Vegetarians in Paradise takes great pride in presenting its 24 Carrot Award to Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian who has promoted veganism and vegetarianism through her research, teaching, writing, consulting, and lecturing for more than 25 years.
Brenda was honored in 2014 with the Dietitians For Professional Integrity Distinguished Dietitian Award. She was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame in 2007 and has played an active role in the American Dietetic Association acting as a past chair of the Vegetarian Practice Group of that organization. She has been involved in a diabetic research project and dietary intervention in the Marshall Islands since 2006.
She is co-author of nine books, some of which are best sellers. The list includes Becoming Vegan, Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian, Defeating Diabetes, Dairy-free and Delicious, Becoming Raw, and Raw-food Revolution Diet. Her most recent books are Becoming Vegan: Express Edition (2013) and Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (2014).
As is customary, Vegetarians in Paradise takes this opportunity to interview each award recipient to share his/her accomplishments with our readers.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Brenda Davis (BD)
VIP: What circumstances in your life resulted in your focus on diet and nutrition as a career choice?
BD: I became passionate about nutrition and health as a teenager. I loved creating healthy recipes. I remember making bread out of Red River cereal, seeking out "strange" ingredients like Job's tears and amaranth, and making homemade yogurt. By grade 11, I knew nutrition was my thing, and it would be my major at university.
VIP: What personal experiences led you to vegetarianism/veganism?
BD: Many factors affected my decision to become vegetarian and then vegan, but none more compelling than my interaction with a friend back in 1989. This person was someone who I would have voted least likely to inspire this sort of transformation. On a rather ordinary day, my friend called to see if he could drop by for coffee before he went out deer hunting. Although my response was positive, I immediately began trying to figure out how to make him feel as guilty as possible before he committed his heinous crime.
After dispensing with the usual trivialities, I asked him how he could justify pulling the trigger on such a beautiful animal. I pointed out that it wasn't fair--the deer had no defence against his bullet. I asked him if it made him feel like more of a man to shoot a defenceless creature. His response changed the course of my life.
He said, "You have no right to criticize me. Just because you don't have the guts to pull the trigger, does not mean you are not responsible for the trigger being pulled every time you buy a piece of meat camouflaged in cellophane in the grocery store. You are simply paying someone to do the dirty work for you. At least the deer I eat has had a life. I doubt very much you can say the same for the animals sitting on your plate."
I was silenced, because I knew deep down inside he was absolutely right. At that moment I vowed to take responsibility for the food I was purchasing, and find out about the lives of the animals I was eating. What I learned sickened me to the point that I knew I could no longer be a part of it. At the time, I didn't actually know any real live vegetarians, and I was a public health nutritionist, encouraging the consumption of a balanced diet, including lean meat and low fat dairy products.
As you can appreciate, I faced some interesting personal and professional challenges. Fortunately, when I asked my husband if he would be willing to go completely vegetarian, he responded, "I thought you'd never ask. I would love to." He was always a step ahead of me.
VIP: How do your friends and relatives react to your emphasis on a plant-based diet?
BD: It has been over 25 years now, so most of them have come to accept it. At first, I can assure you that they did not throw us a celebration party. Our parents were very concerned, especially as we had young children. However, most of them now respect our choices and some even admire those choices. I think they are proud of the work I do, even if they have not embraced entirely plant-based diets themselves. Most are more conscious of their own food choices, and when they do purchase animal products they opt for organic, free-range, etc.
They always make sure that we have the food we need when we visit or go out together for a meal. Since my father passed away, my mother has been transitioning to a much more plant-based diet. She is now largely vegetarian, and this brings me such joy. Even our Northern Ontario friends who have always been hunters and fishermen make special dishes for us when we come to visit.
VIP: You've spent considerable time in the Marshall Islands working with the population on health issues. Can you tell us about your program and the progress you've seen?
BD: My pleasure. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is about 2300 miles southwest of Hawaii. The RMI has the highest death rates from diabetes in the world, and among the highest incidence--an estimated 50% of adults 35 years or more having diabetes, and likely 90-95% of adults having diabetes or pre-diabetes. Seventy years ago, diabetes was practically unheard of in this area. People were slim and physically active and lived off the land. They were eating only plants, fish, and other animal products on special occasions.
Today, people live mainly on white rice and meat (often canned meat) washed down with sugary drinks such as Luau (the first ingredient of which is high-fructose corn syrup). A favorite among children is Ramen noodles with Kool-Aid powder sprinkled on top. To be quite honest, it would be difficult to design a diet that would induce diabetes more effectively than the diet the Marshallese people have adopted.
In 2006, I was hired to be the lead dietitian in a diabetes lifestyle intervention research project, which compared an intensive lifestyle program with usual care for type 2 diabetes. The project was the brainchild of an Adventist medical mission team called Canvasback Missions. Canvasback had been providing medical assistance to the area for about 25 years. The intervention program included a plant-based diet, exercise and health education.
The research involved 5 overlapping cohorts. Results were impressive with average drops in blood glucose about 75 mg/dL in the first 2 weeks and about 50 mg/dL by 12 weeks. At 12 weeks HbA1c (a measure of blood glucose control over the past 2-3 months) was down by about 2 points, on average. Participants who really stuck with the program often were able to get off medications. Although the funding has run out, and the research is complete, we are continuing our work there and moving into the schools to educate children.
One of the biggest hurdles in the RMI is the lack of fresh produce--generally it is expensive and of poor quality. We put a lot of emphasis on gardening. This past February (2014), our team brought 172 earth boxes to Ebeye, one of the smaller outer islands. This island has a population of over 15,000 people (half of whom are under 18 years of age), but is only 0.12 square miles in area, so there is very little land for gardening. We did mini interventions on both Ebeye and Majuro (2 weeks each), and we will continue to do our work there. The main lesson we can learn from RMI is that diet and lifestyle are far more powerful tools for reversing diabetes than medication will ever be. Lifestyle-induced diseases are most effectively treated by lifestyle changes. Some people ask me if I think such a program could work at home. My answer is simple: if this program can work in the Marshall Islands, where the barriers are numerous, we have no excuses.
VIP: Can you tell our readers about your education?
BD: I went to the University of Guelph to study human nutrition and did an internship with Health Canada and several different hospitals in Ottawa. My formal training took place between 1978 and 1984.
VIP: During your career you have focused much time and energy in the battle against diabetes. What guiding principles can you share with people battling this degenerative disease?
BD: My father had diabetes, as do many of his siblings, so I have watched first-hand how devastating it can be to health. Type 2 diabetes is essentially a disease of overconsumption and underactivity. It is virtually non-existent where people live off the land, are not overweight and are physically active (as the Marshallese were many years ago). There are no medications or surgeries that will ever reverse this disease. However, I have seen complete reversal in many individuals who have made drastic changes in their lifestyle. By eating unprocessed, whole foods, plant-based diets and becoming physically active (as your body allows), your body will work hard to heal itself.
Here are the dietary choices I would recommend:
VIP: In your career you've devoted your time to research, teaching, workshops, and writing. Which of these areas brings you most pride and satisfaction?
BD: It is hard to separate these things as they are so interconnected. Writing books has allowed me to help many people. My books (many co-authored with my 24-Carrot award-winning colleague, Vesanto Melina) have sold close to 700,000 copies and have been translated into 9 languages. Our latest books, Becoming Vegan: Express Edition (2013) and Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (2014) have been receiving fabulous reviews. Becoming Vegan: Express Edition received the Canada Book Award, was a finalist and received honorable mention for the Foreward Book of the Year (Health Category). It was also given a star rating by the American Library Association and called "the go-to book on vegan nutrition.
I feel very privileged to have had such a remarkable writing partner for over 20 years. The research has opened so many doors for me, and has been one of the most challenging projects I have ever been involved with. I love the Marshallese people and feel very fortunate to be involved with the wonderful work of Canvasback Missions.
VIP: There seems to be a controversy within the medical community about nuts as part of a healthy diet. What is your feeling about the role of nuts?
BD: To be perfectly frank, there is no controversy in the medical community about nuts (or seeds). If you do a quick search in PubMed on nuts and health you will find nothing but favorable studies. Nuts are consistently associated with lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
Nuts and seeds are nutritional powerhouses. They are rich in vitamins, trace minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. They are important sources of vitamin E and essential fatty acids. They are among our richest sources of arginine, a precursor of nitric oxide which helps increase blood flow. The fat in nuts helps enhance the absorption of valuable fat-soluble nutrients.
The only "controversy" exists among those advocating very low fat veg diets (<10% fat). In scientific circles, there is simply no debate.
VIP: Since you follow a vegan diet, how do you get your protein? Calcium? B12?
Calcium: I eat dark greens that are low in oxalic acid daily: kale, broccoli, Chinese greens, turnip greens, etc. I love them all. I also eat legumes, nuts, seeds, dried figs and other calcium-rich whole foods. I use fortified soy or almond milk and that boosts my calcium intake to at least 1000 mg (1 1/2 cups = 450 mg calcium). When I use almond milk, I blend in hemp seeds to boost the protein, vitamin and mineral content.
B12: I use Red Star nutritional yeast--vegetarian support formula and other fortified foods such as non-dairy milks. I also take 1000 mcg once or twice a week.
VIP: You have an attractive presence on the internet. What will visitors find when they access your website.
BD: I have a personal website (brendadavisrd.com) which I will be re-inventing soon--it needs updating. This website includes recipes, handouts, lecture slides and many other things. I also have a website with Vesanto (becomingvegan.ca). Here we feature our books, book reviews, awards, nutrition posts and videos. Please check these out. We also have a Facebook page called Becoming Vegan. Please friend us!
VIP: What are some of the awards you've received? Which do you treasure most?
BD: The most recent awards are this one (24 Carrot Award), Dietitians For Professional Integrity Distinguished Dietitian Award (2014) and The Vegetarian Hall of Fame (2007). It is very special to be honored by colleagues and friends, and I feel deeply blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to live such a rich and meaningful life. The Vegetarian Hall of Fame was incredible because it is like a surprise party with 500 friends. Only one person is inducted each year, so it is quite a privilege.
VIP: We notice you have an extensive speaking schedule. What topics important to you have been the subjects of these addresses? What success have you had in influencing non-vegetarian audiences?
BD: I love to speak at conferences, and to the general public. My goal in speaking to physicians, dietitians, and other health professionals is to help them understand the benefits of plant-based diet for disease prevention and treatment, and to recognize that appropriately planned plant-based diets are safe and adequate at every stage of the life cycle. I want them to understand that whole food, plant-based diets are the most powerful treatment for diet and lifestyle induced chronic diseases--far more powerful than pharmaceuticals. I also try to get them thinking of the benefits of these diets beyond the individual--for the planet and all life on the planet.
When I speak to the general public it is usually to the converted (though not always). When I speak to vegetarians and vegans, my goal is to help them achieve exceptional health on a plant-based diet. To me, when a vegan is exceptionally healthy, they send a strong message to everyone around them. When they eat poorly, ignore vitamin B12, or are simply careless with their diets, they risk becoming exhibit number one for why humans need to eat meat.
VIP: What personal goals have you set for yourself in the coming years?
BD: This year I am working with The Food Revolution Summit on a course for health professionals, as well as another book with Vesanto. I hope to write at least 12 books in my lifetime. I am going on number 10, so I am confident I will make it. I would love to write a book that captures the interest of non-vegetarians, one that is powerful enough to incite a major shift in thinking.
My biggest goal is to leave this world a kinder, more compassionate place. I would love to see the day when animals are no longer thought of as resources for humans to do with what they will. If I am able to nudge this world even slightly, I will feel that my life was truly meaningful.
VIP: What leisure activities and hobbies do you enjoy?
BD: I love to spend time with my husband, my family and my friends. I cherish my time outdoors, and love to run, canoe, kayak, bike, swim, hike, etc. I also enjoy bird watching, though I am just a beginner. I like gardening, but I am even more of a beginner at that. I am a fitness enthusiast, and put a lot of priority on my fitness and yoga classes at our local gym.
I am also an adventurous cook, although I am admittedly allergic to measuring cups, so writing out recipes is painful for me. I also like collecting and preserving produce for the winter (freezing, dehydrating, etc.).
VIP: What benefits have you realized yourself by following the diet and lifestyle you espouse? Can you give our readers the main features of your personal diet and exercise regimen?
BD: OK, here it is:
No question, I have enjoyed many benefits, especially in the connections to incredible people I have met through the vegan world. From a personal health perspective, I can say I still weigh about the same as I did the day I got married (36 years ago). To be honest, I don't feel much different either. I am still almost as agile and as strong. I can still do headstands, handstands, and cartwheels. I don't suffer from any of the health issues my relatives did at my age. Zero. I am on no medications. I don't think that this is merely a coincidence. Here is my typical diet and exercise:
My typical week includes the following activities:
1/3 cup sprouted grains (kamut berries, quinoa)
1.5 cups of fruits (blueberries, raspberries, peaches, apples, kiwi, pears, plums, bananas, oranges, etc.)
1 Tablespoon ground flax, hemp and chia seeds
2 Tablespoons chopped nuts/seeds (walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, etc.)
2 Tablespoons dehydrated homemade granola (liquid ingredients are nut butter and fruit)
1 - 1 1/2 cups fortified unsweetened almond milk blended with hemp seeds or fortified unsweetened soymilk
Dehydrated sunflower/flax crackers with homemade fermented cheese, avocado, and tomato
Large green salad (as described for dinner)
Homemade raw treat (stuffed date or cookie)
Homemade tahini/walnut/herb dressing
Collard wraps with vegetable/nut filling and tahini dip
Cooked meal (e.g. homemade stew; veggie loaf or patties with veggie gravy, steamed vegetables (yams, squash, beets, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, etc.), potatoes; yams and spicy black bean sauce, green vegetable; quinoa or black rice bowl with peanut sauce (grain, steamed veggies, sauce and sprouts)
If I have a cooked meal at dinner I do the big salad at lunch.
Raw treats: stuffed dates, turtles, or brownies
Baked fruit or fruit crisp with pear cream
Raw pie (date/nut crust, fruit filling)
Almond yogurt with fruit and granola
Kale chips (homemade)
Chocolate (vegan dark chocolate)
Sparkling water with lemon, lime, or a splash of fruit juice
Fruits: At least 5-6 servings a day
Legumes: 2-3 servings a day
Nuts/seeds: 2 servings a day (1 nuts; 1 seeds)
Grains: about 2-3 servings a day (mostly intact or sprouted)
Soymilk or other non-dairy milk:1-2 cups a day
VIP: What are some of the organizations you belong to and support?
BD: My husband and I support some animal sanctuaries (although I love them all), some animal rights organizations, Vegan Outreach, local animal groups and Trans Canada Trail, and we sponsor a child in Africa.
VIP: What person or persons have had the most influence on your life?
BD: Without a question, my parents, my husband, my brother, my children, and my extended family. I have had many dear friends who have had great influence on me as well, like my writing partner Vesanto. I look towards people like Jane Goodall, John and Ocean Robbins, Michael Klaper and Albert Schweitzer for inspiration. There are so many people who have dedicated their entire lives to making this world more beautiful for us and for our children and grandchildren.
VIP: What is being vegan really all about to you?
BD: To me, being vegan is about doing our part to transform this planet into a place of goodness and peace; a place where life is truly supported and cherished; where kindness and compassion are our guiding principles. It is about doing our part to create a world in which violence and cruelty are mere shadows of what they once were, and where purposeful and unnecessary harm to living, feeling beings is unthinkable. It is about living what we believe with the greatest integrity possible. It is about making our lives an example of everything we want this world to be.
It begins at home, with the people and animals we know and love. It extends to our neighbors, our neighbor's animal companions, the strangers we pass by in the street, the birds that fly into our yards, the people we work with, and the animals we play with. If this vision is ever to become a reality, it will be because we, as individuals and as a community, have presented a powerful, interconnected voice for life. It will be because we have set an example of compassion that is simply too powerful to ignore.