Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Wednesday,14 November, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Going natural

Interest in plant-based diets is on the rise in Egypt, says Niveen Wahish

Going natural

Mostafa Helmi is a 34-year-old graduate in computer engineering and a writer of scenarios for films and TV. He has lost 70 kg over the past two years, going from 190 kg to 120 kg thanks to a plant-based diet he heard about from a friend. He did not believe the diet could help him at first, but he had reached the point where he needed to do something about his weight. If he had not found a solution, he would have needed to revert to surgical intervention, which was the last thing he wanted.

Helmi started the diet after reading extensively about it and realising the extent to which users had found it beneficial. It involves abandoning all types of animal products, including milk products and eggs, together with hydrogenated oils such as olive oil and ghee. Canned and processed foods are also off limits, as are sugar and salt. Everything else is allowed, including carbohydrates.

The diet is not only about losing weight, Helmi commented, but also about staying healthy and preventing many of today’s diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart problems and cancer. “With this diet, we are going back to eating like our ancestors,” Helmi said, explaining that Egyptian farmers in the past depended on eating fruit and vegetables from their fields. Eating meat was not a common practice because it meant slaughtering an animal.

Helmi said that plants have all the nutrients anyone could need, and it is a myth that people need to consume animal products for protein. Ideally, he said, individuals should make sure that a quarter of their food consists of carbohydrates, a quarter of legumes and the remainder of fruit and vegetables. However, there was no need to fret about being that specific, and there is no need to have a calorie counter at every meal.

People will quickly gain a sense of what they should be eating, Helmi said. If they realise they have eaten too many carbohydrates in one meal, they should try to eat more vegetables in the following. He himself tends to eat more carbohydrates than he should, he said, adding that “otherwise, I would have lost even more weight.” He recommends those starting the diet to try to wean themselves off unwanted foods in one go, because this allows their body to adapt quickly. Today, he does not crave regular foods. “When I am hungry, I immediately think of plant-based options,” he said.

Going natural

Nutritional therapist Dahlia Hammouda agrees on the benefits of a plant-based diet. “A plant-based diet is one of the healthiest anyone can follow,” she said, adding that it helps in weight loss, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol, and can even reverse type 2 diabetes.

A whole-food plant-based diet is even better, she said. This entails avoiding eating plant fragments and focusing on eating the whole plant or a minimally processed version of it. Processing means some components of the original plant have been isolated using mechanical or chemical means, she explained. For example, an orange is a whole plant, but orange juice is processed. Processing could include extracting and treating nutritional components, such as removing oils or specific nutrients from plants, and extracting fibre from grains or bleaching, she explained.

“Whole-food plant-based diets are really the farthest up on the scale of healthy diets,” she said.

A plant-based diet is different from a vegan diet in that the latter allows processed foods, including oil, white flour and refined sugar, Hammouda explained. She recommends eating a largely raw, uncooked diet. Contrary to popular belief, cooked foods are often harder to digest than raw ones, because cooking can cause food to lose valuable enzymes that are used by the body to break down foods into smaller and more absorbable parts, she explained.

Moreover, cooking can also destroy certain antioxidants and vitamins. “Raw foods help to alkalise the body, reduce acidity and have less of a chance of fermenting in the gut and causing inflammation or auto-immune reactions,” Hammouda added. Eating a raw plant-based diet is especially helpful to those suffering from chronic illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, kidney disease and fatigue.

Going natural

It was for these reasons that Dalia Al-Tellawi, a London resident, started on a plant-based diet a year ago. She had read about how modern food habits are becoming increasingly harmful and how a plant-based diet can help many chronic illnesses. She started to feel the difference immediately she started the diet. “The fatigue that I often felt after meals was not there anymore,” she said. For her, the diet led to heightened energy levels.

“There is a misconception that going plant-based may leave some people with less energy than they had before,” Hammouda said, adding that the opposite was actually true. If energy levels do drop, it could mean that people aren’t getting enough Vitamin B12 or iron. To get the most from iron-rich foods like spinach, lentils, chickpeas, beans and cashews, they should be eaten alongside Vitamin C-filled foods like oranges, tomatoes and broccoli, she said. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb more iron, she added.

Because Al-Tellawi lives abroad, she was able to switch her diet smoothly as vegetarian menus and supplies are more common there. In Egypt, when she comes for her summer vacations she finds eating out more difficult because of the lack of vegetarian options.

Going natural

Having to explain that she is a vegetarian to her friends and family is another burden. They question why she is doing it and how can she live without meat. But the fact is, she said, that she does not crave meat or chicken at all. The process of raising cattle and chickens for human consumption has become so industrialised, Al-Tellawi said, that there is no longer anything natural about it. Sometimes she eats fish if she is sure of the source and that it has not undergone any processing.

Al-Tellawi has not switched her whole family to vegetarian diets, leaving them to make their own choices. However, she has stopped cooking with any type of fat and she has cut out salt as well as sugar from her cooking.

Cutting out sugar and fat may be factors that make a plant-based diet difficult for some people. “A whole-food plant-based diet cuts out foods that some people love, not least the sugar and fat they are addicted to,” Al-Tellawi commented.

Another misconception, Hammouda said, is that plant-based foods are “boring” or flavourless. “There are many ways to turn plant and whole foods into delicious and varied dishes,” she said. For Helmi, too, this is a common misconception, and as a result he has set up a Webpage on the subject.

There was practically no reading material in Arabic on the diet, presenting an obstacle to disseminating information and awareness. His page includes practically every question that could cross anybody’s mind about the diet, offering links to recipes and a platform where followers of the diet can support each other and share their experiences.

One common misconception about the diet, according to Hammouda, is the concern about not getting enough protein. “Protein is abundant in plant foods, and eating a variety of protein-rich plant foods throughout the day will ensure that protein needs are fully met,” she said.

Even athletes do not need to eat meat to build muscles, she said. The amino acids in fruit and vegetables are sufficient to build muscle, and their vitamins, minerals and antioxidants also keep us healthy, Hammouda added. “When you consume processed and refined foods, you sacrifice a huge proportion of their nutrients, and you acquire the toxic baggage that comes with these foods, including excess fat and cholesterol, refined sugars, refined flours, artificial colours, additives and preservatives.”

A plant-based diet is not a difficult diet to follow. According to Hammouda, people can do it on their own if they invest enough time and care in ensuring that they consume a good balance of nutrients from a variety of plant foods. Otherwise, she said, it is advisable to consult with a nutritionist to get on the right track. Supplements may be especially useful to reach optimal levels of micronutrients, particularly Vitamin B12, which is difficult to get from plant food, Hammouda added.

Interest in plant-based diets is on the rise in Egypt, Hammouda said, and Helmi’s Facebook page is proof of this. “Even in my wildest dreams, I would not have guessed that the page would get over 400,000 followers,” he said.

“It is due in large part to people realising, after being let down by conventional medicine in tackling many chronic illnesses, that the most powerful medication is the food you eat,” he concluded.

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