B12 with just food, so I also take B12 supplements daily.
“I also do aerobic exercises around three to four times a week, such as long-distance running and Zumba, to improve my health. I’m thankful that more restaurants and supermarkets are providing vegan options in Hong Kong. However, veganism remains a niche lifestyle here, so vegan ingredients and products are still relatively expensive. I hope that veganism will become more mainstream, and we’ll have more affordable prices.”
Children and pregnant women need to take additional care when following a vegan diet, as their recommended dietary intake is more specialised. Please consult a dietitian, who will be able to provide guidance according to your personal circumstances.
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