Embracing the plant-based lifestyle in Malaysia

Vegan Vantage: The Aina & Faisal Family

Vegan Vantage: The Aina & Faisal Family

When I first met Faisal and Aina at a plant-based event a year ago, they seemed like a very unassuming couple: warm, soft-spoken, reserved. A plant-based curious duo perhaps? Only when I had a casual chat with Aina did I find out that not only are they both already vegan: their two children, Ayjaz (9) and Athiyya (4), are vegan too!

I couldn’t believe it. I never expected to meet a fully vegan Malaysian Muslim family, in Malaysia, in this lifetime. Learning about their journey together, I knew absolutely that their story needs to be shared. When I finally got round to inviting them last month to be interviewed for my blog, I discovered that Aina is currently enjoying her first fully vegan pregnancy… and is ready to pop in a week or two from now!

I’m extremely grateful that Aina has spared some time during this exciting period to share her family’s journey with us, and may we wish her a safe and beautiful experience in welcoming a third addition to the clan.

Their family is the fifth featured profile in the ‘Vegan Vantage’ series on this blog, celebrating how the plant-based lifestyle has transformed Malaysians in positive ways. If you know of anyone who has or is experiencing an amazing shift in health, emotions and mindset through a shift in their diet, please send them my way (email me at hello@davinadavegan.com)! I would love to share their stories too.

Aina and Faisal are professionally certified wellness coaches specializing in fitness and nutrition. If you’d like to connect with them, visit their Facebook page: Amazingly Fit.

 

Could you share with us the main factors that led you and the family towards going completely plant-based in 2015?

Personally, I was already on this vegetarian and pescatarian journey for compassionate reasons ever since I was a teenager. But I was not sure about the nutritional and cultural aspects and so I was not really strict about it.
However, at the end of 2013, our son, who was about 2.5 years old then, started to show health conditions: really bad eczema, and then later respiratory issues. He was in and out of the hospital almost every month in 2014! Basic tests showed that he had no food allergies. We tried elimination diets but nothing showed promising, long-lasting results. Finally in 2015, we finally did a thorough wellness examination and analysis for him, and found out that he actually had a high level of heavy metal toxicity in his 4-year old body! It most likely came from from the fish and seafood he was consuming. The results also included a list of food intolerances – all were mainly animal products and by-products! Once we received those results, I decided for him and for myself to go plant-based overnight. At that time, I was already pregnant and expecting our daughter. And so when she was born and started eating solids at 7months+, we did Baby Led Weaning with plant-based foods for her too.
My husband, Faisal, went through his own journey of realization and joined us to be fully plant-based in 2019.
Photo: Aina Fazlin

The decision for the whole family to make the transition must have not been without social challenges. What kind of adversities did you face and how did you overcome them?

Before we did the health tests on my son, I was already trying out on him the elimination diet, based on my own suspicions. This involved removing red meats and chicken from his diet, and later eggs and dairy. Even at that point, family disapproval was apparent, and it somehow evolved around religious aspects. They would say that these foods have been made permissible for us to eat and therefore, why were we making it NOT permissible? We had to explain our decisions from the nutritional perspective, and just focus on that.
I know the family meant well, but it was stressful to be questioned about our food choices every single time we ate together, especially when it was just based on my suspicions and observations. With the final test results, I had something in black and white to support my firmness in the decisions I made about what we could and could not eat.
I think the most hurtful comment I received was from a close family member whom I respected, when she found out that even my daughter was being fed plant-based. She said, “You should not impose your beliefs onto your children! You can be vegan! But it’s not healthy for them! You are depriving them of nutrients they need to grow!” I really felt attacked at that point and did not know how to respond. But looking back, that incident helped to define me and my role. I AM THEIR MOTHER. I have every right to impose my beliefs onto my children. They are MY children. That is what mothers do. We impart our beliefs, our thinking, our values, to our own children. 🙂
I believe every mother wants the best for her children and from the time the decision was made, I went on to educate myself about Plant-Based Nutrition informally from books, journals, research papers, articles and later formally from online courses.
Other awkward situations would be during festive season when we went visiting to people’s houses. Usually we would be able to find at least one dish that we can eat, and not offend the hosts. But there were times that everything served had unavoidable animal products. In those situations, it was a blessing that Faisal only went plant-based much later than us because he would be the one eating/trying out the foods prepared, on our behalf, while we explain why the rest of us were plant-based. But when Faisal went plant-based too, we made it a point to inform the hosts beforehand so that we did not get into those awkward situations. We also made it a point to bring food items for the hosts we were visiting – food that we could eat too.

With your children being vegan in their formative years, how easy was it for you to explain the lifestyle to them, and how easy was it for them to understand and embrace it?

Honestly, explaining it to them was the easy part. Children are naturally compassionate. They see an animal and they naturally marvel at how cute it is, and they just want to play with it and cuddle it like they do with their soft toys. They would be inquisitive and ask questions about the animal and how it lives. From there, I’d introduce the association of how animals end up on a dinner plate.
They would ask, “Why do we need to eat them?” I remember asking those questions as a child before too, and we were taught that we needed it for nutrition. However, in my children’s case, I was able to explain that we do not need to eat them, that we have a choice. And that we have so many plant-based foods that can give us nutrition to grow. So, every meal time was and still is a learning experience. They would ask what each food is for, whether it is healthy, and what nutrients they would get from it.
With my son, he had already learned that certain foods made him “sick”. And so he had developed the habit of asking me first what he could or could not eat. I remember one particular incident of an adult offering him a pizza slice, right in front of his face. When my son politely declined, the adult asked again, “Are you sure?” still dangling the pizza in front of him. From across the room, I saw my son turning to give me ‘that’ look, longing to eat what everybody else was eating, and asking for my approval. Even now, I still tear up thinking about it. People around us would say, “Bagi lah, kesian dia.” (Give it to him, pity him), and “sikit sahaja” (just a little bit). The challenge at that time was mostly me having to be the bad guy, the Food Police.
We came up with a routine and a plan on how we dealt with gatherings which involved food. We always ate prior to the event, so that we were already full, and we could focus on other activities when we were there, like playing. I would always have some handy snacks prepared in my bag for them to munch on, should they feel hungry. We also made DEALS between us. If there was something that they wanted to have but could not have at that event, just let Mommy know and we will make (or find) a plant-based version of it. If the others ate pizza at the party, we would have our own plant-based pizza party the next day. If the party had chocolate cake, then we would make our own treat sometime during the week. Those deals really helped alot at our social outings, and it helped to indirectly teach my children about delayed gratification as well.
After going plant-based, my daughter used to innocently ask family or friends, “Why are you eating that *animal product*? Do you know that it died for you to eat it?” We had to work on that and explain to her that it is not nice to ask those sort of questions, although she did get away with it!
I have randomly asked my plant-based children, if they would like to try a particular animal-based food that someone else was having (just to see their response). Their answer has always been “No, Mommy! We are vegans! We can do a plant-based version of that!” With all these experiences, we as parents feel grateful that our children have become mindful eaters, and we pray that they will continue with this lifestyle and help other people on this journey as well, God-Willing.
Photo: Aina Fazlin

Now you are enjoying your very first fully plant-based pregnancy! What extra measures have you taken to make sure your experience has been smooth-flowing?

I cannot really say if there is a difference in my previous pregnancies compared to this one just yet. (A few more weeks to go!) I have been blessed with smooth pregnancies even for the first 2. Most probably because I was already eating relatively “clean”, lots of fruits and vegetables and supplementing even before this. I guess the main difference now would be that I am just more conscious about the food choices and plant-based variety. Being mindful and ensuring that I have enough good fats, omega-3, iron, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D, protein, etc in my daily meals. I did NOT want to give my gynaecologist any chance to say that I was undernourished or had some sort of deficiency just because I was fully plant-based. So far, all my blood workouts and antenatal checkups have been good. Thank God!

What are the greatest rewards the family is experiencing so far from being plant-based together?

There are so many and from various aspects! Not sure if I would be able to highlight all!
Health-wise, we have not had to visit their paediatrician already for a while now. We love our paediatrician and the kids are happy to see their doctor, but not having to go to the hospital, (except for their general checkup), I would say is one of the greatest rewards the family has experienced so far.
As for me, I have noticed that my own random skin reactions have cleared up. Faisal has noticed that he can keep his muffin-top off without much effort. My father, who was not very supportive of our lifestyle at first, had his own health challenge – uncontrolled diabetes – and he was given all sorts of medication. But within 2 months of me putting him on a whole foods plant-based diet, the doctor could taper off his medical prescriptions. Within 5 months, they removed his diabetic medication completely and he basically has normal blood sugar levels now!
Through the years, our extended family, who are flexitarians, have been supportive of our lifestyle too. They would allow us to bring them to plant-based restaurants to eat. They would cook plant-based dishes for us. They would update us if they heard of a new plant-based eatery. And they would enjoy home cooked meals with us even though everything is plant-based. We are really grateful and feel so blessed with the support and love we have received on this journey.
This plant-based lifestyle has given me the opportunity to talk to my children about all sorts of topics and our role as individuals in this world. We discuss religion and the values that our Prophet had, and what we should practice as Muslims ourselves. We learn about compassion in Islam and in the Quran. We learn about appreciating and marvelling at God’s creations. We learn about the environment and what we can do better to take care of Mother Nature. We learn about empathy, kindness and tolerance. We learn about responsibilities, our carbon footprint. I am using the term “we” learning because I believe it has been a great learning experience for me (and Faisal) too. I am learning so much from my children. I learned how we as adults get “disconnected” and “disassociate” ourselves from the process; how we as adults were “brainwashed” aka taught that it is OK to do certain things without actually looking at the cause and effect. And so it has been an enlightening journey for us as parents too.
Photo: Aina Fazlin

I’m sure there are many parents out there who could look up to your family for motivation. For those who aspire to make similar changes to their lifestyle as a family unit, but are afraid of doing so (for nutritional, social, cultural reasons etc.), what kind of advice would you like to impart to them?

I guess every family and even individuals would be different. And they would have different sets of challenges that they would have to go through. I do hope some of these personal experiences that I am sharing would help others know that it’s a PROCESS. Also, some other points would be:
a) Progress, not perfection. Taking steps to ADD more vegetables and fruits on a daily basis is better than not doing it at all. Make it fun and get the whole family involved. Simple steps of finding an alternative plant-based protein to replace the animal-based product in every meal. Understand that the WHOLE FAMILY will benefit. Not just the individual that is going through the health conditions, allergies or intolerances. There needs to be at least that one person in the immediate family to keep the family on track, and the whole family will follow, eventually. Maybe families can start with once a week, Meatless Mondays. And then move on to twice or three times per week, and then maybe do Veganuary- that is how Faisal got committed to the lifestyle habits.
b) Everyone needs to go through their own journey of realization. We do not need to change others’ beliefs or stand. They are entitled to their own opinions. And that is OK. We can always share information and share food with them that they can enjoy. We do not have to avoid going out with friends for “makan-makan”. Just plan to go to a place that has plant-based options for you and your family too. Or invite them to the many plant-based restaurants that are available now! Some of these eateries are sooo good that your friends would not even notice that it is all plant-based!
c) Get informed and educated! There are books, literature, websites, podcasts, videos, documentaries, testimonials, blogs, support groups, influencers (like Davina!), all sorts of references, whichever and whoever you can relate to, for us to learn more about the Plant-Based Lifestyle and how it will benefit us, our family, our community, the animals and the earth!
d) Religion is a sensitive issue. People tend to get offended when we go down that path. So if you are not ready emotionally, best to just avoid this topic. However, if people are open minded, they are so many Muslim scholars worldwide who are already questioning modern farming techniques and talking about how being plant-based is actually being a conscientious and compassionate Muslim. These scholars would even support their stand with verses from The Quran and stories of the Prophets, and even the Prophet’s lifestyle. Exposing ourselves to the bigger picture is an eye-opener and will challenge things that we were taught as children, culturally. Just not for the faint-hearted!
e) DECIDE to do it. Once you have been informed and educated, just decide to be plant-based for whichever reason that is applicable to you and your family. I know of many people, myself included in those earlier years, where we have the information but just never decide to act on it. And years can and will pass if we do not make that decision. One of the reasons that also made Faisal choose to be plant-based was when I reminded him of the many health books which he has read, which document how chronic lifestyle diseases such as Diabetes and Heart Diseases were REVERSED with a whole foods plant-based diet. Faisal, being in the corporate world, has many colleagues and friends who are already going through all these health conditions, some even with grave outcomes. So while he was going through his journey of realization, I asked him, “Do we need to personally suffer from those kinds of health complications first, then do something about it later? Or is prevention better than cure?” That was what cemented Faisal’s choice to go plant-based. So my advice is for you to DECIDE, aim onwards and upwards and never look back!
Photo: Aina Fazlin

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2 thoughts on “Vegan Vantage: The Aina & Faisal Family”

  • Thank you so much, Davina, for doing the interview! We hope that our sharing will help others on their journey, as well. Thank you for all that you do and for inspiring and encouraging us from the start! We really appreciate it! Blessed and grateful! 🙏💚💙💜

    • Thank you too, Aina and Fam! Thank you for sharing your story, so honest and brave and relatable. We’re blessed and grateful to have you guys in our community too. BTW, I’m sure by now you’ve popped, and trust that all is amazing and beautiful with the new addition! Enjoy your mummy-baby time and see you again soon!

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