Interview with Brenda Davis (English)

deutsch castellano (November 2009)

Brenda Davis, from Canada, is a registered dietitian, internationally acclaimed public speaker, co-author of six books on vegan diets (including “Becoming Vegan”). She is leading a diabetes research project on the Marshall Islands and is one of the top names when it comes to vegetarian and vegan nutrition. Her website is

1) Since when have you been vegetarian and since when vegan?
I became a vegetarian (98% vegan) in 1989 and became strictly vegan in 2000.

2) Why did you decide to go vegan and why did you decide to become a dietitian?
I was born with a sensitivity to animals, but became desensitized as I grew up, as many people do. A variety of factors helped me to reclaim that sensitivity during adulthood. Perhaps the single event that put me over the edge was an interaction with a friend back in 1989. This person was not someone you would imagine could 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 this heinous act. 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 reasonable for the trigger being pulled every time you buy a piece of meat 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 this system of cruelty. 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, my husband was very supportive of the decision.

With regards to the second question, I realized in high school that I had a passion for food and for the science of nutrition. I decided to try and make a career out of that passion. That was in over 30 years ago - 1978. I had an interest in healthful eating, and in vegetarianism (even though I wasn’t vegetarian and had only ever met one vegetarian in my life).

3) Diabetes rates all over the world are going up. You have written a book about defeating diabetes. I think many people are very confused about what they can do. Could you tell us roughly how people can defeat diabetes?
In order to defeat diabetes, on must address the root cause of the disease, which is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is triggered by obesity (especially abdominal obesity with visceral fat – big, hard belly with fat in and around vital organs) and poor nutrition. Medications help to control blood sugar, but they do not help to restore insulin sensitivity. The best way to restore insulin sensitivity is to improve diet and increase exercise. Ideally, exercise should be done for about an hour each day. The diet needs to be designed to produce weight loss (if overweight), improve blood sugar control, reduce inflammation and restore nutritional health. To accomplish these tasks, I would suggest the following dietary changes:

  • Consume a mostly or exclusively plant-based diet
  • Reduce refined carbohydrates – both sugars and starches
  • Use minimal ground grains (e.g. flour- use intact grains such as barley instead)
  • Very high fiber (35-50+ grams per day)
  • High viscous fiber (flax, oats, barley, beans, guar gum, psyllium)
  • Moderate fat from healthful sources (20-25% fat – mostly from whole foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, tofu, etc.)
  • Low saturated fat (<7% of calories)
  • Zero trans fatty acids
  • Sufficient intake and balance of essential fatty acids
  • High phytochemicals and antioxidants
  • Low dietary oxidants
  • Low glycemic load
  • Moderate sodium (<2400 mg/day)

4) Some people seem to think of diabetes as “not all that bad”. Could you also tell us what having diabetes involves?
While being diagnosed with diabetes is not the same as being diagnosed with an advanced cancer, it is a serious and potentially crippling disease. It has a negative impact on all major organs, and these consequences are accelerated by poor blood sugar control. Having type 2 diabetes increases the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease by 2-4 times. About 75% of people with type 2 diabetes will die of cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes have a 60-70% greater risk of developing neuropathy (nerve damage). This often causes numbness and pain in your legs and feet. Amputations are ten times greater in people with diabetes than in the general population. Diabetes is also the leading cause of kidney failure and the most common cause of blindness in adults 20-74 years of age. In addition, diabetes increases risk of osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, hearing loss, dental disease and sexual dysfunction.

5) Could you please tell us about your work on the Marshall Islands?
The Marshallese experience among the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world, with close to 50% of adults over 35 years being affected. The Diabetes Wellness Project is a research study testing the efficacy of aggressive lifestyle intervention in this population. The diet used at the center was completely vegan (although participants were permitted boiled fish at home after the first intensive 2-week period. The research began in 2006 and is now complete. Our research results are both exciting and inspiring. The people of the Marshall Islands have overcome enormous cultural, economic and environmental barriers to succeed in making effective diet and lifestyle changes. Stores and restaurants now offer healthy, vegetarian options. The Marshallese government is adopting the program as the new standard of care, and has asked our program directors to take over the hospital food service and the public school health curriculum.

6) Why should we better avoid trans fats and which foods contain them?
Trans fatty acids are unsaturated fats that have been turned from liquid oils to solid fats. In the process, they are changed from flexible, curved molecules to straight rigid molecules. Trans fatty acids are formed primarily in one of two ways - chemically, through the process of hydrogenation, and naturally, in the intestinal tract of ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. From a health perspective, trans fatty acids are a disaster. These fats become incorporated into cell membranes, changing their shape, flexibility and permeability. In so doing, they effectively dumb cells down, impairing their function. Trans fatty acids also competitively inhibit the incorporation of essential fatty acids into cell membranes, keeping out the very fats we desperately need. Gram for gram, trans fats are considered 2 to 4 times more damaging than saturated fats. About 90% of trans fats come from hydrogenated fats in processed and fried foods; the remaining 10% come from meat and dairy products. Our most concentrated sources are margarine, shortening, crackers, cookies, granola bars, baked goods, chips, snack foods and deep-fried foods. The WHO recommends that less than 1% of calories come from trans fatty acids. For a person consuming 2000 kcal per day, that amounts to 2.2 grams, or about half of what you would get in a single donut or medium order of fries.

7) Why are flax seeds so healthy and do you know of great ways to include them into our diets? How many should we eat a day?
Flaxseed contains the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), fiber, lignans and several important vitamins and minerals. Fifty-seven percent of the fat in flaxseed is omega-3. Most people do not get enough of this essential fatty acid. Flax is also a good source of fiber (including soluble fiber) and helps to control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It also helps to keep us regular. Flaxseed is also the richest known source of lignans in the diet. Lignans are powerful anticancer compounds which help to block tumor formation.

Aim for about a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds each day. You can get the ALA from one teaspoon of flaxseed oil; however, it doesn’t provide the fiber and lignans found in the whole seed. The reason it is best to grind the seeds, is that most of us don’t chew our food well enough to extract the valuable components from the seeds and they end up simply going through the digestive tract. Whole seeds certainly add bulk to the stool, and if this is the primary goal, whole seeds are fine, but include ground seeds as well.

8) How do you respond to people who think that supplements are "unnatural"?We live in a relatively unnatural environment in many respects, as we have high standards for sanitation. Thus, we eliminate many bacteria from our food supply. While this is a good thing where pathogenic bacteria are concerned, we also get rid of friendly bacteria like vitamin B12-producing bacteria. Thus, it is essential that we add it to our foods or we take a B12 supplement. When we avoid doing so, we greatly increase our risk of B12 deficiency. This means anemia, nerve damage, GI problems, and elevated homocysteine. By ignoring vitamin B12, we can essentially wipe out many of the health benefits of a vegan diet. This is a tragedy, in my opinion, as it sends a message to the world that we need to eat meat. As vegans, we have the opportunity to inspire people with our example of great health, or serve as the perfect excuse for continuing to contribute to an extraordinary system of cruelty. Vitamin D is a similar story. If you live above or below the 40th parallel, you do not produce adequate vitamin D in the winter. It is likely not natural for humans to live in these cold climates, but none-the-less, we do. Thus, we need an external source of vitamin D during these months. By ignoring it, we increase our risk of osteoporosis, several cancers, immune-inflammatory diseases, depression, and many other health problems as well.

9) What are great sources of calcium for vegans (other than fortified soymilk)? Do oranges have a lot of calcium?
Calcium is present in many plant foods. Low-oxalate greens (broccoli, kale, collards, okra and Chinese greens) provide highly bioavailable calcium (49 to 61%), calcium-set tofu, fortified fruit juices, and cow’s milk (only for comparison; neither Brenda Davis nor Fuente Vegana want to promote consuming dairy products.) provide calcium with good bioavailability (31 to 32%), and fortified soy milk, almonds, and most legumes provide calcium with moderate bioavailability (21to 27%). Other calcium-rich plant foods include figs, certain seaweeds and several calcium-fortified foods (such as the soymilk you mentioned). Oranges have about 60 mg calcium per orange, so while they cannot be considered a rich source, they are indeed a source. Selecting a variety of calcium-rich foods throughout the day helps to enhance absorption. Oxalates present in some foods can greatly reduce calcium absorption in those foods, so vegetables that are very high in these compounds, such as spinach, beet greens and Swiss chard are not good sources of usable calcium despite their high calcium content.

10) Do you have any advice for vegans who would like to become dietitians?
Yes, please do it! We need all the vegan dietitians we can get. Be prepared to engage in some debate, even with your professors. Don’t be daunted by the bias towards omnivorous diets in most educational programs. Be positive and respectful, but be firm in your convictions. Regardless of individual bias, we can learn from one another.