Bumrungrad Hospital

This post had been sitting in my drafts file for six months! I may as well finally publish it! 🙂

surroundsound5000

For the second year now, I have been lucky enough to have a full medical provided by the medical insurance that I have as part of my job. The small amount of money we get to actually go quite far in Asia and as well as having all the basics done, I always like to ask to have a few extras done, especially those nutrients that a vegan can be lacking. I headed on over to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok (because I just moved back here… YAY) early in the morning with an empty belly to get all my numbers done.

After lots of poking and blood work, I went back to the doctor and listened to the results. Here is our interaction, because I think it illustrates just how much many seeds that can be planted in such a short exchange.

Doctor: So your results are in. Your blood pressure is a little bit low but not low enough to require any treatment. Your BMI is excellent, calcium is fine, iron is a tiny bit low, but not enough to require any work to be done. B12 is good and your cholesterol is excellent.
Brighde: Great. Do you know why my numbers are so good?
Doctor: Why?
Brighde: Well, I have a family history of osteoporosis and high cholesterol, so I am quite sure the numbers being good is because I am vegan. Do you know what that is?
Doctor: No?
Brighde: Someone who eats only plants, like jeh. No meat, cheese, eggs, dairy, fish etc. You know, you should recommend eating this way to your patients who have heart disease. I think it would really help them.
Doctor: But, I think that it is really difficult. Even I cannot do that.
Brighde: Well, I agree with you, that at first it is difficult while you learn to eat a different way, but I want to know. What is worse? Having your chest cut open or eating vegetables?
Doctor: Hmm… Well, what about burgers? I would miss burgers.
Brighde: I can teach you how to make burgers that will be really tasty.
Doctor: Well, that sounds interesting. (She is being very polite while I am telling her how to do her job.)
Brighde: Can I have a piece of paper?

I scrawled down the names of some important films or books that she might like to peruse in her own time.

After our pleasantries, I left the office with a skip in my step knowing that I had planted some really good seeds in that interaction.

Today, I need to go an see her again to pick up the report, and I will be offering her a USB stick with my favourite health related movies which of course, she might watch.

Some other thoughts about this interaction is:

1. Why don’t doctors know more about the health benefits of eating a vegan diet? Well, I think part of this is just the few hours that doctors spend on nutrition in medical school?
2. Why are regular doctors prescribing such moderate and ineffective recommendations to heart disease patients which are rarely successful? I think an answer to this, is that they feel it is impossible to make such ‘drastic’ changes to THEIR lifestyle, surely their patients could not do it either.
3. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if hospitals had health coaches in them, that were covered by insurance that would give the sick people all the help they needed to live a plant-based lifestyle, eg cooking lessons, supermarket trips, counselling etc? Bumrungrad does have a ‘nutrition program and weight management area’ which I must find out more about, but I bet it is not what I have just described.

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What is Mercy Release?

This image is taken from a Scientific American Slideshow.

I’ve now been living in Asia pretty consistently for 10 years now. I have been lucky to spend decent lengths of time in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (and although not in Asia, I have spent a year in France and also Morocco).  The first five years were spent tour-leading for a company that focused on trips that were considered culturally appropriate, fun and low impact. I spent much of my time having local interaction with the local people, taking my clients to local restaurants. markets, temples, taught them a bit of language and I have to say, I really enjoyed it It was during that time, that I started to doubt my vegetarianism values. As I have discussed on my Story of Transformation post, I really felt that  not eating animals and participating in some of the activities that were such a significant part of culture, I was somehow disrespecting the practices of the locals. For more selfish reasons, I thought that I was perhaps missing out on so much by not eating an ‘authentic’ Tom Yum Goong with the shrimp inside rather than having it with mushrooms instead.

Fast forward a few years, I am now a committed vegan, and because of my interest in other cultures and traditions relating to animals, I was fascinated to learn about mercy release today and also completely shocked by it.

Anyone who has spent any time in Asia, will be familiar with the concept. It’s a Buddhist tradition and involves the release of captive animals. Buddhists will release animals as a way to gain merit. The origin of this centuries old tradition is the idea that spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion will mean something when judgment day comes.

I have posted about religious reasons for using animals just last year when I wrote about Eid Al Adha – which is the ritualistic slaughter of an animal at the end of the fasting month.

I have recently found out a lot more about mercy release and like most traditions (cultural or religious) that we practice today that involve animals, the origins of those traditions were started out of necessity, but today have become a commercial operation and / or are no longer necessary.

I myself have witnessed mercy release in my wanderings around Asia in the few years in the following places.

  • In the lead up to Tet (Vietnamese New Year) when fish are released in to bodies of water (that is often not the cleanest it could be).
  • Walking through the streets of Bangkok, there will be people walking around with cages full of finches. The vendor will gesture to tourists and of course to anyone who will pay the money to come over the release the birds.
  • In Thai temples (of which I visited sooooo many in my tour-leading days) there are often vendors who will sell the opportunity to release animals (often birds, turtles and eels) to those who are visiting. Of course, Buddhists who are coming to the temple are in merit-making mode and will often participate in this. Tourists often do this too. Of course, all those little animals in small cages, of course we want to let them  go.

I have to admit, that until just a couple of hours ago, I had little idea about this industry. I don’t think I have ever participated in it even in my tour-leading days. I heard rumours from other tour leaders that the animals are often recaptured. I have to admit, I wondered how an animal could be captured twice (What terrible luck!) and wondered if this was THAT bad, but at the same time, there were a heck of a lot of these animals in the cages. I probably should have found out more, but you know… I never got around to it.

Well, I just found out a whole lot more in one of favourite animal rights podcasts, Our Hen House. There were interviewing Iris Ho from Human Society International who was interviewed about this issue.

Some of the incredible takeaways from learning about this issue are:

  • In Taiwan, there are 200 million animals that are ‘mercy released’ a year. I cannot imagine how many animals go through this fate altogether considering China is a country that also practices Mercy Release. Considering these animals are trapped from the wild or bred in terrible conditions, this is an almost unbelievable.
  • The animals are often transported long distances and suffer incredible stress. Many die during this process or shortly after release. They are released in places that are not native to the animals there so there can be considerable environmental impacts.
  • The animals are trapped and the traps are often not checked for a long time. Many die before they are even collected by the trappers. Many can be injured during this trapping process.

To hear the podcast interview, listen here from 28:24  for about 20 minutes.

For a snapshot of the issue, here is a video that has been produced by HIS. It’s in Chinese, for the Taiwanese communities. Please take a few minutes to find out about more about mercy release.

The idea of showing compassion towards animals to gain merit is certainly a noble one. I would like to suggest that very often these traditions and rituals have become involved in ego, rather than about what the actual message was about when the tradition started. Here’s a few examples.

  • At Christmas it’s become about parties and gifts rather than peace and goodwill
  • Thanksgiving has become about Black Friday sales and gluttony rather than simple gratitude.
  • Eid el Adha has become about who has the biggest animal to slaughter (the rich will often have the bigger more expensive animal) rather than breaking fast and sharing meat with the poor in a time of scarcity where there wasn’t much food out there.
  • Kosher and halal slaughter – the idea that the animal has to be fully conscious so that consumers could be sure that the meat was healthy has now become a reason NOT to stun the animal before slaughter.

There is plenty we can all do to raise awareness about this practice and practice alternative types of mercy release to gain merit whether you are Buddhist or not.

Things you can do.

  • Don’t participate in the practice and educate others about it. Support HSI’s work and share the information around your social networks and over the water cooler.
  • If you work in the tourism industry, please educate your passengers about this issue and ask them to not participate. Don’t visit temples that support this practice and explain why to the monks. I wish I had known more about this issue when I was tour-leading.
  • Even if you are Buddhist, you can still gain merit by spontaneous acts of compassion towards animals. Become involved with legitimate release of animals, like ones that have been rescued and then help release them back in to the wild (turtle release programs, cleaning animals after oil spills etc) or perhaps even better, help animals 3 times a day by NOT doing something! That’s right….. Not eating them! OK. It might not be looked on as favorably in your religious community, but if you are into pleasing the Gods, I am sure they will think your intentions  will gain you loads more merit.

 

I Feel So Humbled!

For over a year now, I have been doing volunteer work for Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. I am a communications liason, which basically means that I help answer Colleen’s emails.

In the past few years, as her message has been discovered by many thousands of people through her excellent podcast, she has received many letters from her listeners, fans of her books, audience members during her speaking engagements etc. Now, if Colleen, were to reply to all of these, I don’t think she would have time to do any other work! My job is to answer these emails as best as I can.

The emails that Colleen receives might be a nutrition question, a challenge they face being vegan, the heartache they experience when they first realise what is happening to animals or most often, a letter of thanks to Colleen and an expression of the joy they feel living this lifestyle.

How am I qualified to do this? Well, since becoming vegan, I have listened to Colleen’s podcasts many, many times. First of all they were just enjoyable to listen to but more importantly, I learnt many communication strategies through her and also I have an in-depth knowledge of her work and her message. I also NEEDED to listen many times. The ideas were so radically different to those that I had, I needed to listen to them multiple times in order to internalise the ideas expressed in them. This means that I am able to point people to which of Colleen’s resources they might find helpful and if that is not available, I keep up to date with so many other blogs and podcasts so they can get the resources they need. I don’t want to give anyone a reason to go back to eating animal products. I also think I am able to provide some guidance to those that write to Colleen. When writing for Colleen, I always try to stay empathetic and remember my own story.

The benefits I receive by doing this work, far outweigh the precious time I spend writing them. First of all, it gives me hope. When I just feel saddened by the incredible scale of animal suffering, I just have to read an email to know that people are changing and waking up and realizing that there is a healthy viable alternative is brilliant. I also get an incredible satisfaction to know  that I am helping people by giving them resources, or comfort and of course getting to work with my hero Colleen by doing this work is fantastic. I also love the fact that I get to hone my communication skills by doing this work. Each letter is an opportunity to speak for the animals. The more one practices, the better one becomes. It’s great for my own interactions with the people around me.

So, I have been doing this for a year now. I’ve got my little routine for answering. It usually happens on Friday evening and I hope to be doing to for a long time. I know Colleen appreciates my work (she tells me often and gives such lovely feedback) but I was incredibly humbled the other day when I listened to her podcast.

Each year, she does a podcast where she reads a collection of love letters she has received from people all around the world to give her listeners hope. This year’s episode was nearly 3 hours long! That’s a lot of love letters!

I am tickled pink because at around the 12 minute mark, Colleen takes some time to thank little ol’ me! If you want to hear what she has to say, you can click here and if you want to hear the kind of letters I have the honour of replying to, keep listening. 🙂

 

Health Improvements Since Becoming Vegan

Since going vegan three and a half years ago, I really do believe that I am much healthier than I was before. Some of these changes are tangible some are just ‘how I feel’,  and I just wanted to share what some of those are. Obviously, this is not a scientific study and I m not claiming anything more than this is what I have observed, and these improvements have been noticed by other vegans and have been documented in research too.

First of all, I have to say that even before I was vegan, I did not really have many health problems. I was rarely sick but I did seem to get more than my fair share of colds, probably about 3 or 4 per year and I also suffered from what I thought was mild hay fever.  I also think it is worth noting that since I have been vegan, my diet has really changed. Today, I eat a huge amount of vegetables of many different colours, which are incredibly nutrient dense, the grains I cook at home are nearly always whole grain but I still try to limit those as they displace the vegetables that are much more healthy. When I started being vegan, a typical dinner might have been a huge plate of pasta with a vegan pesto for example. These days, I might still have the pasta, but it will be a much smaller amount and with a massive green salad on the side and the pasta will probably be wholegrain. I won’t eat pasta 4 times a week (yes…really) rather it will be once a fortnight, perhaps less.

Why are vegetables so important? If we consume a massive amount of different colour vegetables, we are consuming a massive number of photochemicals. These phyto chemicals are so important to our cells’s health and are just not available in animal foods ( phyto actually means plant) which is why government recommendations are that half our plate be filled with non starchy vegetables.

So, healthy improvements that I have noticed are:

  • My nails used to peel considerably and today they don’t.
  • I used to suffer from lots of colds, I rarely I get them anymore. Last year, I got one cold and I think I have had 3 in the 3.5 years I have been vegan. In 3.5 years I have taken 2 days sick leave from work and one of those was a mild flu (fever) and the other was due to a bug of some sort (shaking someone’s germy hand probably). Considering that I work in schools with children in a tropical climate, I do think my immune system is working very well indeed.
  • I used to suffer from something I can only describe as morning mucus… Gross….. I don’t anymore. I suspect might be down to drinking dairy products. No scientific proof, it’s just a hunch!
  • I have also lost a considerable amount of weight. I am now on average 8kg lighter than I was before I went vegan (About 13% of my total weight). When I went back to Australia for the first time last Christmas, many family members commented on how well I looked…. OK… They might have just been polite, but I’ll take it! I am sure this is down to me eating foods that are nutrient rich and lower in calories than dairy, refined flours, cheese etc. I also very rarely drink anymore.

As part of my school’s insurance package, I was also able to have a full medical back in May, ’12 and as well as the general stuff you get tested for, I also asked for tests for my iron, b12 and calcium. I was so happy, to find out, that actually according to those test results, I am in excellent health. My cholesterol is at a very good level (much lower than ‘normal’)*, all my nutrients levels were in good shape.

While, I know that my results might have been the same if I was vegan or not, especially as I do not have a ‘before’ test to compare but I do know for sure that I am in excellent health DESPITE being vegan.

*It’s worth noting here that people who have ‘normal’ cholesterol levels STILL get heart attacks. I want to be heart attack proof which is why I aim for a very low cholesterol level.

 

Vegan Trekking Food in Nepal

rubnunn

Many behavioral omnivores are concerned about going vegan because they think that it is too difficult, especially when traveling. I am happy to tell you that trekking in Nepal is a good destination for vegans. I would not say it is a great destination, as the food situation is not fantastic for omnivores either. It certainly is not like Thailand, Bali or the West Coast of the US but it is good. Let me explain…

It was my second visit to Nepal as a vegan, for Seb, his third so we feel like we have a good lay of the land now and would love to give you some tips in case you are planning a trip to this beautiful part of the world.

First of all, a little about our context. We were tea house trekking which means you stay at a little, usually very basic guesthouse every night and along the way there will be other guesthouses that you can have lunch in and snacks. While nearly everyone has porters and guides to help them carrying their belongings. We didn’t. We carried our own bags. We certainly did not prepare our foods or were self -sufficient. It is also worth saying, that we went in winter time which is pretty cold weather. This means that we observed very few vegetables being grown or available. The situation might be different at other parts of the year but at the higher reaches of the trek they told us that all vegetables are imported by plane from Kathmandu and that food had to be brought to the villages on the back of the yaks or the porters at considerable expense. This explains the high prices of foods compared with those in the valley or in Kathmandu. It is also worth mentioning that in my previous visit to Nepal, I spoke with someone who worked for the World Food Program in Nepal. She told me that the was a lot of malnourishment in the mountainous areas of Nepal to the extent a many people needed vitamin supplementation. At the time, this surprised me, but on my second visit, I could certainly see how this is the case even in the relatively wealthy valley of the Khumbu. There are few vegetables, hardly any fruit and to be honest, not a lot of protein either especially for those who do not need eggs.

So what kind of food is available while trekking in the teahouses?

Most of the food available is refined carbohydrates and processed foods. Some examples of items you will find on a trek are…

Dal baht: This is local stable in the mountains and I really like this. It will compose of a big plate of white rice, a bowl of thin dal broth and a vegetable curry. Usually the higher you get up the mountain,  the vegetables will be more like just potato so it not especially nutritious apart from just calories.

Magical-World

Fried rice and fried noodles. Again a tasty option, and includes some vegetables, but not that many

Momos. These a small steamed dumplings also made with refined flour and some vegetables inside.

Happy Sleepy

Pasta. One of my favorites. There might be a few different versions. The best is one served with tomato sauce which seemed to just be a canned tomato sauce or soup.

Popcorn. A fantastic snack to have when you arrive at the trek and waiting for dinner.

Plates of boiled vegetables are available although they are usually not very flavorful and fun to eat. They are also expensive.

Potatoes… Lots of them. Rostis, french fries and hash browns. All those not vegan are easily made vegan (Can I have the rosti minus the egg and the cheese?).

Soups. Lots of these that are vegan, yet not especially healthy.

Oatmeal without milk. One of the better choices. Usually you will need to add sugar and sometimes there will be some apple too.

Also a the lodges there are lots of vegan processed foods which can work out well. Oreo cookies, Pringles, candies.

As you see, there are plenty of foods available that are high in calories which is what you need when you are expending so many calories as you do on a a trek in cold conditions however, they are not necessarily the most healthy and I would suggest that working so hard on a diet that is low in nutrition over a long period of time without those incredibly important phytonutrients that should be making up a significant part of our plate each meal and I do not like missing out on my fruit and vegetables over such a long period of time that a trek can be. Some people can go trekking for weeks a a time. I contracted a cold towards the end of the trek, and I have a sneaky feeling it was because my body was not as healthy as it normally is.

So, here are some tips  to make your trek healthier and more delicious.

So, the food available at the teahouses are not especially exciting as a vegan so you will want to  bring something to make things a bit more exciting. Cookies are of course fantastic and we went crazy over a pack of Mcvities Ginger Nuts by Day 8 of the trek.  Dark chocolate is a fantastic snack to have on the trek.  A plastic jar of peanut butter is tasty and delicious. Seb thought sways of chocolate dipped in peanut butter was pretty awesome and I have to say I do agree. Ordering chapattis and spreading them with peanut butter and rolling them up and putting them in a zip lock is a good snack to have. Dried seaweed snacks are also great to have in your bag. Although not calorie dense, they are a fantastic (and light) source of vitamins and minerals. In Asia the are a huge array of seaweed snacks available. I brought this one.

You can also bring dried vegetables on the trek too. I stocked up on some from Thailand called Betterday but I am sure which ever country you are from there will be dried vegetable snacks that you can stock up on. Another thing you might like to bring is soy milk powder. Most of the milk available on the mountain is dried cows milk so asking the guesthouse to make up some powdered soy milk should not be a problem and this will open up a few more options on the trek. Granola bars are also good things to take. Although carbohydrates and sugar is not really something that is difficult to find in the mountains, if they are made from whole grains, then it would be a good source of fibre and nutrients something that is lacking up there.

Green powders would be a fantastic thing to include in your backpack. Normally, you would not put even powders in water as it would not taste particularly nice.  I put my green powders in a smoothie where the taste would be disguised but smoothies are not really an option on the mountain. I would probably just add a spoon to the last dregs of my water bottle and drink it down to get some nutrition in to my body. The last thing I would probably like to bring is some sort of seasoning. Gomashio or a small bag of nutritional yeast will be light, but some sprinkled on your food will give some good flavour and of course great vitamins and minerals.

Negotiating with staff at the guesthouses is very easy indeed. They are usually very good English speakers and understand the concept of vegetarianism, indeed, they eat mainly vegetarian food. Vegan is not a term they are familiar with, but it is easy to ask questions like “does this have milk, eggs, cheese?” Or “can go make this without cheese?” For example.

So that is all I have got. I hope this gives you some ideas about how you make  you trek more nutritious. If you have any more ideas to make Nepal treks a bit more healthy, please leave them in the comments below.