Human Writes: Why a vegan diet is good for you, great for the planet

  • Nutrition
  • Sunday, 25 Aug 2019

When Jeremy Loo was 42 years old, he was forced to face his lifestyle choices when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, severe hypertension and very high cholesterol.

The investment banker had for years eaten an unhealthy diet and slept only three hours a night. A “party animal”, he also drank heavily. Memories of a friend dying in his arms from chemotherapy drove him to seek alternatives. He opted for a vegan diet, shunning all meat and dairy products.

“I made a gamble,” the pink-cheeked, fit-looking Loo told me at the Vegan Festival last weekend in Publika shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur. “I was lucky ... it worked.”

Loo filled up on raw foods – vegetables, fruits and nuts. After three months, his illnesses disappeared, to his doctor’s surprise. After six months, his weight dropped to 57kg, from 75kg. “My friends thought I was really sick!” he laughed.

Now 49, Loo cautions: “I wouldn’t dare recommend this to everyone!” Lifestyle changes count, he said. But he believes diet helps healing.

Many cancer institutions do promote a plant-based (although not vegan) diet. Research is limited, but some studies indicate vegans have high levels of disease-preventing bioactive markers. Also, high meat consumption has been linked with certain cancers.

Vegan diet better for humans and the planet
An aerial view of cattle in a deforested Amazonian area in Maraba, Brazil. Soon thousands of cows will be chewing pasture on the freshly cleared land, just a tiny part of Brazil's 200-million-strong commercial cattle herd, the world's biggest. And it got that way mostly by ranchers simply razing swathes of the Amazon, the ‘lungs’ of the planet to feed the world’s demand for meat. Photo: Filepic

Grateful for a “second chance,” Loo now promotes vegan food at his café and bakery, LN Fortunate Coffee, which has outlets in Solaris Mont Kiara and Sunway Geo. The food is made with fresh ingredients and no preservatives or mock meat are used.

Loo is not alone. I was surprised by the number of vegan advocates at the Vegan Festival. Of the 34 pro-vegan businesses there, several were food and beverage ones.

Sala, a restaurant in Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, serves up Mexican burritos, using a tasty mushroom substitute for meat. Most of their clientele are not vegans, but simply people who “don’t want to eat meat every day”.

Sala also serves Kelava vegan ice cream, made from kelapa (coconut) “and love” – thus the name. Azlan Shah Alladin, a vegan, concocted the recipe with his wife. It’s good enough to go global.

The festival, the first of its kind, was organised by the Vegan Society, with help from young volunteers. The society’s president Rina Pang said interest in veganism is growing, particularly among millennials. “They are very keen. They switch (to veganism) just like that. They want to make a difference.”

The number of local vegans is not known, but two local vegan Facebook pages have 10,000 followers combined. Veganism may seem highly unusual here, but it’s a big, growing global trend. The Economist magazine and Forbes both declared 2019 as the year of the vegan.

In Britain, veganism surged more than 350% over the last decade, Vegan Society research shows, while 1.3 million Germans are vegans, broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported. One in five Swedes under 30 are vegan.

Veganism is also growing in Australia, Canada and Israel, Google Trends search data shows. Sales of plant-based foods rose 20% in 2018 in the United States, Nielsen data shows.

Celebrities following a plant-based diet include Al Gore, Ariana Grande, Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, James Cameron, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Chastain, Joaquin Phoenix (who narrated Earthlings, a 2005 documentary about how humans use and misuse animals), Miley Cyrus, Moby, Nathalie Emmanuel, Stevie Wonder and Venus Williams.

Older people often become vegans for health reasons, but environmental concerns and animal welfare motivate the young. These are indeed compelling reasons. The meat industry has a huge environmental impact and involves terrible animal cruelty.

Today’s factory farms pack animals into tiny spaces – so small they can barely move – and in unnatural, filthy conditions for their entire lives. Chickens are fattened so much they can barely stand; some die of dehydration as they can’t walk to water. Cows are kept perpetually pregnant but barely get to be with their young.

To counter festering sores and boost growth, animals are pumped with antibiotics. About 80% of all antibiotics are used on animals. This has led to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that are costly and difficult to treat.

One recent weekend in August, 12,000 people marched against animal exploitation in London. We need some of that kind of consciousness here. We are just gluttons for meat.

In 2018, Malaysians were the third biggest chicken eaters in the world per capita (at 50kg per person!), according to data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Sorry, but that’s piggish. And unhealthy.

As I’ve said before, the earth is now like a giant farm, with 70 billion livestock animals, 7.7 billion humans and a tiny fraction of wild animals. In 2018, 770 million broiler chickens were grown in Malaysia – about 25 chickens for every person! Yet many local wild animals are heading for extinction.

Enormous land and water resources are used to produce crops to feed animals. Scientists have said switching to a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce one’s impact on the environment. In fact, we cannot limit global warming to a 1.5°C rise (beyond which we risk catastrophic climate change) without cutting meat consumption.

Veganism is here to stay. It has to. Our planet and our future depend on it.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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