How to Be a Herbivore in Singapore Part 2 – nutrition

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Previous: 01 why vegan . Next: 03 cooking . 04 groceries . 05 social eating . 06 eating at hawker centres . 07 challenges and support .

I wrote this from my own experience and research as a long-time veg*n (vegetarian then vegan) living in Singapore. I’m not a health professional so this is not medical advice. Do your research and make your own conclusions, if I made any factual mistakes please let me know 🙂 If you’d like professional advice, contact my friend Sangmithra who is an accredited nutritionist and dietitian.

Note: This article contains reward links to products from iherb.com. I’ve tried these products and genuinely like them, hence I can recommend. If you purchase from my links you will get 5% off the next order and I will get 5% rewards credit, thanks in advance if you do! 🙂

“But iron, protein and calcium come only from meat!” Well..not true! Every single plant is highly nutritious in its unprocessed form. Take the humble spinach for example, it has at least 33 health benefits – including iron, protein and calcium.

Protein

More protein doesn’t always mean good. A rough guide from the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) is minimally 0.8g per kg of bodyweight for the average adult, depending on your activity levels. Anything more over a long period of time can be harmful. Published health studies like Proteinaholic and The China Study linked excess animal protein to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity as well as disordered kidney function, bone and calcium imbalance. With a modern lifestyle, it’s easy to overshoot the healthy amount, hence the prevalence of first-world diseases.

Plant protein is much more than soy. Almost every plant food has protein, just less or more. Here’s a non-exhaustive list (because listing everyone will be too long) of them that are mostly easy to find and affordable in Singapore. (If you aren’t sure where to buy them, comment or email me):

High-protein:

  • Soy-based – Tofu, tempeh, textured soy protein (TVP/TSP), edamame,
    beancurd pudding (a.k.a. tau hua), beancurd skin (tau kee), soymilk.
  • Gluten-based – Seitan (a.k.a vital wheat gluten or 面筋), wholewheat breads/pasta/noodles.
  • Grains – Millet, barley, oats, all wholegrain rice (brown, red, black rice), etc.
  • Non-soy legumes – all legumes (petai, red & green beans, green peas, chickpeas, black eyed peas, kidney beans, dhals and lentils, , peanuts – they are not nuts, etc).
  • Nuts – Cashews, almonds, walnuts, peanuts (all nuts are rather high in protein, listed here are the cheaper ones).
  • Seeds – Quinoa, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, lotus seeds, tahini, boiled jackfruit seeds (try it it’s yum!), etc.
  • Others – Spirulina 

Contains less protein but don’t skip them! (you’ll see why soon):

  • Veggies – Sprouts (soy/green bean sprouts), starches (pumpkin, sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, yam), broccoli, corn, spinach, string beans, french beans, sweet peas,
    holland peas etc.
  • Fungi & algae – All mushrooms (oyster, enoki, woods ear etc) and seaweeds (wakame, kelp etc) have various amounts of protein.
  • Fruits – Coconut meat, guava, dates, avocados, durian, jackfruit, banana, prunes, etc.

Unsure of amounts? Google “(food name) protein” for USDA’s estimates or use a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal. What all these sources do not have is cholesterol!

About protein combining

Protein is made of 9 amino acids. Most plant proteins are known as incomplete proteins, as most plants do not contain all 9. It has been an old myth from 1971 that vegetarians and vegans must combine protein sources but newer studies shown that it isn’t necessary. A healthy body knows how to store and balance the amino acids from plants with any amount of protein. There’s no need to eat all 9 aminos within every bite. In fact there are good sources of complete proteins – hemp, chia, spirulina, soybeans, quinoa, buckwheat etc. Thus, getting enough calories from varied and minimally processed foods is important!

If you’re an athlete, vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke has an excellent introduction to plant-based fitness. Singapore-based athletes Luke and Emilie Tan spoke about how going plant-based was the main factor for increased performance. Personally I know many Singaporean vegan runners and they consume large amounts of fruits and veggies! If you want a more comprehensive analysis with references, check out this protein report written by my friend Victor who is also a personal trainer.

Luke

(Local bodybuilder Luke Tan won 1st overall for Spartan Race 2016 opens.)

Iron

Dried beans and dark green leafy veggies taken with Vitamin C are the best iron sources – even higher per calorie than animal sources. It’s true that our body absorbs plant-based iron less efficiently – but no worries, there’s an easy hack. Simply eat iron-rich plants with a good source of Vitamin C in a meal to ensure max absorption.

Avoid:

  1. Taking tea, coffee and calcium-rich foods at the same time as an iron source they inhibit iron absorption.
  2. Heating the source as heat destroys most of the vitamin C.

Some iron-rich food combinations:

  • Rice and beans stew topped with tomato sauce, chopped raw chilli and coriander.
  • Steamed or blanched dark greens with lemon, lime or orange juice dressing.
  • Tofu (it’s made from a bean!) and broccoli stir fry drizzled with lime juice or garnished with raw chilli, coriander or parsley.
  • Edamame with lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce dip.
  • Red dates and longan tea slightly sweetened with black sugar is a traditional Chinese way to increase blood and energy especially in menstruating and pregnant women. DIY for the most nutrition and taste!
  • Or eat any iron source with a fruit or juice (made from real fruit).

Eating foods cooked in iron cookware can add a small boost but don’t depend only on that.

Calcium

Surprise: Calcium is literally everywhere.

Studies have also shown that:

  1. Cow’s milk likely leech calcium from our bones. Because of the acidic animal protein, our own bone calcium is used to neutralize it.
  2. Though some vegans may have less calcium and protein intake due to lifestyle factors, their bone density is fine.

Many grains, legumes, leafy greens, fruits, nuts and other veggies plus fortified vegan foods (non-dairy milks, cereals, granola) have plentiful calcium. It’s equally important to get enough exercise and sunlight plus reduce salt and caffeine so your body can utilize the calcium efficiently.

Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids

There are 3 types of omega-3:

  • ALA – found in many plant foods.
  • EPA – found in fish, easily converted from ALA.
  • DHA – mostly found in fish and certain seaweeds, less easily converted from ALA.

Omega-6 is plenty in a plant-based diet and it inhibits omega 3 absorption to some degree.
Omega-3 is still being studied. To be on the safe side, researchers advice vegans to:

  1. Take less omega-6 (Eat less high omega 6 oils like corn, soy, grapeseed, sunflower. Use olive, peanut, canola instead.)
  2. Take more high omega-3 foods (Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts)
  3. Consider an algae-derived DHA supplement when needed, like if one is allergic to high omega-3 foods or during old age, pregnancy or breastfeeding. (Where do you think fish get their omega fatty acids? From algae!)

A study found that in populations which had a history of plant-based diets, some people have a “vegetarian gene” that evolved to help the body utilize omega-3 and 6 more efficiently. 70% of South Asians, 53% in Africans, 29% East Asians and 17% Europeans have it. Since we can’t be certain if we have it or not, I think it’s still safest to get a good amount through food.

 

Vitamin B12

This is the ONLY nutrient that has no concrete proof of any plant-based sources yet.

B12 is naturally made by bacteria in water and soil. In modern times our plant foods are scrubbed clean of earth. Unless you eat organic unwashed veggies, which I don’t recommend due to chances of contamination from other bacteria. So take a supplement regularly. Your local pharmacy surely has it affordably or you can get fancier ones (flavoured lozenges, liquid drops etc) from iHerb. I take a lozenge every week and my B12 levels have been tested to be good.

 

Vitamin D

There are 2 types of vitamin D – D2 and D3. Because both are rare in natural foods and modern people are often indoors, it can be an issue for everyone, vegan or not.

D2:

  1. Sun exposed mushrooms. Place any mushrooms under sunlight (like on open window sill) for 30 to 60 minutes.
  2. Fortified vegan drinks and cereals. Common brands sold here (Natura, Rice Dream, Silk, Pacific, Almond Breeze) often has added D2 (plus other nutrients). Food sources of D3 are from sheep’s wool so look out for that in ingredients lists.
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(fortified non-dairy milk found at NTUC finest)

D3 :

  1. Direct sun exposure – According to the Singapore Health Promotion Board, let sun shine onto
    uncovered arms and legs for 5-30mins (darker your skin is, the longer you need to be exposed) twice a week is enough. D3 is found to be the better vitamin D. So go out and take walks more if you can.
  2. Vegan supplements – if you can’t get either from sun (like during winter) or foods, consider taking one. Do not overdose as too much is toxic, seek advice from a professional if unsure.

 

 

Iodine & Selenium

These 2 minerals are slightly trickier. Both too little and too much of can cause serious health issues. Amounts in produce highly depend on how much iodine and selenium the soil had, thus it can be an issue for everyone too.

Iodine – Many countries add iodine to table salt to prevent deficiency but in Singapore that isn’t
compulsory. Best sources are sea algae, also known as seaweeds. Since ancient times, kelp, kombu, wakame, hijiki and nori have been a staple in most Asian cuisines. They are also rich in fiber, proteins, iron and vitamins.

Selenium – The richest plant source is brazil nuts, just 2 nuts is enough for an average adult’s daily needs. If you can’t confirm whether your food is grown in selenium rich soil, snack on some brazil nuts now and then but think twice about taking a supplement unless on doctor’s advice. I get my brazil nuts from here.

 

Zinc

Legumes, nuts, seeds and grains have zinc, yet they also have phytates which reduces zinc absorption. Not to worry as there are many food combinations and preparation techniques to solve that! Vegans are generally not found to be deficient in zinc.

  1. Soaking, then sprouting or cooking legumes, nuts, seeds, grains greatly reduce phytates and will unlock a multitude of other nutrients. Many cultures have been doing – bean sprouts are staple in East Asia and Indians soak legumes before cooking. Here’s more on the detailed methods of preparing them for max nutrition.
  2. Fermenting increases zinc absorption. Examples are breads made with yeast and fermented soy (tempeh, miso, fermented beancurd).
  3. Protein and vitamin C (citric acid) help increase absorption too. Thus legumes are a great choice as they are rich in protein and zinc.

Collagen

Collagen has become something of a buzzword in recent years, perhaps thanks to the rise in popularity of Korean skincare. The only concentrated plant-based source of collagen that I know of is peach gum, an ingredient that has been described as having multiple health benefits in ancient Chinese medical journals. Unfortunately I could not find any journals/research papers detailing the effects, but you can read more about peach gum here. I personally use it to make a sweet dessert sometimes and so far, coupled with skincare and enough rest, my skin has been pretty good. You can buy it on Shopee, or at various traditional Chinese medicine shops like Eu Yan Sang.

The bottom line

Going animal-free means you’ll need to pay more attention to your diet and lifestyle. If you are unable to do so, consider supplementing with fortified foods or vitamin pills as a last resort. If not, eat whole plant foods as much as possible as our bodies function best on it. On a well-planned diet with sufficient sun exposure and exercise, the only supplement needed is B12. 

If you’re a typical Singaporean eating mostly at hawker centres, you may find it harder to get all the nutrition. That’s where the DIY food part comes in to help you!

Next: Cooking for the time and budget conscious.

How to Be a Herbivore in Singapore Part 1 – The Big Why?

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Next: 02 nutrition .  03 cooking . 04 groceries . 05 eating and socializing . 06 eating at hawker centres . 07 challenges and support .

Here’s a series of resource posts intending to help the flexitarians, vegan-curious, new and struggling vegans navigate their journey in Singapore. Changing lifestyle habits takes unlearning and relearning. There will be challenges, so set goals and take it a step at a time.

This first post is to explain the reasons people go vegan. Knowing the whys are important because:

1) If you’re not interested in this but have vegan loved ones, you’ll make their lives SO MUCH easier by understanding and supporting. I’ve seen many friends go through much emotional turmoil over this choice – from being ostracised by friends and family to being threatened by their own parents.

2) If you want to change, the right knowledge can strengthen your resolve, inspire and take you further.

3) I want to clear the misconception that we are either health freaks or misanthropes. Animal welfare isn’t always the first push factor and “healthy eating” isn’t in every vegan’s vocabulary.

There are 20,000 species of edible plants worldwide; the misconception that vegetarians/vegans eat only vegetables needs to be out. The other edible non-animal food groups are grains, legumes, fruits, seeds and nuts, fungi and algae (actually, botanically speaking the last 2 aren’t even plants). Plenty and abundant!

Why on Earth did these tree hugging, kale chomping (I don’t even like kale) people give up fried
chicken? 3 main reasons:

Health

It’s proven that by not taking animal products one cuts down on growth hormones, cholesterol, saturated fat, uric acid, carcinogens, etc. It’s also getting out there that dairy isn’t as nurturing as we thought. A well-planned plant-based diet can be as nutritious with lower inflammation, stroke, cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes risk.

For me, going from being a junk food vegetarian to junk food vegan then (mostly) whole foods vegan was a major step in improving my childhood irritable bowel syndrome, as well as:

  • Less fever and flu. Used to catch it few times a year, now once every few years.
  • Less acne and oily skin. Needed to use oil blotting sheets daily now I don’t need them unless the weather is hotter than usual.
  • No more sugar cravings now.
  • No more frequent headaches.
  • Less acid reflux and no more random attacks of painful diarrhea.
  • Lots more energy without coffee – very helpful in productivity-crazed Singapore.
  • Exercise drained me and now it’s actually enjoyable.
  • Better mood, generally much happier.
  • Increased appetite.

Environment

Based on numerous scientific studies, animal agriculture is extremely inefficient. It’s a huge burden on our planet’s land, water, forests, a contributor to world hunger and climate change. In fact, going animal-free generates the smallest diet-related carbon footprint as seen here:

(Shrinkthatfootprint)

Many people see little hope in certain people at important meetings to solve environmental issues, thus they feel like they must take action on a personal level.

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(Monkey Parliament by Banksy)

Singapore is highly vulnerable to climate change. Rising seas threaten our land mass, increasing temperatures breed more dengue mosquitoes, more dry months means worse yearly haze and food prices will rise due to unpredictable weather causing lower yields. We can do so much more in addition to the usual “drive less, turn off the lights, recycling” etc.

Ethics

People are outraged over animal testing and fur. Many cosmetics, tobacco, household products are also made with animal testing. There is major public outcry over the mistreatment of animals for entertainment. What most people might not know is that production of meat, fish, milk and eggs is even more outrageous. Wouldn’t it be nice if it’s like what people think: cows and chickens run on grassy fields milking and laying eggs then tranquilized and killed while they are not conscious? But it’s not true. The industry makes sure the process of making animals into food is hidden. Here’s the link that explains all briefly and it’s not graphic. That’s why people who chanced upon the truth, cannot bring themselves to support the animal farming industry or other forms of exploitation anymore.

Whoever passed the law saying that a human can’t torture cats and dogs but it’s okay to force beagles to smoke 30 cigarettes a day, mince “useless” male chicks alive and kill newborn male calves just because they can’t make milk, you’re proof that evolution can go the reverse direction.

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(Vegetarian Society Singapore)

 

Watch

If you don’t prefer to read, these are some highly informative documentaries that address all 3 aspects of the plant-based lifestyle. They are highly responsible for turning meat-lovers into herbivorous creatures within hours!

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The intention

Try your best, don’t pursue perfection. When we walk, insects may die, when we eat veggies, we may ingest pesticides. Our food may also be made by child labour. We still need to use electricity so we’re contributing to climate change. As long as we exist, it is inevitable to cause unintentional suffering or death to other human or non-human beings AND damage to the Earth. Best we can do is minimize it. Hence the definition of “veganism” as stated by The Vegan Society

“…a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.

Everybody’s reasons for change are different. I know vegans who love the health benefits and vegan junk foodies who are 100% passionate about animal welfare and 0% about health. I know that some vegans, like myself, don’t care about whether the food is cooked in the same oil as non-vegan food, as long as we are not paying to contribute to animal exploitation. I also know of vegans who are very particular about the oil and utensils used to prepare their food. There are also people who eat and live like vegans but prefer the term “plant-based” – that’s fine! Lastly, I also know of people who are flexible – vegan as much as possible unless in certain difficult situations like travelling to remote places with language barriers. Go with whatever you’re most comfortable with. As long as one reduces animal consumption in any way, that’s awesome and keep doing it! My favourite way to describe this lifestyle is borrowed from an Aboriginal saying: “Touch the Earth lightly.”

Next > Nutrition on a vegan lifestyle

Soyato ice cream – A review

Soyato is a Singaporean non-dairy ice cream brand. In fact, it’s the first local brand of vegan-friendly ice cream that has started selling in some of our supermarkets! They have no dairy, eggs, or other animal – derived ingredients (except Honey Lemon flavour, which contains honey). Everything else are from plants! Thus I’m really proud of the couple, Verleen and Alan, for putting out healtheir desserts for the masses!

Verleen has kindly sent me two flavours to sample – Green tea and Mint Chip!

Top – Mint chip, bottom – green tea. Mint chip is a cooling treat with yummy non-dairy chocolate chips inside. When I wasn’t vegan yet the dairy mint ice creams tasted like toothpaste to me. But this mint taste is natural, not overpowering. Reminds me of our fragrant mint plant at home! I loved the green tea one exceptionally. Creamy, pleasant, soothing, exactly how green tea should be! Sweets made with green tea can be easily overdone as too much creates a bitter taste, while too little yields no flavour. It’s texture is creamier than mint chip’s, which makes an interesting variation when you eat two flavours together!

In one scoop of Soyato, there’s only 100 calories. No genetically modified soy ingredients are used, plus prebiotics are added to help your body digest this treat better. This is really what I hope to see dessert-makers do: putting things that help our bodies instead of loading it with fats, chemicals and substances cruelly extracted from animals.

If you are in Singapore, pick them up at the NTUC supermarkets listed here. They have two other flavours – Wickedly Chocolate and Honey Lemon (for the vegans that take honey). The usual retail price is $11.90 for one pint. I love how more people are taking action to make healthier choices more accessible. Looking forward to what Soyato has to offer next!

Dumplings, a Lunar New Year Tradition (non-recipe post)

It’s the time of the year again – new clothes, big dinners, extended families, playful young cousins. The Chinese family’s biggest celebration. My family is from Shandong in North China where every household knows how to make dumplings from scratch. Because of the labor intensive process, the young and old chip in to help. Usually kneading the dough is the men’s job, while the ladies mix the filling and the wrapping of individual dumplings are done by everyone young and old. It’s a family tradition to sit down together at the table and wrap the stuffing in thin sheets of dough, while having endless conversations and laughter.

The dough is with simply wheat flour and water. Like most Asian recipes there is no set ratio, how much water or flour to add depends on the brand and quality of the flour. Everything is done by feel.

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Let sit for a couple of hours, cut into small chunks, pressed and rolled into thin flat ‘skins’.

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For the stuffing, it’s important to use mostly low moisture plants. Carefully seasoned sauteed tofu is the main ingredient. Usually alongside it are strong flavours like mushrooms, ginger, leek, and lighter vegetables like cabbage or radish for a juiciness and to balance out the flavour. The higher moisture veggies must be squeezed in a cheese bag to rid of excess water that will otherwise dilute the taste. Seasonings will be five spice powder, white pepper, various types of soy sauce and sesame oil.

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Wrapping is the tricky part – you can’t put too much stuffing in one or it bursts when cooked. Too little stuffing and you’d end up chewing a mouthful of skin. Freshly made dough is extremely sticky too, you’d need to keep your hands floured constantly. The edges of the skin cannot touch any flour or filling or it will not stick properly and break during cooking.

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Often cooked in a huge pot of boiling water. Can also be pan-fried or water fried for a crisp coating of greasy goodness!

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And, finally, dipped in Chinese vinegar, sesame oil and a little minced garlic. Biting into one yields a wonderful mix of chewy tenderness and warm savory stuffing.

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The Chinese like to wish each other wealth, but I think wishing everyone health and happiness is most important. May your blessings be endless!