Alison Rego was surprised when her five-year-old daughter, Kristen, told her she was giving up all meat products. The now 40-year-old thought it would be a passing phase; she herself had grown up with a predominantly non-vegetarian table and thought it would be the same for her daughter. “From the time she was eating solids, she refused red meat,” says the mum of one. Then came the fateful day. “She watched something on YouTube that caused it, I think,” recalls Rego. “I thought she was joking. But she refused to eat chicken or fish either.”
“And then I thought, ‘you know what, let me just try veganism’,” says the single mum. “Because if she wasn't eating meat, I wasn't going to be buying it just for myself, obviously.”
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“So I just took the plunge - we began by replacing milk, because that was the most consumed product. And the cheese,” explains Rego.
“It's a gradual process, I always tell people, don't expect to take the plunge today and then give everything up tomorrow. It doesn't work like that. It was very easy for me to just quit meat overnight, but dairy, you have to ease it out of your lifestyle. You know, I'd had it for 35-odd years by then,” she laughs.
Food lifestyles have changed
“Four years later, it's amazing. I've tuned my brain accordingly. So I will just look and reach for plant-based options now. The UAE has a big array of plant-based options.
“I think post the pandemic, veganism, or a plant-based diet, is on the rise as well,” she adds.
(This isn’t an anecdotal statement; according to a report by the UK-based paper ‘The Guardian’, a record 500,000 people signed up for the Veganuary campaign- that is to say they pledged to eat plant-based diets for the month of January. That was 100,000 more than last year’s numbers. In the UAE as well the number of vegan options have multiplied over the past year.)
“If you think logically, cow milk has been produced to raise a calf to a cow not a human to a cow. So the hormones in cow milk, in dairy, do not match our system, which is why you see today, people are developing lactose intolerance along the way. You know, you'd find very often these people weren't born with it, but they've developed it … it's a logical thing you know?
“For me, it's [going vegan is] a no-brainer and it's easy to do today.
“The big myth around being vegan is that it’s expensive. It's not.” As for the misconception that the food is limited in variety, Rego dismisses that question at once. “We eat all kinds of cuisine… so stir-fry pastas and, of course, we do lentils.”
Micronutrients of special concern for the vegan include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed.
The vegan diet is a restrictive one – and can be a cause of concern. Lubna Abdussalam Dhalani, Registered Dietician, Aster Jubilee Medical Complex, explains: “Compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fibre. Vegans tend to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease. However, eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies.
“Micronutrients of special concern for the vegan include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed. In some cases, iron and zinc status of vegans may also be of concern because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals.”
Rego says that both she and her daughter do not eat supplements, but it hasn’t meant a deficiency. “We don't take multivitamins, a lot of people do. But I'm not eating processed vegan food. I'm eating carrots, celery - all the vegetables possible. So we're doing continental and Indian vegetables, we're obviously inculcating more variety into our diet than the average person who just does one [type of cuisine], you know.
“When you buy almond milk when you buy oatmeal milk, look for fortified milk, because that is fortified with B12, then. I don't think we're lacking anything.”
For Rego, it’s a matter of pride that her daughter has never been to the hospital for a nutrition-related ailment; she’s a healthy, happy eight-and-a-half year old. Who really, really likes her veggies.
The only exception to the vegan rule seems to be honey, along with a pinch of turmeric every so often to fend off any colds. “She has honey, but only medicinally,” says her mum.
US-based Cleveland Clinic has quoted paediatric dietitian Katie Nowacki, RD, saying that a vegan diet can be healthy for children as long as there are a few modifications. “You want to make sure your children are getting all the vitamins and nutrients their growing bodies require,” she was quoted as saying. The honey remedy is in line with this chain of thought.
“A vegan should regularly consume plant foods naturally rich in n-3 alpha-linolenic acid such as ground flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and hemp seed–based beverages. In addition, it is recommended that vegans consume foods that are fortified with the long-chain n-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid such as some soy milks and cereal bars.
Because of the high phytate content of a typical vegan diet, it is important for a vegan to consume foods that are rich in zinc such as whole grains, legumes and soy products to provide a sufficient zinc intake. They could also benefit from consuming fortified ready-to-eat cereals and other zinc-fortified foods.”
The four-year journey has been a wholesome one, says Rego, alluding to an internal shift. “It's made me 100 per cent more compassionate. Like, you look at things differently … I would never look at a turkey in the way I did before. You know, we just look at things differently, which obviously means you're looking at not just animals, but human beings differently as well. I really believe the shift is internal.”
It helps that it feels healthier too. “Most people bloat after consuming food rich in added hormones,” she explains. This lifestyle feels more natural. “So there’s a lot of raw food and colour on our plates– my daughter eats red bell peppers, which is rich in B12,” she says.
The food choices have also become more calculated; kale, for instance, says Rego is rich in essential vitamins and minerals as is broccoli. Through research – and planning – she ensures the food consumed is nutrition-dense while being healthy.
The no-meat rule is, admits Rego, flexible; if her daughter is out at a friend’s house and eats a chicken nugget it’s alright. But more often than not, it’s her daughter that spurns that menu and heads towards the greens. Her vision is clear – she wants to be vegan.
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