By Jessica Kotlowitz
Veganism is now recognised as one of the fastest growing dietary and lifestyle trends in the world .
A 2016 survey in the UK revealed that veganism has risen by 360% since 2006, whilst 10% of Israelis identify as vegan or vegetarian, making it the country with the highest number of plant-based eaters per capita. In the United States the market for alternative meat products grew by 8% in just two years and dairy alternatives currently make up 10% of the milk market. This trend is expected to continue to accelerate over the next decade and there is no doubt that plant-based diets are becoming both widely accepted and much more mainstream; in Cape Town alone there are now four vegan restaurants while vegan options are featured on the menu at many others.
But why eschew meat for a plant-based diet?
Health concerns are a major reason for choosing a plant-based diet. Not only are plant-based diets effective for managing weight, they also prevent and treat some of the world’s biggest killers: heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and cancer. Plant-based diets which are focused on whole foods provide all the essential nutrients needed for optimal health and an abundance of antioxidants to boost immunity and fight disease whilst eliminating many environmental toxins, hormones, antibiotics and cholesterol abundant in animal foods.
Save the planet: According to a 2013 Food and Agricultural Organisation report, more than 77 billion land animals were raised for food globally in 2013, with approximately 1 billion of these being in South Africa and animal agriculture is one of the top three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems. Many scientists are calling for a substantial reduction in animal product consumption in order to reverse climate change. An average of 4323 litres of water is required to produce 1kg of chicken and production of 1kg of protein from beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, 9 times less fuel, 12 times less fertiliser and 10 times less pesticides than 1kg of protein from beef.
From an animal welfare perspective, more than 95 percent of the country’s egg-laying hens are confined in battery cages, spending nearly their entire lives in virtual immobilisation while chickens raised for meat are bred for rapid growth, reaching their slaughter weight by six weeks of age, putting tremendous strain on their bones and organs, sometimes rendering them immobile. Extensive scientific evidence shows that intensively confined farm animals are frustrated, distressed, and suffering.
Whether veganism is your end goal or not, there is no doubt that reducing your intake of animal products and replacing them with plant products will improve your health, reduce your impact on the environment and save animals lives.
Here are my top tips for reducing your intake of animal products and moving towards a more plant-based diet:
Re-orientate your plate.
The typical South African diet is very meat-focused, with most of us planning our meals around the animal protein portion of the meal. When we think about what to make for dinner, we usually think first about the animal protein: “Should I make meat, chicken or fish?” Then we choose which side dishes (usually starches and veggies) to compliment this animal protein with. In other words, animal products are the centre of our diets. In order to shift over to a more plant-based diet, we need to shift our mindsets to planning our meals around vegetables and legumes rather than around meat and chicken. When deciding what to make for dinner, think first about what vegetable you want to make: spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mushrooms, baby marrows.. the options are endless! Then think about what else you want to put with your vegetables: it can be a whole-grain, a legume or maybe a small side of animal protein, but the bulk of your plate should represent plants. Start looking at your plate at every meal and ask yourself the following questions: Is it full of plants? Does it look colourful? Is it packed with fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants? By focusing your plate towards more plant-based foods, you will automatically decrease your intake of animal products and improve your intake of vital nutrients and antioxidants.
Participate in Green Monday
Green Monday is an initiative which aims to encourage South Africans to swap out the meat, dairy and eggs in their diet for delicious plant-based foods every Monday. Sign up on the Green Monday website, take a pledge to eat green every Monday and enjoy amazing plant-based tips and recipes delivered to your email inbox every week. But don’t stop there: Once you have succeeded at implementing a plant-based diet once a week, why not continue to make a difference by introducing more and more plant-based meals into your weekly diet?
Have one meatless meal per day
The South African dietary guidelines encourage us to limit our meat intake to just 90g per day for men and about 60g per day for women to lessen our risk of disease. Considering that the average “ladies” steak is 250g, most of us have a long way to go to meet this target! Not only are plant-protein sources healthier and more environmentally friendly than their meaty counterparts, but many plant-protein sources such as legumes and natural soya products actively lower cholesterol and prevent diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. For optimal health, add a serving of plant-protein such as beans, tofu, peas, lentils, chickpeas or peanuts into your daily diet and aim to leave the animal protein to one small portion at one meal per day. You could have a lovely chickpea and quinoa salad for lunch and save your chicken breast for dinner or make a delicious lentil curry for dinner and have a small piece of fish at your lunch time meal.
Include legumes in your diet at least 3 times per week:
In addition to the amazing health benefits of legumes, and calls from health authorities to increase legume consumption to a minimum of 3 servings per week, legumes are also a cost-effective meat alternative. Add legumes into meat dishes to lessen the amount of meat consumed and lower your food expenses: instead of using a full pack of mince in your bolognaise, use only half the pack and make up the rest of the bulk with lentils. Add lentils and split peas into your winter soups and stews or blend them into sauces and dips. We are all familiar with hummus (a blended chickpea dip) but did you know that you can make a variety of legume patés using a variety of flavours and beans? Try blending butter beans with some tomato paste to make a creamy butter bean hummus or you can blend cannellini beans with beetroot to make a pink hummus that kids will go crazy for.
Experiment with dairy alternatives
For most people, giving up their beloved cheese and milk can be challenging. Luckily, most supermarkets are well stocked with a variety of plant-based non-dairy milks which are cholesterol and hormone free but still taste great as a cereal topping or as a creamy addition to cooked dishes, coffees and teas. Rice milk has a lovely sweet taste and goes down well in cereals and smoothies, while almond milks’ creamy nutty flavour is perfect in a bowl of oats or in a cup of rooibos tea. Soya milk is more full bodied than most non-dairy milks and makes for a great addition to coffee, froths well in cappuccino’s and is the perfect base for a healthy dairy-free white sauce. Coconut milk is a traditional staple in many Asian cuisines and it’s mildly sweet, rich flavour makes for great desserts, ice creams and Thai green curries. Commercial non-dairy milks are a brilliant source of calcium and soya milk is also a source of high quality protein and essential fatty acids. Everyone has their favourites so get tasting and find the non-dairy milk that floats your plant-powered boat. Instead of butter, try spreading some hummus, nut butter, avocado or guacamole on your crackers or breads. Top salads with olives, avo or toasted seeds instead of feta and use chopped nuts and nutritional yeast (a cheesy flavoured yeast extract found at most health stores) to sprinkle on pasta’s instead of parmesan.
A vegan or plant based diet can form the centre of a conscious lifestyle that embraces both healthy, taste filled living and an awareness of our responsibility to ensure the welfare of the Earth and all its inhabitants including its many animals.
Jessica Kotlowitz is a Registered Dietitian (Msc. Nutr. Stell.) with a passion for plant-based nutrition. You can contect her on Facebook at The Green Dietitian, Instagram: @the_green_dietitian or through her website www.thegreendietitian.co.za