We all know Bassem Youssef for the funny guy that he is, and for his breakthrough satire series that overtook Egyptian TV for the better part of three years. His ambition for causing a stir and creating change hasn’t stopped with El Bernamag, though, and we were lucky enough to talk to him about his current passion.
For those already familiar with Egypt’s local health trends and figures, you may have already heard the buzz around Bassem being a vegan; a person who eats no animal meat or bi-products like eggs, butter, milk or cheese. Depending on your opinion, you may think this is great or completely crazy, but if you’ve been keeping up with us at TDC you’ll know there’s a noticeable difference between eating vegan and eating plant-based, and Bassem wasn’t afraid to set the record straight. “I don’t like the word veganism”, he told us. “Veganism has acquired sometimes…a bad name to it Because some of its followers as they focus on ethical treatment of animals, which is very noble of course, but some of them do it through putting everyone onto a guilt trip. Unfortunately many humans don’t care about Killing other humans let alone killing animals. So I don’t get the ethical part into the conversation (although I am a big advocate on that) and I concentrate on directing the talk to one’s health ; do that because it is healthier for you. Yeah , humans are selfish like that.”
“The other thing is that many people who call themselves vegans are very unhealthy. They eat a lot of meat substitutes, fake meat, fake cheese, fake milk. They eat sugar. They eat deep fried stuff…That’s why I prefer the word ‘plant based whole food diet’. It’s plant based that’s vegan, and whole food that’s minimally processed.”
“Everyone has their price”, so the saying goes, and public figures especially feel the pressure and become guilty of this. So often we see those we look up to sell out or be bought into an industry we never expected to see them embrace (Messi, please put down that Pepsi!). And before September 15th, 2013 the self proclaimed “junk food junkie, sugar addict, cheese lover” that was Bassem Youssef, could have done the same. Since the day when his transformation to eating a strictly plant based diet began, Bassem hasn’t strayed from his passion. He gave us the scoop on facing his price tag when he confessed, “A year and an half ago I turned down one of the biggest commercial deals in the history of the Middle East because I would be the face of a soft drink campaign…I can’t be a reason for poisoning young people while I’m not allowing it in my house. It would be very hypocritical. That was something that I did and I did it out of conviction. I look at this stuff and I see poison, I don’t see products.”
So what has to be behind a conviction causing someone to turn down millions of dollars?-knowledge and experience! Bassem began eating plant based after his friend, Nader Montasser’s switch to a plant based diet kept him from being the victim of debilitating multiple sclerosis, and by doing his own research (he is a doctor after all). Not only did Nader not suffer degeneration from this disease like doctors had predicted, but he thrived and maintained his great health and athletic abilities in the process. Since then, Bassem’s own experience has spoken for itself by the changes he’s undergone. “In the beginning it was very apparent. I felt the energy. I was a chronic insomnic, I had fatigue issues a lot and instantly I felt very energetic and my sleep was better. Now as I go on, [I] don’t feel it because it becomes like clothes on your skin. But when I cheat, I feel the difference. I feel being down, being tired…I actually had black rings underneath my eyes, and they went away.”
It’s easy to look at Bassem before and after to see the differences; glowing, evenly colored skin, much thinner, all paired with the fact he looks ten years younger. But all that caters to the exterior, superficial side of a plant based diet, and that’s not what it’s about.
Aside from his own transformation, Bassem has unsurprisingly been gracious enough to “sponsor” those around him. Mostafa Helmy is just one example of that. So what exactly does the Dr. do to keep those he’s mentoring on track? “I send them articles to read, videos to watch, infographics to look at. I called Mostafa about 45 times in 60 consecutive days.”
No, Dr. Youssef is not a telephone stalker who keeps calling after you’ve told him he’s got the wrong number. Anyone who has undergone a lifestyle change completely on their own knows how difficult it can be to stay committed, and so did he from his own experience. “I was calling him almost every day, because this is a psychological support system. What I did with Mostafa I’ve done with other people. I call them and address their concerns and I address their cravings. I say, ‘I know how you’re feeling now…but remember this is happening because so and so is happening in your body, and this is the reward you’re going to [get]’. This support system, this mentorship…it works. It’s wonderful…and it’s different for each one.”
Unfortunately Bassem can’t call you and tell you to put down the chips when you’re feeling stressed. Sad, we know. But what he did reveal to us about the medical transformations his friends with chronic illness underwent under his support of a plant based lifestyle left us completely in awe. Bassem explained how in Mostafa’s case, the initial goal was weight loss, “And next to that there was a lot of collateral benefit that he [got]. Like these ulcers on his legs that never healed, they healed for the first time with no medications. Other people are different. For example you have someone who has a clear cut goal of ‘I want to lower my cholesterol’, ‘I want to lower my uric acid’…and I work with them and tell them do the tests and let’s just monitor that next to [the diet]. It’s amazing you know, in a couple of weeks, three weeks, I find cholesterol is coming down from 350 to 160, 170 and it’s without medication, they’re off the cholesterol pill.”
Additionally, he has witnessed firsthand the transformation his dear friend, Hoda Rashad underwent in dealing with Mixed Connective Tissue disorder, another autoimmune disease that attacks the body. Cutting out animal products and going plant based allowed her to live a fully functional life, which she had never truly experienced before. Oftentimes there are changes that occur in our body we’re not even aware of, but Bassem’s eyes have also witnessed the change he’s made in his friend’s life; “…with Hoda, she was very sick [before] and now when she eats a little bit of cheese her joints swell up. Instantly. I’ve seen her wedding ring get stuck on her finger and she couldn’t get it off…it was amazing”.
So what is a Dr. to do with all these new findings?-Act, of course! Though he’s already been helping friends and loved ones, Bassem is planning to expand his vision to be accessible to the public. “I have a business plan that I’ve been trying to implement for over a year”, he told us when asked if he ever thought of doing more, on a wider scale. This is great news for those of us who are looking for support, but aren’t lucky enough to be a part of his daily call log. That being said, we had to know what’s blocking this seemingly unstoppable personality. “It is extremely difficult to break taboos that people are used to and it is even more difficult to break people’s habits…”
Okay Doctor, we’ll put the chips down (sigh).
Stayed tuned for Part II, where we will be breaking down Bassem Youssef’s diet, and the knowledge and resources he had to share with us, plus his tips to get you started living a plant based lifestyle.