Plant-based Health FAQs: Interview with Dr. Latchana from PBHALL
Updated: Jan 3
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how did you adopt a plant-based lifestyle?
My name is Dr. Latchana Thangarajo, I’m a GP in Shah Alam. First of all, I just want to say my heart goes out to everyone involved in the floods right now. It's a very difficult time. I hope as a community we can come out of this together and hope 2022 is a better year! Even though we go through all of this, health is something we really need to take care of because if we are healthy that’s the only way we can help others. Personally to me, and my advice to my patients, a plant-based diet helps with that.
My journey began in mid 2017. I’m an athlete, I play basketball, I fell and I fractured my wrist. Needing to wear a cast for 6 weeks, I went to a Chinese vegetarian restaurant near my home. It’s weird because you meet random people and you learn from them in some way. I met a waiter that works in that restaurant and he told me, “don’t drink milk that’s going to slow down the healing of your bones”.
That was completely different to what I learnt in medical school! But he told me to read this book, “The China Study” if I get access to it. I read it and it opened up my eyes to how animal protein affects our health. So I decided to give it a try. I felt like I had more energy, I was discovering new parts of myself, learning about the environment and cruelty to animals. After 3-4 months I made a switch to a plant-based diet and I never looked back ever since!
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the Plant-based Health Alliance, how did you come to join them?
Plant-based Health Alliance, we started about a year ago after covid. Tim (Co-Founder) even made an overnight transition after watching documentaries during quarantine! He was 100kg and lost 20kg+, got off all his medications and had no more health issues after he transitioned. He felt good. He wondered why it was so difficult to find plant-based doctors in Malaysia (he’s from Michigan) so he reached out through all the social platforms looking for them. And I went, “me, me, me! I want to do whatever you’re doing!”.
So we started off with a one or two week challenge with Chef Dave, Practitioners, Doctors and now we’ve got a Nutritionist too. What we do is we take blood tests before and after the challenge to compare results. We even deliver plant-based meals, have a WhatsApp support group with all the plant-based experts, consultations through zoom and an alumni group. The first two weeks are the hardest for people to transition so we provide the tools they need to sustain it for the long term.
Q. As a doctor would you recommend going plant-based?
Yes I would! But there’s no one size fits all and we need to tailor it to individuals to some extent. Chronic illnesses (diabetes, cancer) are caused by our diet and lifestyle e.g. unhealthy eating, too much stress, smoking, lack of sleep. They stem from a similar biochemistry of chronic inflammation which a plant-based diet helps with because it’s an anti-inflammatory diet. So, yes, the majority of these illnesses can be controlled by a plant-based diet and it would be the first thing I recommend.
Q. Can anyone be vegan (Pregnant women, children, athletes, etc.)?
Yes, well-planned plant-based diets are suitable for all stages of life. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding you should consult with your doctor or nutritionist. As your caloric and nutrient requirements increase since you’ll be eating for two. Also, it reduces the risk for gestational diabetes, pregnancy induced hyper-tension etc. Plant-based diets also improve your gut bacteria diversity keeping you healthy. Interestingly, this gut bacteria will be inoculated into the foetus during vaginal delivery boosting your baby’s immunity for the long term. We also advise you to take prenatal vitamins to provide the mom and the baby with essential nutrients.
Of course babies aren’t little adults! They have different needs e.g. when they’re born they need more fats (breast milk only has 5% protein) and when they’re teens their macronutrients requirements are similar to adults. In children and teens a plant-based diet helps with asthma, allergies, constipation, acne, migraines etc. Overall, there’s an improvement in health. In certain autopsy studies, kids as young as 3 have fatty streaks which are the first signs of heart disease. 100% of kids who follow a S.A.D (standard american diet) do have fatty streaks, it is very important to get them to eat fruit and veggies and so on.
In our current age, athletes are often in a protein craze. Too much animal protein actually puts our kidney and liver under stress as it is acidic and drains calcium from our bones. Making them work extra hard to get rid of it. It’s not that whatever protein we eat goes straight to our muscles. When you work for it and have that resistance that’s what builds your muscles. Even though muscles are made of protein they use glucose for energy. So when eating more carbs, less animal meat, less dairy etc. Your muscles are able to utilise these carbs more efficiently and by right you’ll have more energy to lift heavier and so on. Only thing to take note of is to keep track of your caloric intake as plant-based foods are often less calories.
Q. How would I get enough vitamin D?
The best way to get your vitamin D is through sunlight and I would recommend it to my patients as well. Our bodies use cholesterol to convert the sunlight into vitamin D3. Working from home we might not get enough sunlight even though certain milks and cereals are fortified with vitamin D but other than that, if you’re on a plant-based diet and you don’t get enough sunlight we do recommend supplements.
Q. How do I get my Omega-3 without fish?
We have omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) and omega-6 (pro-inflammatory). We need both of them in our bodies as they have their own functions. Omegas are important to keep our heart, brain, kidney, eyes, skin and so on healthy. We normally have a ratio of 1:1 or 3:1 of omega 6 to omega 3 but with S.A.D or fast foods diet the ratio is 16:1 or 50:1 so it’s very highly inflammatory. If you’re eating clean with fish (omega 3), to some extent it is better but they also come with saturated fats, cholesterol and nowadays some heavy metals. We do have options other than fish and plant-based sources although they don’t come as DHA and DPA (found in seafood) they come as ALA e.g. flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, edamame. Eating this daily will give you your omega-3s. ALAs will get converted into DPA and DHA in our bodies. When we eat a healthy, plant-based whole foods diet our bodies can adapt and increase the conversion of ALA to DPA and DHA.
Q. Do I really need to supplement vitamin B12 because meat is its only source?
Yes, we do need to supplement B12 because it’s made by microorganisms in the soil. Previously, when we grew our food we had a little bit of soil on the potatoes or carrots we ate. Nowadays, with our modern farming we have killed our soil and soil bacteria. Some animals are injected with B12 or bacteria in their intestine make B12 too (e.g. cows). So omnivores don’t need to supplement but it's hard to say as we don’t know the source of the meat etc. but if you're on a plant-based diet you have to take a B12 supplement. Or you can take a jab every 3-6 months!
Q. Can you get enough iron without eating meat?
Dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains all contain iron. If you combine these iron rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C (e.g. spinach salad with nuts drizzled with lemon juice) it increases the absorption of iron into our bodies. Why people say vegans and vegetarians lack iron is because they get non-heme iron whereas in meat products there is heme iron which gets absorbed much quicker. Sometimes, too much iron is not good as it leads to oxidative stress and inflammation. When you eat iron on a plant-based diet the absorption is less but your body just absorbs what it needs and pairing it with vitamin C to increase the absorption will do the trick.
Q. Are soy foods unhealthy?
Most people are concerned about soy because of the term, ‘phytoestrogen’. Oestrogen is a hormone that grows breast and uterus tissue etc. but phytoestrogen is oestrogen in plant form which acts on a β receptor in our body while animal based oestrogen acts on α receptor. Attaching to β is actually protective from e.g. breast cancer, fibroids, prostate cancer etc. Soy is protective, anti-inflammatory and we do recommend it especially the whole forms like tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso and not processed forms like mock meat. There’s also concerns with isoflavones in soy combining with iodine in our bodies affecting the thyroid hormone production. In healthy individuals it's really not a problem as you need to consume loads of soy for that to happen. If you eat enough iodine from e.g. sea vegetables, iodised salt and certain fortified foods you should be able to avoid the deficiency.
Q. Is it normal to eat more on a plant-based diet?
Yep, because a plant-based diet is much lower in calories. If you see the calorie density chart, fruits, vegetables, unprocessed carbs, beans, legumes are at the lower end of the spectrum with processed meat, nuts and oils at the higher end. This means eating a large quantity of food from the lower end of the spectrum will fill you up but you can still lose weight because the overall calories per gram you’re consuming is much less. If you’re eating a healthy plant-based meal you can easily get 600-700 calories per meal but if you’re not you will feel hungry. Our portion sizes at PBHALL are huge! Some people get hungry within 2-3 hours and others can’t eat at all after it. It’s how each individual body responds.
Q. What are some health benefits of a plant-based diet?
I’ll just share with you some stories from PBHALL programs. We find that cholesterol, blood pressure/ sugar, and weight drop. When it comes to cholesterol all animal products contain cholesterol and there are no plant foods that contain it. There are plant foods that contain saturated fats that raise cholesterol e.g. coconut oil/ milk or palm oil but they don’t contain cholesterol like animal foods. All animal products do not contain fibre, only plants do! When you increase your fibre intake and cut down on animal products you’re automatically going to reduce your cholesterol. Which in turn, reduces your risk for heart and cardiovascular disease and so on. We’ve also had some people that completely reversed their diabetes, we’re talking about no more medications! On average, on our 2 week program we see people lose 2-3kgs including the water weight. People also feel better mental clarity, better bowel movement (less bloated), improved skin conditions e.g. eczema, yeast infections have improved due to better gut bacteria and I can go on and on!
Q. What advice do you have for someone making a switch to a plant-based diet?
Number one, establish a why. Why do you want to go plant-based? If you’re doing it for the sake of trend then you’ll fall back easily. Have a strong reason for why you want to make a switch. I want to reverse my diabetes. I want to lose weight. I want to be there for my kids, setting an example. Set small achievable goals, even if it's one plant-based meal per day or a week. Of course if you have a health condition you have to make some drastic changes but otherwise focus on progress not perfection.
Number two, get some tools to help you make the switch. You have to change the way you cook so look for veganized recipes, start slow, learn one or two and perfect that first. Keep doing it and it'll get easier and easier as you adapt.
Number 3, having a support system and community with like-minded people around you is really important. You can share tips, tricks and even food! We also have apps in Malaysia like Happy Cow or GoVeggie so you can look for more plant-based options. If you plan to eat out choose restaurants that have plant-based options, when you get there order foods that are colourful (we call it the rainbow diet) and request to customise if possible. Most of all, do your research! Also consult with a doctor to make sure you’re doing it right, preferably a plant-based doctor.
About Dr. Latchana Thangarajo:
A general practitioner in Shah Alam, Dr. Latchana advocates a whole foods plant based diet for health and general fitness. She is also part of Plant-based Health Alliance, a social enterprise dedicated to improving people’s health by making it easy to transition to a plant-based diet. Check out their 7/14 day challenge!
Plant-based Health Alliance is also one of our partners for myVeganuari 2022!
Sign up now to get 20% off all their meals (min spend RM20, online orders only).
Interviewed and written by Ravika Ravichandran.