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Is Going Meatless Good for Your Health?

Gigi Choy wrote . . . . . . . . .

Anil Battinapati, 35, has been Hindu vegetarian for 32 years. The Hyderabad, India, resident might eat dosas with palli chutney for breakfast and rice with vegetable curry for lunch, and does so both because of his religion and because it is healthy. Since Battinapati does not eat meat, the R&D engineer said he ate dishes with many alternative sources of protein such as beans, nuts and eggs to ensure he had the right mix of nutrients.

In Malaysia, Eileen Lew is Buddhist and has tried to avoid eating meat since she was seven years old. She followed in the footsteps of her parents and became vegetarian not just for religious but also ethical and environmental reasons.

“I had been sent to a school which only provided vegetarian meals, so this is where I formed the habit. Our teacher educated us on the ways vegetarianism can help save the earth and also taught us the heart of compassion,” she said.

Lew, 20, who studies mass communication at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, occasionally eats meat when she dines out with friends because not all restaurants in Malaysia have vegetarian options.

“If I have a choice, I will eat vegetarian,” she said.

Hinduism and Buddhism have influenced vegetarianism in Asia for many years, and that influence has spread – there are now 1.1 billion Hindus and nearly 500 million Buddhists globally. More than 90 per cent of Hindus live in India, and half of the world’s Buddhist population lives in China, according to the Pew Research Centre.

While eating plant-based foods used to be a subculture in the rest of the world, it has now become more mainstream. Famous personalities have extolled the virtues of eating only plants, fueling a collective of social media photos and posts on how to be vegan, easy vegan recipes to cook and best vegan places to eat.

This means there is big hope for plant-based food as a new industry, but not all scientists and health specialists are inclined to support this trend.

“No meat in our diets? Impossible,” said Wong Ching, a registered Chinese medicine practitioner in Hong Kong. “Plant-based meat substitutes cannot replace real meat.”

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on balance, the idea of yin and yang.

Foods are classified with different energies – cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot – and can cause the body to either grow stronger or weaker, depending on whether balance and harmony are affected.

Wong said the body relied on the piwei – the spleen and stomach – to deliver nutrients to other organs, and likened a healthy piwei to a pot of boiling water.

In this analogy, the water represents yin energy while the fire is yang energy. The steam rising from the boiling water can be seen as the nutrients being delivered to other organs so they can function properly.

“If you eat too much food with cold or cooling yin energy, such as seafood and vegetables, your piwei will become too cold and won’t function normally. In other words, the fire heating your pot of water is too small,” Wong said.

Physical and psychological balance is also at the core of Ayurveda, a holistic system of traditional Indian medicine that dates back more than 5,000 years.

Ayurveda postulates that all matter, living and non-living, is composed of five elements. These elements are grouped together and represented in the form of three doshas, or biological energies – vata (ether and air), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (water and earth).

The doshas are further characterised by 10 pairs of opposite qualities, which Ayurvedic practitioners use to prescribe dietary regimens, lifestyle activities and therapeutic procedures that help restore imbalances.

“Every individual has a digestive fire called agni that needs to be strong and healthy to fully utilise the food one eats for growth, health and immunity along with regular and efficient elimination of wastes,” said Dr Sudha Raj of Syracuse University.

“A weak agni can result in toxic accumulation of ama, or wastes believed to be the primary cause of disease.”

Ancient Ayurvedic texts refer to the utility of animal products in helping to restore the body to a natural state of equilibrium, and treat diseases. However, eating too much meat can disturb the body’s balance and cause illness. Heavier foods, such as meat and eggs, can also impact mental alertness.

In contrast, Dr Leong Lai Peng of National University of Singapore said: “There is no evidence that a vegetarian or vegan would get sick more easily as long as he or she consumes a balanced and adequate diet.”

Dietitians and nutritionists stress the importance of maintaining a healthy, balanced diet by consuming a wide variety of foods in the right proportions.

She recommends vegetarians and vegans consume a variety of different sources of plant protein and suggests those who plan on adopting a plant-based diet adjust gradually.

“Meat is dense and it is easy to consume too much but in the case of vegetables, it is more difficult to eat too much because you will feel satiated before you had too much. Eating plant-based protein can help moderate the consumption of meat protein,” Leong said.

For those who cannot decide, one easy way out has been to be flexitarian.

Joyce C, 23, cut out red meat from her diet because of ethical, health and environmental reasons but said it was a struggle to become a full-time vegetarian in Hong Kong.

“Challenges include affordability and adhering to social circumstances. Most cultural foods are animal protein-based. A lot of my friends feel obliged to eat the food provided on the table, otherwise they may be deemed rude or ungrateful,” the law student said.

She said the label “vegetarian” placed unnecessary stress on those who felt they were breaking the rules when they ate vegetable dishes that included meat products, such as Sichuan dry fried string beans with pork. “We should all just do our best to eat a balanced diet and limit meat-eating.”

Source: SCMP


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