Brenda Davis, Plant-Based Diets and Essential Fats
Brenda Davis, registered dietitian, is a leader in her field and an internationally acclaimed speaker. She is co-author of nine vegetarian and vegan nutrition classics: Becoming Vegan: Express Edition, Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition, Becoming Raw, Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian, The Raw Food Revolution Diet, Defeating Diabetes and Dairy-free and Delicious. She is also a contributing author to a tenth book, The Complete Vegetarian. Brenda has authored numerous professional and lay articles. She is the lead dietitian in a diabetes intervention project in Majuro, Marshall Islands. Brenda is a past chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. In 2007, she was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! It’s time for It’s All About Food, and it’s November 4th, 2014. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and I’m really glad to be here today and have you with me here. We’re going to have a great show today. First, I want to let you know I’m back on the East Coast; I was in California for a few weeks and now I’m back home. I took a red eye last night and I’m a little tired! But I’m doing whatever I can to make up for that. And… it’s Election Day! And I hope you’ve gotten out to vote here in the United States and if you haven’t yet, get out there and vote. We have that big GMO labeling thing going on in Oregon and Colorado, and if you’re in the States I hope that you’re getting your voice heard with your vote. It is so important. I know those big companies are throwing a lot of money to keep things at the status quo, which is not acceptable, and we can make a difference with our votes. So we’re very lucky today because we’re going to be learning the best in nutrition from a superhero in nutrition, and I’m going to bring on my first guest, Brenda Davis. And she’s a registered dietician, a leader in her field, an internationally-acclaimed speaker; she’s co-authored nine vegetarian/vegan/nutrition classics, including Becoming Vegan: Express Edition and Becoming Vegan: Comprehension Edition. We’re going to be talking a little bit about those today. In 2007, she was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame – I told you, a superhero! Brenda, welcome to It’s All About Food.
Brenda Davis: Thank you very much, Caryn. It’s great to be here and thank you for all the lovely compliments!
Caryn Hartglass: You should be running around in a cape!
Brenda Davis: *Laughs* I’ don’t know about that…
Caryn Hartglass: No but really, you’re making a difference in so many people’s lives and you’re really saving lives, just like a superhero would.
Brenda Davis: Oh, thank you! We’re doing our best. And I think we all contribute in our own little ways. It works!
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, but you’ve been so true to this mission for so long with a great deal of passion, and walking the walk, and I thank you for that.
Brenda Davis: Well, thank you!
Caryn Hartglass: So, let’s get down to what’s new in nutrition and in your Express Edition and Comprehensive Edition. Now, they’re both pretty comprehensive – the Express Edition is close to 300 pages; and the Comprehensive Edition – I can imagine that’s for people like medical professionals and nutritionists who just really want to get down to all the dirty details—
Brenda Davis:—Those who really want all the references and a little more information. So it’s about 611 pages (and to be honest it was cut by about 25 percent in the editing)
Caryn Hartglass: Oh! Okay! What did we miss out? Can we get the outtake somewhere? *Laughing*
Brenda Davis: *Laughing* Oh boy! I think the editors did a nice job to get it crammed into a smaller space.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah well, it’s great. What I wanted to focus on today is fats and essential oils. And if we have enough time maybe we can touch some other things, but let’s just jump into fats—healthy fats, and then morph into omega-3’s and omega-6’s and those tasty items. So… are fats good, or are they bad?
Brenda Davis: Well, fats are—both! Fats are not only good; they’re essential for life. If we didn’t have them, we couldn’t survive. Some are bad because they contribute to harmful effects in the body and also to disease processes and so forth. So some fats are great, and some fats are not so great.
Caryn Hartglass: I think a lot of my listeners know that whole-plant foods give us the best options for all kinds of micro and macro nutrients, including fats. But what it comes down to is—when we’re splitting hairs and we want to know things like: is it okay to use oil, when is oil okay to use, what kind of oil, maybe you could talk a little bit about that. That always raises a little bit of excitement in people.
Brenda Davis: One of the things that I always like to tell people is to look around the world at the people that are living the longest, healthiest lives. And we’ve got something called the blue zones. For people that aren’t familiar with the blue zones these are the places in the world where people live to be 90 or 100 and at those advanced ages are very productive and still in their gardens and still relatively healthy. And so I sometimes think of comparing whatever it is we’re thinking about to the blue zone people, kind of as our asset test. And if you think that way and you look at the amount of fat and oil that they’re using, one thing will really strike you. And that is the tremendous diversity in fat intakes among these populations. So you can go somewhere like Okinawa, Japan and they’re taking–in their traditional diet of course—10% or 11% of calories from fats; whereas the people from Icaria, Greece or Sardinia, Italy are getting 35% of calories from fats; and the people in the Nicoya Peninsula and in Loma Linda, California are getting maybe around 30% of calories from fat. So there’s really a lot of discrepancy, even among the blue zones. And the deal is, the percentage of calories from macronutrients—especially carbohydrates and fats—matters far less than where those macronutrients are coming from. And so when people are getting these fats from, as you mentioned, whole-plant foods, it’s just like how we think about sugar and pure starchy carbohydrates like white flour—those are the refined versions. And when you eat your carbs in that form, they very consistently contribute to disease. It’s the same with fat. When you eat very highly refined, processed fats they contribute to disease processes. When you get fats in a more whole-food form, they don’t. And so you look at people in Mediterranean countries (that are part of the blue zones), where do they get their fat from? A lot of them do use some oil, but they do get a lot of their fat from things like olives and avocados as well. And so I think it depends a little bit on what your state of health is, and your dietary goals. So for example, we see these very, very low-fat vegan diets that are promoted especially for people with coronary heart disease. And these have no added oils—they don’t even use nuts and seeds and avocados—which I would differ a little bit on. But for people that are overweight and really need to reverse this atherosclerosis that’s developed, a very low-fat diet can be very helpful. For a young child, who we are trying to get to grow and develop and get their brain to the maximum capacity and all of those things, we need to think a little bit differently. We want to make sure that they get the level of essential fatty acids and healthy fats that they need to grow and develop properly. And so it all depends on what your situation is, your age, your health, etc.
As for the question of oils and can we include oils, I think what people need to realize is that most people in healthy populations use some oils. For some not so much, as in Okinawa, they’re using these very small amounts. And some significantly more, such as Sardinia. But even that having been said, we need to recognize what these oils are. These oils are really pure fat extracted from whole foods, of course. In that process of extracting the fats, sometimes we expose those foods to toxic chemicals, and often they’re deodorized, and bleached, and all of these things. So there’s various levels and healthfulness of oils as well. So if you get a very high quality food and you fresh pressed it and it’s not exposed to heat, those oils will be more protective and more healthful than an oil that’s been very highly refined.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s going to taste better, too. You’re going to taste that fruitiness.
Brenda Davis: Exactly! And then the other thing, Caryn, is that there are some people that really can’t afford to eat much oil, if any. And the reason is, is that they need to maximize nutrient density. And so when you’re talking about nutrient density, you’re talking about getting the most nutrients you can per calorie, right? Well there’s no food on the planet that has fewer nutrients per calorie than oil. Oil is extremely lacking in vitamins and minerals and so on. It’s basically pure fat with a little bit of vitamin E if it’s fresh pressed or vitamin E has been added. So it’s not a very nutrient dense food, and when a person’s eating 1,400-1,600 calories a day and wanting to meet their nutrient requirements for everything, they don’t have a lot of room for oil. They need to be focusing on getting their fats from whole foods—so nuts and seeds and avocados, in moderate amounts.
Caryn Hartglass: Well what I love about what you said about these different areas that eat different amounts of fat, it just shows how smart our bodies can be when we feed them whole, minimally-processed foods. They just make whatever they need out of whatever we give them, and everything’s fine.
Brenda Davis: To an extent, there’s still things like B-12 and vitamin D and things like that that we have to worry about, but in terms of macronutrients, absolutely.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I love that. Now a couple of fat foods have been in and out of the press over the past few years. I want to talk about butter from cow’s milk. That’s gotten kind of sexy again this year.
Brenda Davis: Oh, absolutely, especially after we had the release of Chowdhury’s study on saturated fats. So people all of a sudden are thinking—
Caryn Hartglass: ‘Yay! Butter’s back! I’m going to put it in my coffee every morning!’ I mean what is that about?
Brenda Davis: It’s just unfortunate, because people are just really not understanding the reality of saturated fats, and what the deal is. A lot of people don’t understand this, but saturated fats have not been vindicated. Basically that the research is showing is that you can replace saturated fats with carbs and either give yourself a boost or shoot yourself in the foot. If you replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, like sugar and white flour products, you might be doing worse than by eating saturated fats. And that’s what the studies are showing. They’re not vindicating saturated fats. Saturated fats still increases blood cholesterol levels and causes all sorts of problems. But what we’re starting to learn is that refined carbohydrates can be just as bad.
Caryn Hartglass: So once again it comes down to how studies are set up. And sometimes when certain groups are looking for specific results, they design their studies in such a way to get them.
Brenda Davis: Oh for sure. Well I can tell you—and I feel okay about telling you this—one of the authors of the Chowdhury study, Dr. Francesca Crowe—I contacted her to ask her about this study because I found it so surprising that she’s involved with EPIC-Oxford. EPIC-Oxford is one of the biggest studies ever done on a population that has a lot of vegetarians in the population and vegans. So this is a really, really important study and I found it a little odd that she’s involved in this saturated fats study. And so I asked her, “Could you explain to me what this study’s really showing, and if based on the study you would change your recommendations with regards to saturated fat intakes?” And what she told me was that when the study was first conceived, the results of their initial meta-analysis showed very strongly that saturated fats were positively related to cardiovascular disease risks. And then she said what happened was their paper was turned down. So then, after the journal rejected it, the analysis was re-run, changed in the outcomes, until it was something different. And then they revised and submitted it to another journal and it was accepted because it had such startling results that might get a little bit of media attention.
Caryn Hartglass: Brenda, how do we know who to trust?
Brenda Davis: And she said that because the paper was at such an advanced stage, she said, “I found out a week before it was going to press, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.” And she said, “I still think the best available evidence”—and this is a direct quote (I just opened her email)—“I still think the best available evidence from randomized controlled trials”—which are the gold standard, by the way—“show that saturated fat intake affects blood cholesterol levels, which is an important risk factor for heart disease. Therefore current guidelines, which are no more than 6%-7% of calories from saturated fat, by the way, recommend that people still minimize their intake of saturated fats.” That’s one of the key authors of the study! That’s not what you heard from the media!
Caryn Hartglass: No, not at all. At least we’re hearing it from you. Thank you.
Brenda Davis: It’s very, very frustrating for someone in my position to see that kind of stuff come out. And then if you looked at people that are very, very well respected in the nutrition world, like Walter Willet, for example, he basically said that this study has done so much damage it should be retracted, and the press should give that retraction similar press. And he says that this study should basically serve as a warning about how bad meta-analysis can be. So, what is butter? Well, butter is a big block of saturated fat, of course. And it’s fairly high in advanced glycation end products. Yes, people think of it as a “real food,” as compared to margarine which is more of a “fake food” with lots of chemicals added. First of all, from my view we don’t really want to be eating either one of those things. For health, you want to be eating nuts and seeds and avocados and health foods that provide healthy fats that come with fiber and phytochemicals and antioxidants and things that are actually of value to human health. I don’t think these studies, in any way, all of a sudden make butter of value to human health.
Caryn Hartglass: You mention Walter Willet wanted a retraction on this meta-analysis. I was thinking that just before you mentioned it, but even if someone did print a retraction it would never be headline news.
Brenda Davis: No, it wouldn’t be! And that’s why he made that statement that it should be, and it’s very unfortunate. And if you look even at some of the other co-authors’ statements… there was another author who said the main problem with the paper was it was wrongly interpreted by the media; we’re not saying that the current guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want. And that’s coming from the authors!
Caryn Hartglass: Well, listeners, I hope when you’re hearing this and you have your butter-loving friends, you might share this interview when it goes up into the archives so that they can hear the truth. All right, let’s move to omega-3 and omega 6’s and what’s the fat and the skinny on all of that.
Brenda Davis: Again people may not realize – often people think that you have to have fish for omega-3 fatty acids, and so of course vegetarians and vegans are not consuming fish and so there’s been a great concern that vegetarians and vegans could be deficient in these omega-3’s. And so what people need to understand is that, really, there are several omega-3’s. There’s α-Linolenic acid (ALA), plant omega-3 that comes from flax seeds and walnuts and chia seeds and hemp seeds, and so forth. And even greens, leafy greens, about half the fat is omega-3 in leafy greens. So there are those things that provide ALA and then the body has to convert ALA into the more biologically active forms of omega-3’s, which are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). And so EPA and DHA are the fats that people would get directly from fish. And they are more biologically active, which means they are important in reducing inflammation and all of those good things that we associate with omega-3 fatty acids. ALA can do a little bit but the more active forms are these long-chain fats. So then the concern becomes: can vegetarians and vegans convert the ALA, which is the plant omega-3’s, into these long-chain fatty acids. And there’s a couple of things that it’s helpful to know. Number one is that fish don’t make EPA and DHA. They don’t actually produce it in their bodies; they get it from plants in the ocean. So microalgae is the source of production of EPA and DHA. And so the little tiny fish are eating the microalgae, and then bigger fish eat the tiny fish, and so somewhere along the food chain, the EPA and DHA is coming from plants in the ocean. So that’s kind of good to know because there are companies now that are culturing microalgae, and so they’re growing this EPA and DHA that is plant-based and that people can buy in supplement form. And sometimes it’s added to things like soymilk essential oils and things like that and I think we’ll see it added to foods more and more. So there are some plant sources but they’re not accessible in most foods that we would consume. Most people would need to buy a supplement. However, all of that being said, what about this whole conversion thing? Can we convert well enough? And the deal is, is that generally, humans are thought to be able to convert reasonably well. There are lots of people in the world that are quite healthy that don’t have a lot of access to fish (more inland people), and they still seem to have well-functioning brains and do fine. What we do know is that vegetarians, and especially vegans, do have lower levels of EPA and DHA in their bloodstreams and in their tissues. It’s about maybe a third to a half that of an average omnivore that’s eating fish. And so we don’t know how bad that is, and we’re not really sure what optimal is. But we know that we can boost those levels. There are two ways of doing that. One is to be eating enough ALA. And that used to be a big issue—people just didn’t. And that means sprinkling some ground flax seed on your cereal or some chia seed, or making a chia seed pudding, or using hemp seeds. One thing that I do is I grind hemp seeds into my almond milk and it makes the almond milk higher in protein and it adds a whole bunch of vitamins and minerals. So that’s one way of adding hemp seeds and some omega-3 fatty acids. So eating a lot of greens – you’d have to eat a horse or a cow to get enough omega-3’s from greens because you’d need about 30 cups of the stuff a day. So that’s why it’s important to have some seeds as well, and walnuts, too, can provide a reasonable about. So we need to make sure we have enough, and then we also need to make sure that our bodies are in good enough health that that conversion will happen. There are several things that can interfere with the conversion. And so some of the more common things—well men can’t convert as well as women.
Caryn Hartglass: Yay!
Brenda Davis: You know why? The answer is simple. Women need to always be prepared—and when I say women I’m talking about young women, and so that would exclude us—
Caryn Hartglass:—In the reproductive ages…
Brenda Davis: Exactly, the reproductive ages, because their bodies are always prepared to support the growth of a new baby. And the baby needs to grow a brain, which requires a lot of DHA. So their conversion is going to be good. DHA is the most highly unsaturated fat in the human diet. And so it is very unstable, which means it gets oxidized quickly. So you don’t want a whole lot of it floating around in your blood if you don’t need it, because it will get oxidized. So generally, men that may not need quite as much, they just won’t be converting as well because they don’t need as much. And then as you age, your conversion gets reduced; smokers—smoking depresses the enzymes that help you to convert, so that’s not good; chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension can depress conversion. But the thing that we really have control over, when we look at our diet, the thing that depresses conversion the most is omega-6 fatty acids. So we need omega-6 fatty acids. They’re absolutely essential to life, just like omega-3 fatty acids are. The problem is that when we get a ton more omega-6 than omega-3, they both compete for the same conversion enzymes. So the omega-3’s won’t convert as well, and that’s an issue. So generally people might get 10:1 in terms of omega-6 to omega-3, and we want somewhere maybe 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 at the most. It means that you still want to get your omega-6’s from your pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds and so forth, but you don’t want to be using a lot of these oils that are omega-6 rich, like grape seed oil and sunflower and safflower and corn oil and all of these kinds of oils that are mainly omega-6. Because that can really shift your balance in a heck of a rush in the wrong direction.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, I’ve been jotting a lot of notes down because you just rattled off so much information. So the first thing I want to say is, you know that you know what you’re talking about when you can make music out of these acronyms and just roll α-Linolenic acid off your tongue and make music out of it. I’m not even going to attempt to say what DHA and EPA stand for but you do it beautifully.
Brenda Davis: Oh, thank you!
Caryn Hartglass: But I’m glad the acronyms are there, because it’s too much for me! What I’m getting here is that we don’t really know how much we need, and vegans have less, apparently, but we don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing yet.
Brenda Davis: Yeah. We’ve got a good estimate of how much ALA we should be consuming if we don’t take in any of these EPA/DHA supplements. So what I’ve don’t is I basically have doubled the institute of medicine’s recommendations. So a female needs 1.1 grams of ALA per day, and males need 1.6, if they’re not vegan or vegetarian and they’re eating fish. So if you don’t eat fish you need to double those numbers to make sure you have enough of the raw material for conversion. And so vegan women would need 2.2 g and men would need 3.2 g. Now if you’re taking the supplements, then you would only need the amount that people eating fish would need, because you’re getting direct sources of EPA and DHA.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Now the supplements, that’s kind of a touchy subject. The vegan DHA/APA, they’re expensive. I’m always challenged because they’re in the refrigerator and I always forget to take what’s in the refrigerator, on a regular basis. Maybe I need more DHA to be able to manage that, I don’t know, to remember that they’re there! And then there’s this Alzheimer’s thing that’s looming, and we all want to do what we can now to prevent something like that later. And so they’re made in a lab, and I think I remember reading that it’s genetically modified.
Brenda Davis: Yes, and there’s definitely some controversy about that. We don’t have all the answers yet. I’ve looked at that information and I just am not quite sure what to believe, to be honest. They’re culturing these plants in a lab…they say it’s not genetic modification…some people say it is. So we really don’t know. But what I do know is that if you want to be vegan, that’s pretty much your choice. It’s a really tough one. So I, personally myself, I rely mainly on ALA, so I eat a lot of chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, and once in a blue moon I’ll take an EPA/DHA supplement. So maybe once a week or once every two weeks, if I remember. I’m not very good at doing that, either. But I did have my levels tested, and they were actually not bad. My DHA was a little bit low, at the lower end of normal though. And my EPA was really in the middle of normal so it was absolutely fine. So I figure I’m doing all right. And we just have to do the best we can, and make some judgment calls. People will have to decide for themselves whether they want to use these supplements. I would think about it more seriously if I were in a situation where I had a disease where I knew my conversion enzymes weren’t very good. In those cases I think that it’s probably not a bad idea for people to take them once in a while. I don’t think it’s something people need to do every day though. I think two or three times a week is probably plenty, even for those individuals.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to thank you, Brenda, for saying, “I don’t know.”
Brenda Davis: There’s so much we don’t know.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s so much we don’t know, and how many people do we go to for information who will not say, “I don’t know?” When they don’t know. They’ll make up all kinds of stuff and I just have so much more trust in what you say when you say, “I don’t know.” So thank you.
Brenda Davis: Well thank you. You know what, this is such a baby science. What we do know today might be absolutely incorrect a year from now so we can only do the best we can and try to keep on top of the literature. My goal is really very simple. I want people who want to be plant-based, to eat in a more compassionate way, to enjoy the best possible health they can. Because when they enjoy great health, they’re sending a message to the rest of the world: “You don’t need meat to be healthy.” In fact, if you eliminate it you’ll probably be healthier. That’s really my goal, is I just want people to be able to do this as well as possible.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that’s a great way to tie this half hour up! Beautiful. Thank you.
Brenda Davis: Well thanks so much for having me, Caryn.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, well it’s always a pleasure, and I’m always learning, and I’m sure next year I’ll learn even more because you’ll know more by then! I wanted to refer people to your website: brendadavisrd.com.
Brenda Davis: And then we actually have another website that Vesanto and I put up called becomingvegan.ca.
Caryn Hartglass: Dot-ca because you’re in Canada, correct?
Brenda Davis: Yes, that’s correct. And because dot-com was gone!
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, well, dot-com is overrated, anyway! Great, and just to have that excellent resource at your fingertips, because not all of this stuff is online and trustworthy, you can pick up Becoming Vegan: Express Edition; or, if you really want to know it all, Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition. There you go. Thank you, Brenda!
Brenda Davis: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you, Caryn. Have a great day!
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, you too!
Brenda Davis: Bye bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s take a little break, and when we come back we’re going to be talking about a new product, and a company that’s making a tempeh. They make it out of soy but they’re making some new ones, and they’re including hemp and other beans. I’m really looking forward to hearing about that. We’ll be right back.
Transcribed by Mekala Bertocci 12/15/2014