Three fitness buffs tell Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup that going meat-free is good for the mind and body.
MARKETING executive Elina Nasution, 22, has a penchant for powerlifting. She trains at The Outlaw gym in Subang Jaya four times a week, spending between an hour and 90 minutes at each session.
She may not be the only one there but a petite young woman is still somewhat unusual in a weightlifting and bodybuilding gym full of beefy, burly men. (They’re all very nice and welcoming, Elina assures me.)
But what makes her even more unusual is her diet — Elina has been a vegan since September 2015.
Unlike vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy, a vegan lives solely on plants.
So for a fitness-focused person like Elina, this means oats, bananas and peanut butter for breakfast and complex carbohydrates like soba or brown rice for dinner, along with loads of veggies and tofu.
No eggs, milk and whey-derived protein powder, and definitely not lean beef and chicken breast.
“Initially, I thought veganism was eating fruit and salad,” Elina says. “That can work for some people but not for me because I need a lot of energy. I have since discovered other things to eat and that veganism is open and flexible.”
PROTEINS IN EVERYTHING
There are several misconceptions Elina wants to clear – the first is that it is expensive to live on a vegan diet.
But she points out that it’s actually cheaper to buy protein-rich tofu and tempeh than skinless chicken breast.
She doesn’t spend much at lunch either, because she eats rice and greens without the more expensive chicken or fish options.
And there’s a lot more to a vegan diet than just salads. Elina makes dairy-free cheesecake using cashew nut, and had vegan lontong for Hari Raya.
Lontong has coconut milk and the vegan version is straightforward once you take the fish and meat out of it.
There’s also the belief that you need to be heavy on protein for strength training.
But according to Elina: “You can still be very strong eating 60 per cent carbs, 30 per cent protein and 10 per cent fat. But we do have vegan protein supplements. Meat-eaters consume whey or casein powder but vegans eat brown rice protein, pea protein or soy isolate protein.
“In terms of gaining strength, there is no loss compared to a non-vegan diet. Everything that is plant-based has some protein element in it. It’s just switching what you’re eating to something else.”
She’s intrigued by how inventive vegans are, excitedly telling me of vegan bacon made from Vietnamese rice paper, soaked in liquid smoke and paprika.
There’s also vegan anchovies made of seaweed and tofu to soothe your nasi lemak cravings.
EATING WITH A CONSCIENCE
Elina’s biggest challenge are her relatives in Kelantan, who do not understand veganism and thinks that she’s on a diet to stay slim.
She admits that she was rather shallow when she first went vegan, but that’s not why she kept at it.
“I was trying to lose weight and I did a 30-day vegan challenge with a friend. Halfway through, my friend gave up,” she says.
But, by then, Elina felt that she needed to learn more about veganism.
So she watched documentaries and looked at statistics on industrialised livestock farming to see the effect of demand for meat, chicken and fish on the animals and the environment.
“Ethical reasons started to kick in after I was aware of the facts. I can't ignore the fact that how I ate was harming the world,” she says.
There’s a stereotype that gym-goers, especially bodybuilders, are self-absorbed in their quest for physical perfection.
That said, Elina finds that vegan bodybuilders tend to take themselves a little less seriously.
“I’ve connected with vegans on social media — they’ve accepted that it’s not just about them.”
Elina says she’s healthier than she’s ever been following her switch to a plant-only diet. She finds her hormones more balanced and her breathing has improved.
“Being vegan, I get a lot more minerals and proteins naturally from the food I eat. It helps blood flow and helps me to breathe better. People assume that weightlifting is about building muscles but it’s simple things like breathing that helps improve performance.”
VEGGIES ALL THE WAY
When Marina Abdullah, 26, was studying in the United Kingdom, she lived in the countryside and saw farm animals every day.
She understood that the livestock were meant for consumption but plastic-wrapped meat at the supermarket made her uneasy.
“Then I visited slaughterhouses and I realised that I could no longer be a part of an industry that fuels over-consumption and wastage,” she says of her decision to become a vegetarian six years ago.
Marina’s favourite is lentils, and she eats boiled eggs for breakfast before heading off to indoor cycling — or spinning — class.
She does yoga on weekends, and once completed a four-hour ashtanga yoga session where she was allowed only one bottle of water.
“I credit being vegetarian for my good health,” she says. “It has improved my eyesight and complexion. I've been make-up-free since January.”
Sidneswaran Paramaswaran, 29, is a fellow vegetarian. “If it’s not okay to eat dogs or cats, then why is it okay to eat cows and chickens? And if I believed it was okay to treat certain animals differently, then my mindset in life would be that it’s okay to treat human beings differently based on how they look, the colour of their skin, etc.”
Like Marina, Sidneswaran is a yoga enthusiast.
He plays football and futsal weekly and regularly goes on hiking trips. He’s climbed Mount Kinabalu twice, and his proudest achievement is a trek to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal in 2013.
“A vegetarian diet avoids stomach problems and offers energy for the climb. I ate Nepalese food — rice, dhal and vegetable stew.”
The larger benefit of a vegetarian diet is peace of mind that comes from not causing harm to other living beings.
“There is nothing healthier in mind, body and soul than to be a vegetarian. People say I’m harming plants by being vegetarian but plants are not sentient and have no central nervous system to process feelings or emotions,” he says.