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Moving towards plant-based diets

- By Dr George Jacobs -

To me, the big news story of this week came from Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s blog, where he stated, “I have adopted a fully plant-based diet plan, avoiding all meat, not even fish or dairy products."

Mr Khaw is not alone. More people, especially those who understand where our food comes from and what impact our food has, are also upping the plant-based components of their diet. Why? Here are three key reasons.

Reason #1 centres on health. Most of us already know that we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, we don’t need to eat any meat, eggs or dairy at all. In 2009, the American Dietetic Association, the world’s largest organisation of health and nutrition professionals, issued an evidence based position paper stating that vegetarian and vegan (vegan = plant-based) diets are nutritionally adequate and can even have health benefits.

These health benefits are thought to include reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. For example, plant foods – and not just fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds and grains – are rich in antioxidants, which seem to protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. This free radical damage could increase cancer risk.

The environment constitutes Reason #2 for moving towards a plant-based diet. The key fact – probably obvious once you think about it – is that meat production is inefficient. We need to feed many kgs of plant foods to the chickens, cows and pigs whom we later eat. Growing all these extra plants means chopping down more forests, using more water and burning more fossil fuels. Plus, what do you think happens to the waste produced by the approximately 60+ billion land animals whom we eat annually? This waste fouls the air, the water and the soil.

The other big environmental plus of going plant-based relates to Global Warming. One UN estimate lays the blame for 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emission on the plate of the livestock industry. (See here.)

Last but not least, Reason #3 for going towards plant-based connects to our fellow animals. They aren’t objects. They are feeling, thinking beings. Maybe they don’t feel emotions just like us, maybe they don’t think just like us, but a growing body of research demonstrates that they most definitely do feel and do think.

Yet, modern factory farming methods ask only one question: How can we produce the most meat (or dairy or eggs) in the least time at the lowest cost? For instance, chickens – every day in Singapore, we eat more than 100,000 chickens - live only about six weeks – as compared to potentially 2-3 years in nature – before they are slaughtered. And, ‘live’ really should be put in inverted commas, because the lives of these poor creatures are completely unnatural. For example, chickens are separated from their families, kept indoors in unnatural conditions and fed growth hormones.

Conditions are scarcely better for the animals who produce milk and eggs. Again, the only question asked is: How can we produce the most product in the least time at the lowest cost? For instance, cows are kept pregnant so that they will deliver more milk, yet their calves are taken away as soon as economically efficient. Special methods, such as food deprivation, are used to increase egg production. And, what do you think happens to the cows and chickens once their production declines? Are they sent to a retirement farm to quietly live out the rest of their lives? Please close your children’s books and return to the real world.

In case you’re wondering, fishes and other marine animals don’t have it much better. An increasing percentage of them are raised on the marine equivalent of factory farms, in the same kind of unnatural conditions suffered by pigs and other land animals. Similarly, the pollution generated by this farming method causes grave environment problems. And, that is not to mention the havoc wreaked on marine ecosystems by modern fishing practices. Lastly, fishes too are sentient beings. Why make them suffer and die when actually our health is better without eating them? For instance, plant foods contain abundant Omega 3. (Vegetarian Society)

Source: Health Minister Says...

To conclude, three important reasons to adopt a plant-based diet are our own health, the environment of our planet and the well-being of the animals with whom we share the planet. But, isn’t it terribly difficult to eat a plant-based diet? Not really, especially not in Singapore, with more than 500 vegetarian eateries and lots of plant-based options at non-veg establishments. Plus, our supermarkets and wet markets are bursting with colourful, tasty plant-based foods.

Let’s have a look at what Mr Khaw eats. Returning to his blog, for lunch at the SGH food court, he enjoyed “salad with no dressing, vegetable sandwich (on wholegrain bread) and fruits”. And his breakfast consisted of “oats, wholegrain bread and fruits”.

No need to jump to 100% right away. Start slowly. Try one plant-based meal a day, and gradually increase. Find a family member, friend or colleague to make the change with you. You, the environment and our fellow animals will be glad you did.

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Dr George Jacobs is the president of the Vegetarian Society (Singapore) – a non-profit, non-religious charity


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