BY MARY OOMMEN –
When Lamyaa al Jabri decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle, she didn’t realise just how worried her family would be. Sharing her story, she said, “my mother was shocked and very worried and questioned the wisdom of excluded meat and dairy products from my diet. My extended family too were very surprised with my decision and I often had to hear comments about how this will affect my health, while some even questioned my sanity. My dad, however, was supportive and allowed me to stand by my decision. It took some time but eventually, my family has come to accept and even embrace my choice to go vegan.”
Her experience was what drove her to join Chantal Blake in starting an online Instagram and Facebook group called ‘Plant-Based Muscat’. “In the Middle East, the concept of veganism is often met with scepticism and confusion,” says Chantal.
“Meals are often considered incomplete without meat and this is especially true during festivities. This focus on meat is embedded in the culture of this region; especially for people of the desert. The harsh climate did not allow agriculture and locally grown produce was limited. However, things have changed and people now have access to a broader range of foods thanks to the movement of goods across countries.”
Today, there is a growing awareness of plant-based diets in the Middle East, particularly due to health reasons. While the vegan trend may have been primarily driven by issues about the treatment of and cruelty to animals, today it is much more about focusing on one’s own well-being. People are paying greater attention to what they eat. The numerous studies undertaken over the past decade that point to the link between the consumption of meat and dairy products and the corresponding incidences of cancer and heart disease have been hard to ignore. While being vegan may not be for everyone it definitely seems to offer some undeniable benefits.
Chantal who adopted a vegan diet over 15 years ago says that she has been able to see numerous health benefits. “I realised that I got sick less often, my digestion improved and I felt more energetic. I have a cleaner palate and feel that I can appreciate different tastes and flavours. I am also able to maintain a healthy weight due to the increased intake of fibre. My husband and two kids follow a vegan diet too. As a family, we are passionate not just about health and wellness but also about the environment.”
Like Chantal, Lamyaa too has experienced tangible benefits of following a vegan diet. “I saw my migraine disappear. I used to suffer from terrible migraines 3-4 times a month. I hated taking medicines for my migraine so I would suffer through them. But after I adopted a vegan diet, I realised that my migraines were less severe and eventually they stopped completely.”
So, what exactly constitutes a vegan diet? Veganism is a refined form of vegetarianism that excludes meat, eggs, milk, dairy products and processed foods that contain animal-derived ingredients. Many believe that this diet is very limiting. This is clearly a misconception. A lot of the traditional food of the region can be called vegan like Falafel, Hummus, Fattoush, Tabbouleh and Baba Ghanoush among others. Most supermarkets in Oman today stock vegan options like soya milk, rice milk, almond milk, tofu, and a huge variety of veggies and nuts. “In fact, our online community members offer great ideas and suggestions on what items to eat and where they are available,” says Chantal.
As the number of people becoming vegan increases, there is an awareness being created among local restaurants with some even offering special vegan items on their menu. Lamyaa says her favourite places to eat out are “Hayat’s Restaurant and Wagamama, both of which have dedicated vegan meals that are tasty and filling.”
However, Chantal had an important point to make when she said that, “While this is a great start, we have seen that a lot of restaurants are not really aware of what vegan means. We are actively trying to work with them so that they just don’t label foods vegan — but offer truly vegan meals. We are also working to convince them to offer more vegan options — not just salads, fruit bowls and smoothies. We vegans are extremely loyal, if you have a vegan option, we will go out of our way for that because we are not served everywhere and we do not have many choices.”
According to Chantal, “our ‘Plant Based Muscat’ vegan community is active and growing. We have around 70 people in our WhatsApp group of which 80 per cent are Omani and 20 per cent are expats. Most of our community members are in the age group of 20-45 years. Among these 70 per cent are women and 30 per cent are men. The interesting thing is that most of the people in the group were initially not aware that there were other vegans in Oman. In fact, our Omani members were surprised to know that there were others like them who had made the choice to go vegan. We can take credit for making vegan lifestyle more visible and for helping people to find each other — as a support group. Today, we have more than 1,600 followers on Instagram alone.”
Clearly, the number of people in the region adopting a vegan lifestyle is gradually increasing, fuelled by a quest for healthy habits and a cleaner diet. This interesting development is encouraging as it indicates a potential generational shift in eating habits with a greater focus on well-being.