Cover Story


Januaray 9 - 15, 2019

Gulf Weekly Mai Al Khatib-Camille
By Mai Al Khatib-Camille


Food lovers across the kingdom have pledged to go meatless for the month of January as part of a community campaign created by vegan Shivani Sathasivam to help raise awareness about plant-based diets and their benefits.

Plant Based Bahrain, founded by the 22-year-old Indian expatriate living in Riffa, was inspired by the annual meat-ending movement launched by a registered charity in UK in 2014 known around the world as Veganuary.

More than 250,000 people in 193 countries have signed up for the pledge in the past five years and as of 2019, more than 170,000 people across 14 countries started the New Year resolving to eat a plant-based diet in a bid to reduce the suffering of animals, help the planet and improve personal health.

Moved by the message of the campaign and witnessing the positive effects of going vegan first hand, Shivani made a pledge of her own to share her meatless ways by launching Plant Based Janauary.

 “The initiative encourages people to try a plant-based diet as a New Year’s resolution,” said Shivani, a marketer who is also the creative director of Plant Based Bahrain. “This campaign seeks to educate people about the benefits that such a diet will have on their physical and mental health.”

These diets include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and oils while eliminating or minimising animal products. They have been associated to a number of health benefits including reducing the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline.

According to an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the health benefits to eating a vegan diet are aplenty. It’s high in fibre and boasts a number of different nutrients, specifically folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, and magnesium. Another study showed that the benefits of this include having lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, as well as being able to maintain a lower weight. All of these together can reduce your risk of heart disease. Being vegan also offers protection against type-2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

 “I thought it was time for Bahrain to have more awareness about plant-based diets and how it might be the key to eliminate or drastically reduce illnesses like cancer and diabetes and improve the quality of life,” added Shivani. “Currently around 15 per cent of the population suffer from diabetes with the illness causing five per cent of deaths in Bahrain.

“Cancer incidents are also increasing locally and internationally. As incomes increase globally so does the consumption of meat and dairy which is shown to have a direct relation to these illnesses that are mostly avoidable and also reversible with a plant-based diet.

“We had someone in Bahrain reach out to our campaign saying their dad was in Mexico getting treatment for cancer and they put him on a vegan diet and he’s getting better, which made them think about the food and its impact on their health. We want to educate people to help change their ways while they still can before they inevitably face the consequences.

“Most people are unaware of the impact that their diet has on the world around them. It doesn’t cross our minds to think about such things so I wanted to invoke that thought through this campaign.

“Our initiative will help bridge the gap of customers wanting more plant-based options and restaurants offering them by providing free menu consultancy by our professional plant-based chefs. We want cafes to offer vegan pastries and dessert by pairing them with local vegan businesses and home bakers that are also on this rise, for mutual benefit.

“I truly believe that a plant-based diet will help put you on your path for healthiness, to become fit and have a bit of an impact on the environment, even if it is at least for one month of the year.”

Shivani, a former St Christopher’s School student who graduated with an economics and management degree from the University of London, LSE,  knows the trials and tribulations of being a vegan all too well, although she was a meat-eater once upon a time herself. Her past diet was mostly vegetarian and included the occasional fish and chicken but never any beef due to her upbringing.

She was traumatised when picking up mutton from the butcher shop at the age of eight and since then never touched meat except for chicken and fish. In April 2017, she jumped on the vegan bandwagon after watching a documentary about the horrors animals go through.

“I went vegan overnight and never looked back,” she said. “It started because of my desire to help the environment and the animals but in a couple of weeks I noticed that my chronic knee pain, which I suffered from for 10 years from an old injury, had completely gone.

“I was actually considering knee replacement surgery because I was unable to run much, bend them and so on. I had joint pain and lower back pain for more than a year and that was also completely healed.

“I was able to do much more at the gym in just two weeks of going vegan, running faster and longer. My breathing improved dramatically. I play ultimate Frisbee so I was able to see the difference in my performance pre and post veganism.

“In one month, all the ailments I had suffered as a mere ‘healthy’ 20-year-old vanished simply by the elimination of meat and dairy from my diet. I was finally able to perform as an athlete and in weight training better than I ever imagined. Thus my passion for the plant-based diet grew and I joined the vegan community which is undeniably on the rise.”

Shivani, joined by like-minded individuals such as Amal Mashal, an 18-year-old student dietician, and Hamad Al Saad, 32, a food psychology coach, have set up a series of documentary viewings, workshops and meets with restaurants and cafes to keep the campaign interesting and fun for all to try starting with the @plantbasedbahrain on Instagram.

The social media account will inform followers of the various events being staged at book stores, gyms and cafés across the island as well as feature recipes for people to cook up at home.

“People can take part in this challenge with their friends, family or co-workers,” said Shivani. “The vegan community is undeniably on the rise and we see this by the increase in demand for vegan ingredients and replacements in supermarkets and restaurants. Plant-based milks are offered almost everywhere now compared to 2017 when it was still only the international chains that stocked them.

“We will also offer them the resources and guides to try it more effectively, with information tailored to the average Bahraini lifestyle and diet.

 “We see more people become conscious consumers, use less plastic and choose organic where possible. Bahrain is thus becoming more vegan friendly.

“Our aim is to educate as many people as possible about the benefits of the diet, to get restaurants to add at least three vegan dishes and one vegan dessert to their menus and get cafés to offer plant-based milks at no extra charge as well as two vegan desserts. We also will engage gyms and fitness centres to challenge their members and have events showcasing plant-based lifestyles featuring food, fashion and local vegan businesses.

“Our plant-based chefs and recipe-developers will also help restaurants and cafés with creating this menu and provide recipes catered to the restaurant’s cuisine.

“Moreover, we have built a website to showcase the campaign as well as partners, restaurants, cafés and businesses that offer plant-based products, to make it easier for people trying the challenge this January to find where to eat or buy food or products without any hassle.”

Raw Candy, a plant-based, vegan, chocolate bar and wellness café located in Almoayyed Tower in Seef, has linked up to the campaign to help spread the word and share the tasty milk substitutes and desserts that are chalked-full of nutrients, vitamins and other healthy goodness.

Olivia Middleton, Raw Candy marketing manager, said: “What’s great about what is happening is that there is more interest and growing curiosity about the lifestyle and more people are implementing plant-based options in their diet. Also, established restaurants in Bahrain are accommodating vegans and adding options to their menus.

“I think what Plant Based Bahrain is doing is fantastic and providing a support system for the Bahrain community. It’s nice to see that they are providing a healthy, supportive dialogue compared to a lot of places around the world. They are not pushing their ideals but educating people.”

Supermarkets are also adding more products to their shelves to accommodate consumer demands such as Lulu Hypermarket.

 “At Lulu we have always offered a strong health food section as part of our variety for customers,” said a Lulu spokesperson.

“Naturally, this focuses on plant-based foods and embraces vegan and vegetarian trends. From vegan cheeses and milk, including soy, rice, oats and almond milk, to super grains and foods such as quinoa and millet. We stock them all.

“In addition, we have top brands that offer additive-free, GMO-free and gluten-free foods that are flavoursome and match customer health needs.

“Increasingly, we find customers are more aware of the food they eat. In addition, our abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables also meets the needs of home chefs.

“We also have meat substitutes and some amazing convenience foods that can go from microwave to table. These are international brands and it all means that vegans and vegetarians need no longer feel that their non-vegetarian friends have more fun.”

Vegetarian Amanda Williams, The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain’s associate director of public relations, decided to take on the vegan challenge and is delighted with the five-star hotel’s plant-based offerings.

She said: “I began my vegetarian/plant-based lifestyle journey at the age of 15, and as I matured and became more educated on its benefits, it really became more of a lifestyle choice.

“One amazing thing about our portfolio of award-winning restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain is that our menus offer a variety of vegetarian, plant-based and/or vegan diet options. Our chefs can also prepare something special which is important as we are starting to see more and more guests requesting these options as the healthy living food trend becomes more popularised.”

It’s not too late to join in the fun as there are several events lined up for the entire month. There will be a wellness retreat tomorrow, on Friday and Saturday at Strong Village in Jasra. There will also be a How to Lose Weight with a plant-based diet at 4pm at Anais Café. There will also be a plant, milk and more cooking demonstration on January 19 at 4pm at Words Bookstore Café. Other workshops and cooking demonstrations will include veganising traditional Arabic food. Timings and locations are yet to be confirmed and a calendar of events will be added to the Instagram account in the near future.

“We also encourage plastic- free and reusable material for packaging and try to reduce single-use plastics as well as promote cruelty free fashion and beauty products,” said Shivani. “We want to cover all aspects of environmental concerns as long as we are running this campaign to shed light on personal social responsibility as well as guide people on how to help and make it easy to adopt alternatives.

“After the January initiative, we will continue hosting workshops and events throughout the year, and perhaps have a Saudi edition next year too!”

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