Member of Vegetarian Society (Singapore) and head honcho of the Veg Buddy Program tells us about the perks of going veg, why some vegetarians avoid mock meat, and substitutes to that quarter pounder.

What does the Vegetarian Society (Singapore) do?
We aim to heighten awareness about the impact of consuming animal products on our health, the environment and the other living beings we share the planet with. This lets people make enlightened choices about the food they consume. We work towards this goal through various activities, such as producing free and high-quality educational materials for distribution, giving talks, food demonstrations to schools and the public, and outreaching with public exhibitions.

VSS also aims to give support to people transitioning towards a vegetarian and vegan diet through many ways. Our website features an extensive listing of local vegetarian outlets and our forum is a good platform for people to ask questions about health and nutrition, or to highlight new vegetarian eateries, etc. We also promote social gatherings among vegetarian food lovers, such as through the Singapore Vegetarian Meetup Group (which currently has more than 2,000 members), and we organise educational tours locally and abroad (such as visits to organic farms). And of course, most recently, we are running the Veg Buddy Program.

Why did you decide to start this Veg Buddy Program?
I realized through interacting with many Singaporeans that there is a growing collective consciousness about the tremendous health benefits of a plant-based diet, the destructive environmental impact of meat production and the horrors of factory farming, especially in the young generation. While many people are able to sympathise with the vegetarian or vegan cause, they are reluctant to try to change their diet because they think it's difficult or impossible. There are also many people who have tried to change their diet but have failed to do so successfully. So I decided to start the program to show the participants—and Singaporeans generally—how fun and easy it can be to adopt a veg diet for a sustained period of time. I believe that with the access to proper information and a support group of experienced vegetarians and vegans, anyone can successfully finish the Program if they wish to.

What sort of activities can participants expect?
They can expect a welcome launch event with a sumptuous dinner cooked by the mentors, as well as a movie screening about some startling nutrition research and the health aspects of going veg. They will also receive a Veg Starter Kit packed with lots of useful info, such as basic nutrition advice, where to eat out in Singapore, what resources they can use for cooking at home, as well as restaurant vouchers to kickstart their exploration of the delicious veg options in Singapore. Other events will include a free cooking lesson that will feature simple and delicious recipes, and which will include an introduction to raw food as well.

How exactly will a participant's mentor act as a guide?
At the very minimum, a participant’s mentor will be there to help him or her with any related questions or struggles, such as having difficulty finding healthy veg food near his or her home, school or workplace. Aside from that, it’s really up to the participant and the mentor to decide! If they both want to, they could be visiting restaurants and cafes or cooking veg meals together, for example. It really depends. Aside from the participant’s direct mentor, there will also be an online support group comprised of all the mentors to guide participants in their journeys.

What can they hope to get out of this program?
We hope that they will come out of the program with a more informed and enlightened relationship with food, a much better appreciation of what having a vegetarian (or vegan, if they so choose) lifestyle is truly like, as well as a better understanding of themselves.

So once that's all said and done, what are some of the health benefits of going vegetarian?
Compared to people on typical omnivorous diets, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol, and they tend to consume higher levels of fiber, magnesium, vitamins C and E, antioxidants, carotenoids and phytochemicals. More specifically, nutrition research has shown that eating a vegetarian diet contributes to a reduced risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and certain types of cancer.

Does that mean all vegetarians are healthy?
It's possible for vegetarians to be unhealthy as well—theoretically, you can be vegetarian by consuming lots of junk food (such as French fries, potato chips, deep-fried food, and highly processed mock meats) without having to ever eat any fruits or vegetables. In that case, it's not surprising if you don’t reap any benefits from a vegetarian diet at all. The key is to know how to eat well and healthily.

How does one get the full set of nutrients from a vegetarian diet? Any tips?
Eat from a wide variety of whole foods (food in its natural, unprocessed state). You don’t have to worry about getting the exact balance of nutrients at every meal, because having a balanced diet generally will help you get the full set of nutrients over longer periods (such as in a day or in a week). Without going into what you need to eat to obtain a particular nutrient, I encourage getting most of your calories from whole grains (like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, rolled oats, barley and quinoa), vegetables (especially dark and leafy greens), legumes (like chickpeas, beans, lentils, and peas), nuts (especially almonds and walnuts) and seeds (like flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds). A daily vitamin B12 supplement would be great too.

Is mock meat really considered going vegetarian?
The short answer is, strictly speaking, mock meat is vegetarian as long as all the ingredients are vegetarian but a particular person might choose to exclude it from his or her diet due to personal reasons. For example, some are weirded out since mock meat tastes uncannily similar to real meat. Others think that focusing on mock meat invites comparison to real meat and indirectly continues to support the consumption of meat. There are also vegetarians who are concerned about the environmental impact of mock meat, mainly because most mock meat are made with soy, the farming of which has been associated with devastating the rainforest. Yet again others avoid mock meat—or at least, the highly processed types whose ingredients lists comprise of unintelligible chemical names—for health reasons.

What happens if they give up, or fix their craving for, say, a quarter pounder?
Of course, we would encourage participants to turn to their mentors when they feel like they want to give up, and the mentors would do their best to prevent that. But if that fails, and a participant caves in and grabs a quarter pounder, it's not the end of the world. After all, the 21-Day Veg Buddy Program is a promise made by participants to themselves and nobody else. We'll encourage him or her to evaluate the experience with the mentor, and discuss ways to prevent the situation from happening again (such as possible meat substitutes he or she can turn to when cravings hit). Everything is a learning experience!

Any parting words of advice to would-be vegetarians?
1) Be very sure about your motivations for going veg, and when you feel yourself wavering, remind yourself what they are.

2) Be curious about the impact of food on your health, the other living beings we share our planet Earth with, and the environment. Find ways to stay updated on the latest news in such areas – the Internet makes it very easy.

3) Transitioning to a veg diet means discovering a whole new world of cuisine that you likely have not tried before. Personally, I only realised how much good vegetarian and vegan food there is in Singapore after I became vegan. And two years ago, I would never have heard of things like nutritional yeast, chlorella, kamut, agave nectar, amaranth, Liquid Braggs Aminos and gourmet raw cuisine. So above all – have lots of fun and never stop exploring!

Veg Buddy Program runs from May 18-June 8. Registration closes May 3.