I wrote this from my own experience and research as a long-time veg*n (vegetarian then vegan) living in Singapore. I’m not a health professional so this is not medical advice. Do your research and make your own conclusions, if I made any factual mistakes please let me know 🙂 If you’d like professional advice, contact my friend Sangmithra who is an accredited nutritionist and dietitian.
Note: This article contains reward links to products from iherb.com. I’ve tried these products and genuinely like them, hence I can recommend. If you purchase from my links you will get 5% off the next order and I will get 5% rewards credit, thanks in advance if you do! 🙂
“But iron, protein and calcium come only from meat!” Well..not true! Every single plant is highly nutritious in its unprocessed form. Take the humble spinach for example, it has at least 33 health benefits – including iron, protein and calcium.
More protein doesn’t always mean good. A rough guide from the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) is minimally 0.8g per kg of bodyweight for the average adult, depending on your activity levels. Anything more over a long period of time can be harmful. Published health studies like Proteinaholic and The China Study linked excess animal protein to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity as well as disordered kidney function, bone and calcium imbalance. With a modern lifestyle, it’s easy to overshoot the healthy amount, hence the prevalence of first-world diseases.
Plant protein is much more than soy. Almost every plant food has protein, just less or more. Here’s a non-exhaustive list (because listing everyone will be too long) of them that are mostly easy to find and affordable in Singapore. (If you aren’t sure where to buy them, comment or email me):
- Soy-based – Tofu, tempeh, textured soy protein (TVP/TSP), edamame,
beancurd pudding (a.k.a. tau hua), beancurd skin (tau kee), soymilk.
- Gluten-based – Seitan (a.k.a vital wheat gluten or 面筋), wholewheat breads/pasta/noodles.
- Grains – Millet, barley, oats, all wholegrain rice (brown, red, black rice), etc.
- Non-soy legumes – all legumes (petai, red & green beans, green peas, chickpeas, black eyed peas, kidney beans, dhals and lentils, , peanuts – they are not nuts, etc).
- Nuts – Cashews, almonds, walnuts, peanuts (all nuts are rather high in protein, listed here are the cheaper ones).
- Seeds – Quinoa, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, lotus seeds, tahini, boiled jackfruit seeds (try it it’s yum!), etc.
- Others – Spirulina
Contains less protein but don’t skip them! (you’ll see why soon):
- Veggies – Sprouts (soy/green bean sprouts), starches (pumpkin, sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, yam), broccoli, corn, spinach, string beans, french beans, sweet peas,
holland peas etc.
- Fungi & algae – All mushrooms (oyster, enoki, woods ear etc) and seaweeds (wakame, kelp etc) have various amounts of protein.
- Fruits – Coconut meat, guava, dates, avocados, durian, jackfruit, banana, prunes, etc.
Unsure of amounts? Google “(food name) protein” for USDA’s estimates or use a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal. What all these sources do not have is cholesterol!
About protein combining
Protein is made of 9 amino acids. Most plant proteins are known as incomplete proteins, as most plants do not contain all 9. It has been an old myth from 1971 that vegetarians and vegans must combine protein sources but newer studies shown that it isn’t necessary. A healthy body knows how to store and balance the amino acids from plants with any amount of protein. There’s no need to eat all 9 aminos within every bite. In fact there are good sources of complete proteins – hemp, chia, spirulina, soybeans, quinoa, buckwheat etc. Thus, getting enough calories from varied and minimally processed foods is important!
If you’re an athlete, vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke has an excellent introduction to plant-based fitness. Singapore-based athletes Luke and Emilie Tan spoke about how going plant-based was the main factor for increased performance. Personally I know many Singaporean vegan runners and they consume large amounts of fruits and veggies! If you want a more comprehensive analysis with references, check out this protein report written by my friend Victor who is also a personal trainer.
(Local bodybuilder Luke Tan won 1st overall for Spartan Race 2016 opens.)
Dried beans and dark green leafy veggies taken with Vitamin C are the best iron sources – even higher per calorie than animal sources. It’s true that our body absorbs plant-based iron less efficiently – but no worries, there’s an easy hack. Simply eat iron-rich plants with a good source of Vitamin C in a meal to ensure max absorption.
- Taking tea, coffee and calcium-rich foods at the same time as an iron source they inhibit iron absorption.
- Heating the source as heat destroys most of the vitamin C.
Some iron-rich food combinations:
- Rice and beans stew topped with tomato sauce, chopped raw chilli and coriander.
- Steamed or blanched dark greens with lemon, lime or orange juice dressing.
- Tofu (it’s made from a bean!) and broccoli stir fry drizzled with lime juice or garnished with raw chilli, coriander or parsley.
- Edamame with lime juice, sesame oil and soy sauce dip.
- Red dates and longan tea slightly sweetened with black sugar is a traditional Chinese way to increase blood and energy especially in menstruating and pregnant women. DIY for the most nutrition and taste!
- Or eat any iron source with a fruit or juice (made from real fruit).
Eating foods cooked in iron cookware can add a small boost but don’t depend only on that.
Surprise: Calcium is literally everywhere.
Studies have also shown that:
- Cow’s milk likely leech calcium from our bones. Because of the acidic animal protein, our own bone calcium is used to neutralize it.
- Though some vegans may have less calcium and protein intake due to lifestyle factors, their bone density is fine.
Many grains, legumes, leafy greens, fruits, nuts and other veggies plus fortified vegan foods (non-dairy milks, cereals, granola) have plentiful calcium. It’s equally important to get enough exercise and sunlight plus reduce salt and caffeine so your body can utilize the calcium efficiently.
Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids
There are 3 types of omega-3:
- ALA – found in many plant foods.
- EPA – found in fish, easily converted from ALA.
- DHA – mostly found in fish and certain seaweeds, less easily converted from ALA.
- Take less omega-6 (Eat less high omega 6 oils like corn, soy, grapeseed, sunflower. Use olive, peanut, canola instead.)
- Take more high omega-3 foods (Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts)
- Consider an algae-derived DHA supplement when needed, like if one is allergic to high omega-3 foods or during old age, pregnancy or breastfeeding. (Where do you think fish get their omega fatty acids? From algae!)
A study found that in populations which had a history of plant-based diets, some people have a “vegetarian gene” that evolved to help the body utilize omega-3 and 6 more efficiently. 70% of South Asians, 53% in Africans, 29% East Asians and 17% Europeans have it. Since we can’t be certain if we have it or not, I think it’s still safest to get a good amount through food.
This is the ONLY nutrient that has no concrete proof of any plant-based sources yet.
B12 is naturally made by bacteria in water and soil. In modern times our plant foods are scrubbed clean of earth. Unless you eat organic unwashed veggies, which I don’t recommend due to chances of contamination from other bacteria. So take a supplement regularly. Your local pharmacy surely has it affordably or you can get fancier ones (flavoured lozenges, liquid drops etc) from iHerb. I take a lozenge every week and my B12 levels have been tested to be good.
There are 2 types of vitamin D – D2 and D3. Because both are rare in natural foods and modern people are often indoors, it can be an issue for everyone, vegan or not.
- Sun exposed mushrooms. Place any mushrooms under sunlight (like on open window sill) for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Fortified vegan drinks and cereals. Common brands sold here (Natura, Rice Dream, Silk, Pacific, Almond Breeze) often has added D2 (plus other nutrients). Food sources of D3 are from sheep’s wool so look out for that in ingredients lists.
(fortified non-dairy milk found at NTUC finest)
- Direct sun exposure – According to the Singapore Health Promotion Board, let sun shine onto
uncovered arms and legs for 5-30mins (darker your skin is, the longer you need to be exposed) twice a week is enough. D3 is found to be the better vitamin D. So go out and take walks more if you can.
- Vegan supplements – if you can’t get either from sun (like during winter) or foods, consider taking one. Do not overdose as too much is toxic, seek advice from a professional if unsure.
Iodine & Selenium
These 2 minerals are slightly trickier. Both too little and too much of can cause serious health issues. Amounts in produce highly depend on how much iodine and selenium the soil had, thus it can be an issue for everyone too.
Iodine – Many countries add iodine to table salt to prevent deficiency but in Singapore that isn’t
compulsory. Best sources are sea algae, also known as seaweeds. Since ancient times, kelp, kombu, wakame, hijiki and nori have been a staple in most Asian cuisines. They are also rich in fiber, proteins, iron and vitamins.
Selenium – The richest plant source is brazil nuts, just 2 nuts is enough for an average adult’s daily needs. If you can’t confirm whether your food is grown in selenium rich soil, snack on some brazil nuts now and then but think twice about taking a supplement unless on doctor’s advice. I get my brazil nuts from here.
Legumes, nuts, seeds and grains have zinc, yet they also have phytates which reduces zinc absorption. Not to worry as there are many food combinations and preparation techniques to solve that! Vegans are generally not found to be deficient in zinc.
- Soaking, then sprouting or cooking legumes, nuts, seeds, grains greatly reduce phytates and will unlock a multitude of other nutrients. Many cultures have been doing – bean sprouts are staple in East Asia and Indians soak legumes before cooking. Here’s more on the detailed methods of preparing them for max nutrition.
- Fermenting increases zinc absorption. Examples are breads made with yeast and fermented soy (tempeh, miso, fermented beancurd).
- Protein and vitamin C (citric acid) help increase absorption too. Thus legumes are a great choice as they are rich in protein and zinc.
Collagen has become something of a buzzword in recent years, perhaps thanks to the rise in popularity of Korean skincare. The only concentrated plant-based source of collagen that I know of is peach gum, an ingredient that has been described as having multiple health benefits in ancient Chinese medical journals. Unfortunately I could not find any journals/research papers detailing the effects, but you can read more about peach gum here. I personally use it to make a sweet dessert sometimes and so far, coupled with skincare and enough rest, my skin has been pretty good. You can buy it on Shopee, or at various traditional Chinese medicine shops like Eu Yan Sang.
The bottom line
Going animal-free means you’ll need to pay more attention to your diet and lifestyle. If you are unable to do so, consider supplementing with fortified foods or vitamin pills as a last resort. If not, eat whole plant foods as much as possible as our bodies function best on it. On a well-planned diet with sufficient sun exposure and exercise, the only supplement needed is B12.
If you’re a typical Singaporean eating mostly at hawker centres, you may find it harder to get all the nutrition. That’s where the DIY food part comes in to help you!