Veganism is both the practice of strictly abstaining from the use of all animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. The vegan movement is flourishing in Kuwait. This five-part series takes a look at the creative Kuwaitis who have adopted the ethical vegan lifestyle and some who have established businesses based on its principles. This is part one.
Veganism is a small but rapidly growing global movement plagued by misconceptions. Like vegetarians, vegans refrain from eating poultry, meat, or seafood but they also do not consume eggs, dairy products, and other animal-derived substances. Here in Kuwait, vegans are confronted with the same myths as other people around the world who choose a plant-based diet. Vegan food is said to be bland and unhealthy, expensive, hard to find, and time-consuming to prepare, and vegans themselves are even accused of being radical or extreme in their views.
That’s why “it’s all about awareness” at the Kuwait Vegan Society, (KVS), according to the society’s Founder, a pleasant, sincere, and dedicated young Kuwaiti woman named Dr Abir Al Sharhan. “If people are accurately informed about veganism, then they can make their own decisions,” she says.
Dr Abir has been a vegan for fifteen years. Her full-time job is as Assistant Director for Technical Affairs at the Center for Child Evaluation and Teaching. “During the day I spend my time as an advocate for the rights of children. After hours I promote the ethical treatment of animals by adopting a plant-based diet and not causing animals harm and suffering. We can and should support animal rights as well as human rights,” she states.
The Kuwait Vegan Society is a non-profit organisation established in 2014. Its vision is “to have a world in which people are healthy; a world where exploiting animals is a thing of the past and where the environment is clean and protected.” Its mission is “to provide resources and support the community in adopting a plant-based lifestyle; and spread awareness on veganism and its positive effects on humans’ health, the animals, and the environment.”
“We have leaflets and brochures in Arabic and English and we distribute free vegan recipe books. We participate in exhibitions, bazaars, and markets, and we hold monthly events including vegan cooking demonstrations, and lectures and movie screenings followed by discussion sessions. The events are usually in English and Arabic and are free of charge and open to all. We also have a website and an Instagram account,” says Dr Abir.
It doesn’t take long for Dr Abir to debunk the most common misinformation about veganism. She explains that a wide range of tasty, satisfying, and healthy dishes can be made with readily-available fresh fruits, vegetables, pulses, and legumes. On her desk is a vegan cookbook called “Forks Over Knives” with color pictures of a wide range of mouthwatering dishes.
“There are so many easy and delicious vegan recipes you can prepare, and you can improvise and create countless different combinations. Many Kuwaiti dishes can be adapted to vegan versions simply by substituting a few ingredients. Okra stew, for example, is a popular dish in this part of the world and instead of meat you can use mushrooms, or truffles when they’re in season,” Dr Abir says.
“We’re lucky that we can find specialised items in most of our major supermarket chains, like tofu, mock meats, about half a dozen different types of nut milks that serve as a substitute for dairy milk, and creamy, smooth vegan ice cream that actually has less fat and fewer calories than regular ice cream. Over the last few years it has become much easier to adopt a vegan lifestyle in Kuwait.”
Dr Abir explains that while certain special vegan food items may be a bit pricey, the most expensive item on a non-vegetarian’s shopping list is usually meat, so by replacing meat with inexpensive legumes, lentils, and fresh fruits and vegetables in season, vegans can actually save money on their grocery bill.
“For those who don’t like to cook there are a number of amazing vegan restaurants,” Dr Abir continues, “like Ginger, the pioneers of the vegan food movement in Kuwait; Juna’s, BE Café, and even a vegan bakery with the most wonderful sweets, called Rustic Garden. Many other local restaurants have also begun including vegan options in their menus.”
In regard to those who think a vegan diet is unhealthy, Dr Abir says she can understand their concerns. “Most people are used to the standard food pyramid that shows dairy products for calcium; and poultry, meat, and seafood for protein and iron, etc. But in fact we don’t need to eat these foods to be healthy. Mushrooms, potatoes and certain other vegetables, legumes, lentils, tofu and other soy products, and fortified nut milks provide us with protein. Soy and nut milks are also a source of calcium. The only supplement that vegans really need to take is Vitamin B12.”
According to Dr Abir, eating a vegan diet results in better health and an improved mental state. “A vegan diet brings about such good quality of life that it’s something you want to share with others. People who became vegans come to me all the time and tell me about how they were able to lose weight much more easily, how they feel full of energy and have better concentration, or how their acne cleared up, their migraines are gone, or they no longer suffer from stomach ailments, which could be signs of lactose intolerance.”
Dr Abir points out that scientific evidence proves that a vegan diet reduces the risk of a broad range of health concerns. She took permission to translate into Arabic and reprint a newsletter published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. The newsletter states that since vegans consume a cholesterol-free diet, heart disease is much less common in vegans. So are high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis.
According to the newsletter, plant-based diets are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat-based diets, factors known to help protect against cancer. Plants also contain cancer-fighting substances called phytochemicals. Other anti-cancer aspects of plant-based diets still can’t be explained. “For example, researchers are not quite sure why vegetarians have more of certain white blood cells, called ‘natural killer cells,’ which are able to seek out and destroy cancer cells,” the article points out. It concludes that, “studies of vegetarians show that death rates from cancer are only about one-half to three-quarters of those of the general population.”
According to Dr Abir, while research proves that eating a vegan diet results in improved health, it doesn’t mean that vegans don’t suffer from any diseases. “It’s not good to exaggerate, we need to be scientific and factual in order to be credible,” she says.
So what about the accusations that vegans are extreme, even militant, in their views? During the course of my research for this five-part series on veganism in Kuwait, I found local vegans ethical but not extreme in their philosophy or behavior; passionate about what they believe in without being pushy or preaching; and extremely tolerant and non-judgmental of people with different lifestyles.
Dr Abir is happy that veganism has become a topic of discussion in Kuwait. “It’s not taboo any more. But I still think the greatest challenge for many new vegans is not so much adjusting to the diet but coping with criticism from family members. They’re told that being a vegan isn’t good for their health and well-being. Some parents won’t even cook plant-based food for their teenage or grown-up children who have decided to become vegan.
“However, more and more, we are meeting people who are concerned about their health and their family’s health, people who are environmentalists and who care about the type of planet we should be leaving for the next generation; and more and more we are seeing a lot of kind and compassionate actions towards our fellow beings the animals. Veganism is all about compassion and kindness to our bodies, our planet and the animals.”
For Dr Abir, the decision to become vegan was one hundred per cent ethical. “Currently, most animals raised for food are exploited and deprived of their basic freedoms: freedom from hunger, discomfort, fear, pain and disease, and freedom to express normal behavior. Most animals are crammed into filthy wire cages or metal crates. These animals will never have the freedom to raise their young, or build their nests or do anything that is natural to them like being in the sun or breathing fresh air. In addition there are millions of other animals who live in captivity such as those used for experimentation, and those in the circus, zoos, and in fur farms.”
Dr Abir points out that when the demand for animal-based food products decreases, so will the supply, but as long as people demand these products the slaughter will continue. “It’s up to each individual to say ‘I will not be part of this behavior that’s detrimental to my health and the environment and is unnecessarily causing great suffering to vast numbers of animals.’”
Studies show how our environment suffers from the animal-based food industry. Dr Abir cites statistics from a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “The livestock sector, meaning all farmed animals, is responsible for eighteen per cent of green house gas emissions, and contributes significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. The livestock sector is also responsible for eight per cent of global human water use and is probably the largest source of water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the livestock sector is probably the leading player in the reduction of biodiversity since it is the major driver of deforestation, land degradation, pollution, and overfishing.”
According to Dr Abir, veganism is an all-encompassing movement, a way of life that encourages people to be well-rounded, compassionate, peaceful individuals who try to make the world a better place. “People sometimes ask me, how much difference can one person make? I tell them, one person can do a lot. Besides working to help animals and the environment, you can do small things every day like smiling at a stranger, visiting a lonely relative or neighbor, performing a chore for an elderly person, recycling and keeping your living and workspace clean. All these things make a difference.
“We have to live by example,” she concludes. “Everyone blames the government for everything, but there are no perfect governments in this world, and instead of making excuses, people should ask themselves, what are they doing to help.”
Part of Kuwait Vegan Society’s mission is to reach out to the community, and on a pleasant November afternoon that’s what Dr Abir and KVS volunteer Abdullah Al Shami are doing at Marina Crescent. They’re approaching pedestrians and handing out leaflets in Arabic titled “Why Should I Be A Vegan?”
Abdullah is a personable 26-year old E-Commerce manager who became a vegan almost a year ago. He adopted a plant-based diet after watching a documentary called “Cowspiracy.”
“I was just browsing Netflix when I happened to come across this film. It was such an eye-opener. It talked about how the meat and dairy industry has a huge negative effect on the environment in terms of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, world hunger and health, literally everything! By the end of it I had decided to become a vegan.
“I feel great now, but for the first two weeks I was starving because I was just eating vegetables,” he laughs. “Then I did more research and discovered there are lots of other filling foods I can eat, like lentils, beans, pasta, and rice. Now I’m really glad I made this decision.”
Abdullah heads off down the seafront with a stack of leaflets while Dr Abir positions herself at the other end of the marina. “I love talking to people about veganism,” she says with an engaging smile, and is soon explaining the many benefits of the vegan diet with curious passersby.
In the coming articles in this series we’ll meet more enterprising and imaginative Kuwaitis who have chosen the vegan lifestyle and have created businesses based on vegan ethics as well as diet.
For more information about Kuwait Vegan Society see their Instagram @kuwait_vegan_society or their website at www.kuwaitvegansociety.org.