Being a vegan automatically makes someone like me a minority. But it doesn’t mean that I live a drastically different life from non-vegans. There are plenty of things I practice from day to day that help me get the best out of a plant-based lifestyle. And many of them I have noticed are practical things that would be advantageous to anyone, regardless of your diet.
1. Reading food labels
Out of necessity, I started reading labels as a vegetarian to see if a product that appeared meatless in fact contained animal-based ingredients. There have been plenty of occasions that I’m thankful I did! As a vegan, I now read labels to spot additional ingredients like dairy, egg, gelatine and honey. And that’s not all I look out for.
Food that comes in a box or plastic packet would likely contain artificial substances to improve taste, texture, shelf life and visual appeal. Quite often, these would be indicated as ‘E’ numbers. E numbers are food additives that have been approved by the European Union. Some E numbers are actually naturally-occurring substances, like spices or vitamins. Many reports say that it’s more of the salt, fat and/or sugar in these processed foods that are hazardous to health. But E numbers and salt, fat and sugar tend to go hand in hand. Until I take the time to memorize the entire E number catalogue, or familiarize myself with multi-syllable chemical names I can’t pronounce, I proceed with caution, and choose to prepare food from scratch as much as I can.
I have noticed that most people actually don’t read food labels at all. I think changing this habit is one of the most important steps for anyone to take in making healthier food choices.
2. Supporting local
Busting the myth that going vegan means splurging on expensive imported products, I enjoy visiting small neighborhood markets and pasar pagi / malam (morning / night street market) to support small-scale local farms and traders. MUCH CHEAPER! And I get to explore the mind-boggling array of fresh Malaysian produce that easily meets a majority of my nutritional needs. I enjoy the conversations I have with food sellers too, who seem to positively acknowledge their place in the community. If I’m lucky, I get some goodies thrown in for free, like an extra fruit or bundle of coriander.
Supporting local food businesses is an enjoyable practice that is not only easier on the wallet, but also connects us with the community, reinforces the local economy, keeps our carbon footprint low (as we are not paying for air-flown food) and helps us appreciate what is available to us from our own backyard.
3. Taking supplements
Some non-vegans justify their belief in the vegan diet being unnatural due to the fact that it is hard to find selected nutrients in plant-based form, like Omega 3 and Vitamin B12. What such people don’t understand is that the difficulty in accessing these nutrients is not attributed to any particular diet, but has come about as a result of the evolution of modern living.
For example, B12 is naturally created by bacteria in organic soil, which our ancestors (and the animals we eat) used to ingest through spring water and unwashed fruits and vegetables. In sanitized environments, we no longer have access to B12 like we would have in the past. Our Omega 3 intake is disrupted by the modern-day Omega 6-rich diet full of processed food, and vegetable oils that almost every single restaurant uses.
The possibility of nutrient deficiency is not just a vegan issue. It is EVERYONE’S issue.
I prefer getting my nutrients from food rather than a pill, but that’s the reason why it’s called a supplement. It supplements a healthy lifestyle, rather than become something you rely on. Supplements don’t need to have been put together in a factory either. (I occasionally take a teaspoon of maca for energy and wellbeing and a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses to boost my calcium). So if you are aware of something you’re lacking in, I’d suggest to adjust your diet to meet that need, and don’t shy away from supplements if that helps you too.
4. Varying meals…
We are creatures of habit and tend to gravitate towards foods that we like… and stick to them. I admit that before going vegan, my goal was far from ‘eating the rainbow’. Now I feel a little ‘incomplete’ when my meal has fewer than 3 colours! Eating different colours from the plant kingdom ensures that I’m getting a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phyto-nutrients. I’ve stopped getting sick so often since going vegan, so that definitely says something!
I notice that when meat is the star of a meal, the vegetable sides can get quite predictable (e.g. lettuce, a thin slice of tomato and cucumber sound familiar?). If you notice that in your own meals, time to mix it up! Occasionally switch rice with soba noodles or sweet potatoes. If you love ‘bayam’ (amaranth leaves), try and rotate that with other dark green leafies like kailan, bok choy, or choy sam (mustard leaves). And eat your colours! You might be amazed at how much it could change your health.
5. …And information sources!
A common conversation starter is when someone shoots out, “I saw in an article / Youtube video / Facebook post somewhere…” , This is not just regarding vegan stuff, but any topic under the sun. It is fine and normal to read about or watch something and leave it at that if there is no personal interest to dig into the topic further. But when it comes to ethical issues, which I as a vegan tend to get involved in, there are always multiple sides to a story that deserve to be explored. I make sure that I am aware of the arguments AGAINST as well as FOR veganism, so that I constantly stay educated on my health and that lifestyle that I am advocating.
Take for example that latest devastating documentary about Michael Jackson. The story sounds very convincing. But I’ve made sure that I also read articles that point out the likelihood that he didn’t do it. It is hard to determine what the truth is in this situation. But I am certainly not comfortable with the idea of a one-sided showcase against someone who isn’t alive to defend himself.
The practise of exploring more than just one reliable information source, with anything, assists us in making more sound judgments and refining the personal choices that work for us as individuals. It also contributes towards more constructive dialogue and understanding between us as a community that is diverse in culture, background and beliefs.
6. Staying mindful
Adopting a compassionate approach in how I eat has affected other aspects of my life too. I think more about cause and effect. I stay as present as I can. I’ve observed things I’ve said or done that are hurtful or meaningless. I’ve become more courteous and empathetic. I send out positive thoughts less selectively. If I am expressing kindness to animals, I might as well express kindness without discrimination.
Practising mindfulness need not start and end with our food choices. Neither is it reserved for those seeking a higher sense of purpose or spirituality. Mindfulness helps us to be better-functioning people for ourselves and the people we interact with. It makes us happier too!