Why health-conscious folk resort to vegetarian diets

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Alvine Kapitako

Windhoek-The increase in diabetes, high-blood pressure and cancer, diseases that are partially attributed to lifestyle, has seen multitudes of Namibians embracing a diet that consists more of fruits and vegetables.

For many this means resorting to vegetarianism or veganism. As a result, more Namibians now espouse healthier lifestyles, both by choice and default. Vegetarians exclude all meat, poultry, and seafood from their diet. Some also exclude dairy products, while some may consume eggs.

Likewise, vegans avoid meat, poultry and seafood, but take it a step further by eliminating all animal products from their diet. This includes any type of animal milk and eggs.

Vegans avoid foods produced using animals or animal products, including honey. Many vegans also avoid household products, clothing, or other items made from animal products, or that are tested on animals. But how accessible are alternative foods for vegetarians and vegans in Namibia?

Harsh Akheniya, the owner of the Garnish Indian restaurant, says when the restaurant opened its doors four years ago few customers were interested in their vegetarian and vegan dishes. “There is a big difference compared to when we started. Now the ratio is about 60-40 in terms of customers ordering vegetarian food,” he said.

He added that European tourists are the ones who mostly order the vegan food served at the restaurant. “The European tourists are vegan friendly,” he added. Also, many Namibians are becoming conscious of vegetarian diets and are ordering them these days, he added.

“Vegetarian food is healthy,” says Akheniya, a vegetarian himself. He adds that vegetarian food is a big part of Indian cuisine. “I never thought I would become a vegetarian. To be honest, I thought vegetarians were eating tasteless food that was probably also difficult to cook or find in restaurants,” commented Helvi Itenge-Wheeler, who has been a vegetarian for the past four years.

A Namibian herself, Itenge Wheeler said “a combination of things,” prompted her to become vegetarian. When her son started frequently having to visit the doctor for food poisoning they discovered that his body could not digest meat or cheese.

While trying to find a solution to her son’s problem, Iitenge-Wheeler did a lot of research. At the same time, she kept in touch with her sister who is vegan.

“She warned me that processed cheese and all dairy food are the worst things you can give to your child,” she said. Meanwhile, she discovered “disturbing facts”. For example, that meat takes days to digest and gets rotten in our body. “Whether this is true or not, it disgusted me,” she said.

Through further research Itenge-Wheeler also found that “most of the chicken we eat is often dosed up with antibiotics” and take only two weeks to grow to full size.

I also read that processed cheese has food colouring, emulsifiers and dairy substitutes that can really cause harm to your body. With all these disturbing facts she one day woke up to the reality of the situation and decided she would stop eating meat.

“At first, I stopped eating red meat and then a year later I stopped eating chicken. I eat fish sometimes, but I’m also in the process of cutting fish completely out of my diet,” she added.

Ben Schernick, who referred to himself as a part-time vegetarian, embraced the concept of vegetarianism when he was living in German. He’s been both vegetarian and full vegan, he says.

It was during his time in Germany when he traveled to various communities in Europe that he came across a vegan cook, who shared with him the benefits of such a lifestyle. In fact, it was more than a lifestyle – a belief rather.

Schernick says he embraced vegetarianism for animals not to suffer. The vegan cook who introduced him to it, he says, explained to him that people absorb the sufferings of animals in some way when the consume them.

“We are destroying the planet just because of eating meat,” he says. Besides the environmental impact, he added that there are definite health benefits to not eating meat.

“I’m not suffering from high blood pressure or anything like that… not eating meat is healthy,” he says.

Unlike in Europe where factory-based production of animals dominates the agriculture industry, meat in Namibia is produced in more natural conditions, he says, noting that this has health benefits in a world where genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are increasingly common in food.

“I have been a vegan for one year and that was too tough for me. I think I love cheese too much and milk,” he giggles. He stayed vegetarian for about five years “with just an occasional piece of meat if I couldn’t avoid it,” he admits.

Schernick, who now eats meat about 60 percent of the time, says it is partly because of the culture here, in the sense that it is almost impossible to avoid meat. “The meat here is almost organic, so it’s still fine,” he adds. He is married to a Namibian who he says loves vegetarian dishes, although she is also a meat lover.

The challenge
However, in the first years after Schernick came to Namibia in 2004, he struggled a lot, as it was difficult to find places that catered solely for vegetarians when eating out. The culture has changed over the years. “You can even find vegetarian burgers now,” he adds.

And, in the supermarkets the variety for vegetables are endless, he says. “From what I see, I don’t see enough (food) yet for vegans.”

Comparing Namibia to his home country, Germany, Schernick said: “There are a lot of vegetarian and vegan alternatives in the supermarkets there”. He further admits that occasionally he goes out for kapana (barbequed strips of spicy meat) with his loved ones.

Itenge-Wheeler agrees that it is rare to find people offering vegetarian options, especially at big events. Being vegetarian is thus a “big challenge”, especially when going to parties, she adds. It means she has to think twice about what would be served and this sometimes means turning down invitations to social events.

However, the petite Itenge-Wheeler says she is learning to deal with it, because she no longer expects people to cater for vegetarians. “People need to understand that when someone says they are vegetarian it does not mean they are on a diet. Sometimes, even restaurants do not cater for vegetarians. Thus, I prepare my lunch from home,” she adds.

Itenge-Wheeler and her family’s meals at home include tofu, beans, spinach, briyani rice, jollof rice, pasta, chilli, vegetarian lasagna and fish. While Itenge-Wheeler and her husband are both vegetarian, their children have a choice to eat meat if they want to.

“Our son knows his system does not digest meat nor cheese. Sometimes he eats chicken when he visits friends or family members, but only in small amounts. Naturally, our daughter was never that keen on eating meat ever since she was two. But again, she can decide if she wants to eat meat or not.”

The benefits
Growing up, Itenge-Wheeler suffered from recurring stomach problems, but ever since she stopped eating meat the problem went away. “My vegetarian journey actually made me a good cook too. I enjoy trying new recipes,” she says with evident satisfaction.

According to one study on the effects of a vegan diet published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it is associated with many health benefits. This is because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated.

Compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber. Vegans tend to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol and lower blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease, according to the findings of the study authored by Winston Craig.

However, eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. “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,” Craig noted.

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