April 28, 2010
Interviewed by Trista Cornelius, Contributing Writer
Brenda Davis is a Registered Dietitian and nutritionist. We are very excited to have her as a featured presenter at VegFest 2010. Brenda has co-authored seven books: Becoming Raw, The Raw Food Revolution Diet, Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Defeating Diabetes, and Dairy-free and Delicious. Graciously, she took the time to respond to some questions via email regarding her expertise as a dietitian and about her personal food choices.
Q. When you first decided to become vegetarian, then vegan, then mostly raw, did those dietary changes challenge or conflict with what you'd been taught about a "balanced diet" as a Registered Dietician?
A. First, I would say I am about 50-60 percent raw in the cooler months and about 75 percent raw during our warm season. When I first entered the field of dietetics (about 30 years ago), vegetarian diets were considered risky and vegan diets were considered downright dangerous. Today, the official position of the American Dietetic Association is that well-planned vegan diets are safe and adequate at every stage of the lifecycle. This makes life a lot easier for vegan dietitians. Whether a person is an omnivore, a vegetarian or a vegan, consuming a diet that is "balanced" is important. When dietitians say, "Eat a balanced diet," they are simply saying that we need to eat a variety of foods that together provide everything people need for good health.
Q. According to your website, you've done some amazing work to reverse the spread of diabetes on the Marshall Islands. Especially considering the over-populated conditions of Marshall Island with most food shipped in, making fresh, whole food rare and expensive, how did you make a plant-based life realistic and achievable for residents?
A. Good question. It is a challenge. The diet that is most typical in the Marshall Islands today is white rice, fatty meat and sweet drinks. Vegetables are not used in any quantity by most Marshallese. We focused on teaching people to prepare beans and less expensive vegetables such as cabbage and carrots. We used as much local foods as possible, such as local greens, breadfruit and coconut. We also brought in agriculture experts to teach our participants how to grow their own vegetables. They also assisted participants with planting their own gardens.
Q. Why is it so difficult for some people to change their diet, even when such changes could cure or manage illnesses like diabetes? What do you see as the main obstacles?
A. I think one major obstacle is that most people have no idea how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be in treating these diseases. When they see their doctor, they are usually handed a prescription for medication. Aggressive diet and lifestyle changes aren't usually offered as a treatment option. Until they are, they will not be seriously considered by the average meat-eating American.
Of course, food is about so much more than health - it is about comfort, love, relationships, tradition, money, time, knowledge, emotions and many other things. Some individuals would rather die than give up a favorite food. I think it is extremely helpful when the individual has a supportive network of family and friends. I remember when I decided I wanted to become a full-fledged vegetarian; I asked my husband if he would be willing to eliminate meat from his diet. He said, "I thought you'd never ask." Had he responded differently, the transition may not have been so smooth.
Q. If you could wave a magic wand and make one change to all Americans' diets, what would it be and why?
A. No question, I would eliminate animal products - not so much for people, but for animals. I believe what we are doing to "food animals" is unjustifiable. Someday, people will look back at our modern factory farming techniques with absolute horror.
Q. You say on your website that food choices can "breed poverty, helplessness, and human suffering" as well as "provoke violence and indifference." Can you give an example? How do food choices play a role in conditions that seem far removed from the dinner table?
A. Not so long ago (1930's), about a quarter of the population lived on farms - today it is 1.5 percent. Americans are so far removed from their food supply that most people have no clue how food actually gets to their plate. People want cheap food. If you want cheap meat, you are demanding that farmers raise animals in confined animal feeding operations (factory farms). Most farmers don’t like raising animals in this way, but they feel trapped in the system. Our purchases matter - they matter for the farmers in developing countries who grow and package the food. If we want cheap bananas, pineapples, coffee, chocolate and sugar, we are essentially supporting unfair, dangerous conditions for these people.
Q. You also write that every time we make a truly conscious decision about our food, we make this world a better place. What do you mean by "conscious decision" What do you think most influences the choices people make about what to eat?
A. To me, a conscious decision is simply a decision that recognizes the consequences of our choices beyond ourselves. For many people, food choices are about taste, convenience, habit, comfort, economy, etc. We need to recognize the power of our choices. We need to appreciate that our choices have the power to cause pain, suffering and death to others—people or animals. We need also to recognize that we have a choice, and we can choose to eat and live in a way that makes this world a kinder place.
Q. You describe your diet as continuing to evolve, that no matter how clean it gets, you continue to see room for improvement. What influences the changes you continue to make?
A. As I continue to learn, I adjust my diet. I remember when I first became interested in nutrition, I switched from eating packaged cold cereals to eating less processed hot cereals such as oatmeal and Red River cereal. Then I progressed to making intact whole grains such as kamut, barley and oat groats. Now, I often sprout the whole grains. I am learning more about the global food systems and the political aspects of food. There is rarely a day that goes by that I don't learn something that shifts my consciousness a little more. I have so much to learn.