Brenda Davis, registered dietitian and nutritionist, is a leader in her field and an internationally acclaimed speaker. She has worked as a public health nutritionist, clinical nutrition specialist, nutrition consultant and academic nutrition instructor. She is currently on a diabetes intervention research project in Majuro, Marshall Islands. Brenda spent 8 months in Majuro in 2006 and returns for 4-6 week periods once or twice a year. Brenda is a past chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association. In July 2007, she was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame. A co-author of seven books – best-sellers, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Vegetarian, The New Becoming Vegetarian and Defeating Diabetes, Dairy-free and Delicious and the newly released, Becoming Raw and Raw-food Revolution Diet. Brenda lives in Kelowna, British Columbia with her husband Paul. She has two grown children, Leena and Cory.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi. I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Because it is all about food. And guess what we’re going to be talking about today? Food! I want to talk about my guest today. We have Brenda Davis, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She’s a leader in her field and an internationally acclaimed speaker. She has worked as a public health nutritionist, clinical nutrition specialist, nutrition consultant, and academic nutrition instructor. She is currently on a diabetes intervention research project in the Marshall Islands, where she spent eight months in 2006 and returns for four to six week periods once or twice a year. 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. She’s a coauthor of many wonderful books, including Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, The New Becoming Vegetarian, Defeating Diabetes, Dairy-Free & Delicious, and some new books, The Raw Food Revolution Diet, and the newest Becoming Raw. Brenda lives in British Columbia with her husband Paul and has two grown children, Leena and Cory. Good day, Brenda!
Brenda Davis: Oh hello, Caryn.
Caryn: Hi. It’s so good to talk to you.
Brenda: You too.
Caryn: You just have a wealth of information that I wish we could just download to the general public.
Brenda: Oh thank you.
Caryn: It would be a much healthier, happier place. So we’re going to talk about some of that today. What I always like to ask the people I talk to is how they got started on the vegetarian path. What’s your story?
Brenda: Oh my goodness. I’ll try to give you the Coles Notes version. For me it really started when I was a little kid, just being very sensitive to the worms on the sidewalk and picking them off and putting them back on the grass. I remember when I was about six years old, my parents—we lived in Europe, my dad was in the Air Force—we were traveling to Spain and Italy and France and so forth. When we were in Spain, of course the thing to do is to see a bullfight. I’ll never forget there were ten thousand people there, and I will never forget the horror when I realized what the bullfight was all about. I still remember when the bull sort of got a point up on the matador who was the most famous matador in the whole country.
Brenda: The whole stadium just fell silent, and I just jumped up screaming, “Yay bull, go!” So there was always that little thing inside. But of course as we grow up we get desensitized to the plight of animals.
Caryn: That’s right.
Brenda: I started in nutrition. I was very interested in health. If you’re interested in health, you tend to gradually move towards a more plant-based diet. Even in dietetic school and everything else, even though a very conservative program, I noticed the things about fiber and antioxidants and so on that seemed to be concentrated in plants and so our diets were shifting. Slowly we were learning to eat things that North Americans didn’t eat very often like lentils and tofu and those sorts of things. Of course this was thirty years ago plus.
Caryn: I don’t want to miss anything that you’re saying. The engineer is asking you to just speak up a little bit or maybe more into the phone, okay?
Brenda: Oh, you bet. Is that better? I just moved my headset a little bit.
Caryn: Right. Matt, is that better? Matt says, “Move it.”
Caryn: Let’s see.
Brenda: I can speak up a little more.
Caryn: Check, check, one-two, one-two. Every word is so important that you say, I don’t want anyone to miss it. Anyway. It’s okay now. This is good.
Brenda: It’s okay now? Okay. You know how there’s usually something that pushes you? Sort of the final push when you make the decision that I am actually not going to eat these animal products anymore?
Brenda: The thing that did it for me was actually a hunter friend. He was actually on his way deer hunting and said, “I’ll stop by for a few minutes before I go off deer hunting.” He was the best man at our wedding, was my husband’s best friend from the time they were five years old or whatever. I remember thinking to myself, “How can I stop him from shooting another deer?” When he came in I said to him, “I’ve got to say this. I just have to say this.” I said to him, “I don’t understand why you would want to go out into the woods and take your big gun and shoot such a beautiful, innocent animal. What has that animal done to you? Why would you want to do that? Is it something that makes you feel like more of a man? Is it this macho thing that you’ve got to kill something?” What he said to me actually was the push I needed, which is kind of shocking. He basically said, “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 your piece of meat camouflaged in cellophane in the grocery store.”
Caryn: Yeah, that’s really profound.
Brenda: Exactly. He said, “At least the animals I eat have had a life.” He said, “I doubt very much you can say the same for the ones that are sitting on your plate.” And he said, “You have absolutely no right to judge me when you’re just going in and paying your money and thinking that you’ve got nothing to do with what those animals went through to get there.” It was sort of at that point that I realized that I was actually responsible for what I was purchasing. Big surprise.
Caryn: Yeah, I have never heard it put that way, but I may use that. It’s a good one. You’re pulling the trigger every time you purchase a piece of meat.
Brenda: It really was a wakeup call for me. I actually went out and tried to learn a little bit more about our animal agriculture in North America. Of course what I learned absolutely horrified me. I just couldn’t believe it. And then somebody walked into my office—I was a public health nutritionist in Northern Ontario at the time—and threw John Robbins’ Diet for a New America on my desk and said, “Is this a reliable resource?” So I said, “Do you want to leave it with me and I’ll let you know in a week or so?” And of course the section on the animal issues, that was it. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I remember saying to my husband, “I think I want to be completely vegetarian.” I asked him, “Would you be interested in doing that?” And he actually said to me—this is a Northern Ontario boy who grew up fishing and doing all of that stuff—he said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Brenda: He said, “I would love to do that.” His primary motivation—I mean, mine was completely animal rights. There’s no question in my mind that we could not justify what we were doing to animals. For him, it was really about the environment. He felt that anything he could do to lessen his ecological footprint would be a good plan, and he thought that eating a plant-based diet was the most ecologically responsible way of eating.
Caryn: Now did he know that before reading Diet for a New America?
Brenda: He was way ahead of his time.
Brenda: But anyway, that’s sort of my story.
Caryn: Wow. Definitely. You’re both way ahead of your time.
Brenda: We lived in Northern Ontario. Northern Ontario is kind of like living in Montana or something, I guess. In Northern Ontario it’s very a sort of hunting and fishing and beer and bingo, just that kind of culture. I had only actually ever met one vegetarian in my life, and that was my grade eight science teacher, and he was a hippie. He always had his almonds on his desk and he had the long hair in a ponytail and all of that. The other teachers used to think he was absolutely insane and that he was starving his kids to death. So that was my only genuine experience with a vegetarian and here I was, the public health nutritionist for the community. And I was becoming this radical! I thought for sure I would have to leave the profession. How could any dietitian actually be a vegetarian? It was really quite—back then it was scary. But I made a decision, a very conscious decision to stay, regardless of whether or not I was the only vegetarian dietitian on the planet ‘cause I really believed that the reason that I was shifting was a reason that was extremely, extremely important. If everyone who kind of got it just left the profession, there’d never be changes within the profession. So I thought, “I’ve got to stay and I’ve got to fight for what I know is right.”
Caryn: Yeah, well the universe was definitely channeling something through you and gave you all kinds of hints. You followed the path and we’re very fortunate that you did.
Brenda: Yes. It hit me with it enough times I should’ve finally gotten it.
Caryn: I’m actually planning an event in June for John Robbins. I’m kind of looking for all the people that he influenced that have gone on and done even more great work, who continue the message. It’s like every day I hear about somebody else, so.
Brenda: It’s amazing. I think there’s probably more people that have shifted in this direction because of John than because of any other person that I can think of. We’re having him speak here in October in Kelowna. He’s going to do a little speaking tour in this area, in Calgary and Vancouver and so forth, so we’re really excited and very privileged that he’s decided to do that ‘cause I know it’s hard for him to travel.
Caryn: Yeah, it is. He hasn’t done that in a long time.
Caryn: Anyway. But this is about Brenda today. I’m speaking with Brenda Davis, and we’re talking about food of course, because it’s all about food. This is a live call-in show; if you have any comments or questions you can call in at 1-888-873-4643. Again, that’s 1-888-873-4643. I also take email questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. email@example.com, any time during the show or during the week. I know it’s easier for people to write in than call in sometimes. Okay, so you’ve been quite a prolific author.
Brenda: I’m trying my best.
Caryn: Excuse me?
Brenda: I’m trying my best to get out as much as I can.
Caryn: Yeah, well you’ve done a great job.
Brenda: Thank you.
Caryn: So what was the first book?
Brenda: The very first one was called Becoming Vegetarian.
Caryn: Right. Now were you a vegan at the time when you wrote Becoming Vegetarian?
Brenda: Very, very close. As soon as I made that switch to… As soon as I eliminated meat from my diet, I pretty much eliminated dairy as well. Although when my kids were little, we weren’t quite as strict. I would say I was very near vegan immediately. But I’ve been very strict completely vegan for probably around ten years now. But the first ten years I was near vegan. Very near vegan.
Caryn: Okay. So you’ve had a bunch of books, Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, The New Becoming Vegetarian, and a book on defeating diabetes—we’re going to talk more about that in a little bit. Then you have some books out on becoming raw, and I’m really curious about these books. Now you’re not a hundred percent raw foodist yourself, are you?
Brenda: No. No. Although I have to say that it’s interesting how we kind of ended up doing these raw books. At first we kind of got in not sure whether or not we really wanted to do this stuff on raw. It was an interesting process. Both my writing partner, Vesanto [Melina] and myself, both of us have evolved considerably since we started all of our work and research on raw diets. We of course invested in all the equipment, and I think both of us are slowly incorporating more and more raw foods into our diets. I would say I’m probably fifty or sixty percent raw in the wintertime and probably seventy-five or eighty percent in the summer now. So I would say my diet is a high raw diet, generally. I absolutely love raw food. I love the raw meals. I like the way I feel when I eat raw. It’s great. So I’m really enjoying it. But even though I wrote this Becoming Raw—and it’s an excellent scientific-based guide, it’s got an awful lot of information—I’m still on the path. I’m definitely still learning every day.
Caryn: There are healthy vegetarian diets and unhealthy vegetarian diets, healthy vegan diets and unhealthy vegan diets. I’m going to say the same: there are healthy raw diets and unhealthy raw diets. As a vegan, you could live on Coca-Cola and potato chips, and it’s vegan but it’s not healthy.
Brenda: Absolutely. That’s great. Yeah.
Caryn: I did a completely raw diet for a couple years. I’m not completely raw anymore. I do somewhat like what you do, about fifty to seventy-five percent. I love my salads.
Brenda: Thank you.
Caryn: There’s a range of different raw diets. Some of the gourmet raw restaurants, you don’t feel very good after you come out of them. The food can be prepared with lots of olive oil, lots of soy sauce, lots of nuts, and it’s very rich and very heavy.
Brenda: Yes, and you know what Caryn? It was really interesting when we started on this, really researching raw, and we were trying to play with the diets to see what kind of raw diet would actually meet nutritional requirements. The one thing that we found is we could not use very much oil in a raw diet and actually meet needs for nutrients. We just couldn’t do it.
Caryn: Wow. Because you get so many calories from the oil and not enough nutrition?
Brenda: Yeah, because fats and oils have the lowest nutrient density of any food. They’re pure fat with very, very few nutrients. So it dilutes the nutritional density of the diet when you’re pouring oil on top of everything. On a raw diet there are certain nutrients that are tougher to get, and when you start diluting those nutrients with oil, well it just becomes near impossible. So we actually found that we needed to limit oil and really rely on whole plant foods for fat, like nuts and seeds and avocados and coconut. Healthy, whole plant foods as opposed to the oils extracted from those foods.
Caryn: Right. Well that’s true in any diet. Oil is really not healthy for you.
Brenda: It is. Absolutely, absolutely.
Caryn: So is there a specific raw food diet where you can meet all your nutritional requirements and get all the calories you need? What would that look like?
Brenda: Well you know it’s interesting. There are. The answer is absolutely yes. There are a variety. You can do raw in a number of different ways and meet your nutritional requirements. But for example, you’re eating a diet that’s sort of a high fruit diet. Then it’s really important that you include sufficient greens and nuts and seeds to meet your requirements for trace minerals and protein. Going too high in fruit and not including the greens and the nuts and seeds spells some problems nutritionally. You can certainly do a variety of things. You can go fairly low-fat and do okay if you’re including the right foods. You can go fairly high-fat and actually do okay if your fat’s coming from avocados and nuts and seeds.
Caryn: Right, whole foods.
Brenda: Exactly, yep.
Caryn: Yeah, I know a bunch of people that live on just fruit, and I really hope they live a long, healthy life.
Brenda: Yeah. We certainly couldn’t… We had a hard time making the numbers add up when fruit got too high. Fruit’s very, very low in protein and it’s quite low in certain trace minerals as well. It needs to be balanced with a bit of a variety of other foods, particularly the greens and the nuts and seeds.
Caryn: Now I’m a big fan of Dr. [Joel] Fuhrman. In one of his books, at least, I think I remember him saying that you couldn’t meet your calorie requirements on a raw food diet.
Brenda: On a raw food diet?
Brenda: I have great respect for Dr. Fuhrman as well. He’s also a personal friend and we agree on most things, to be honest with you. But you can meet your caloric requirements on a raw diet. There’s no problem there at all. However, it is much easier if you’re using some of the higher fat plant foods: nuts and seeds. Most people need about two thousand calories a day. A cup of nuts and seeds has eight hundred calories.
Brenda: So it adds up quickly. It’s not that difficult to meet caloric requirements. Certainly if you’re doing fruit smoothies with nuts and seeds and hempseed milk, these kinds of things. If you’re putting dressings, tahini lemon dressing all over your salad, avocados and so forth, those calories can add up pretty quickly. I tend to do a fairly substantial breakfast. I often use sprouted greens and nuts and seeds and all of those kinds of things. I make raw granola, and I make some raw crackers, and I make raw cheeses. When you use those kinds of foods, it’s really not that difficult to meet caloric requirements. However, it’s a lot more challenging—and I don’t want to talk about this too much, we don’t even address it in our book, but it is a lot more challenging for certain people. People that are athletes that have really high caloric requirements, it gets to be more of a challenge. You know sometimes those people that seem to have hollow legs, they just burn calories like crazy and for them it can be more of a challenge. For children who have little tiny stomachs and can’t hold a lot of calories at one time, it can be a lot more challenging. So there are a number of instances where it probably is some advantage to be having certain foods cooked.
Caryn: So what was the motivation behind writing a book about a raw food diet?
Brenda: We actually felt that it was needed, that somebody needed to come out with a book that actually looked at what research has been done. We’ve got an entire chapter on looking at every study that’s ever been done on populations following raw diets. What do we know about raw diets and arthritis and fibromyalgia and cancer and diabetes and all of these issues? Then we’ve got chapters looking at, okay so you want to be raw, what are the advantages? What does cooking do to food that’s not so good? We looked at some of the products that are formed, the acrylamides and heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and the advanced glycation end products, and all of these things that can be formed when you cook foods at high temperatures for long periods of time. We looked at the good things, like some of the enzymes in raw foods that actually help to convert some of the phytochemicals to their more bioactive metabolites, which are really helpful in protecting us against cancer. We looked at a lot of those issues. And then we walked people through, okay well, how do you meet protein needs? How do you meet minerals and vitamins, and what about carbohydrates? How much fiber do you need? What about essential fatty acids? How can you meet those needs? And then we actually looked at a lot of the safety concerns. There are certain issues that have been raised about sprouts and mushrooms and all of the different components in buckwheat greens. They’re all kinds of different issues that have been raised. And then of course we did a very comprehensive chapter on enzymes and looked at all of that as well. This book is—I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the reviews, but it’s a very, very balanced, comprehensive scientific review of raw food diets and it’s almost four hundred pages long, and it’s got almost a thousand references.
Caryn: Whoa. It sounds great. I’m just really curious. Where did some of the information come from, because I haven’t been aware of studies being done on raw food diets? There are so few to start with on vegan diets.
Brenda: Yeah. The studies that have been done are primarily from Europe, and there are actually two groups in the States that have done research on raw diets: Fontana and then the Hallelujah Acres folks, Michael Donaldson. There have been a number of studies, and there’s a big group in Finland, there’s another group in Germany. We have some really, really good research that’s been done, but we need a lot more. Still, we’ve looked at every single study that’s been done and we contacted a lot of these researchers. We looked at some of the claims that are made in the raw food movement.
Caryn: There’s a lot of them.
Brenda: Yeah, there are a lot of them. What we did is we looked at where are those claims coming from? For example with enzymes, people like Dr. Michael Gardner in the UK and Dr. Stephen Rothman in the US are quoted as providing some of the most definitive proof regarding enzymes. We took the quotes from the raw food community explaining why their research proves such-and-such and we contacted them and we said, “Well, is this what your research has really shown?” and got feedback from them so that we could better understand the claims and the realities as well. And so all of that’s in here.
Caryn: Gosh. I really want to read it, but I got a bunch of questions that I’m going to hit you with. Just really briefly, are sprouts healthy?
Brenda: It’s interesting. Sprouts, the only thing that makes sprouts unhealthy is that there are all these little cracks and crevices that sprouts have that can get contaminated. Contamination can almost always be traced back to pathogenic bacteria from the intestines of animals. Unfortunately, quite often the water of various crops gets sprayed with water that’s been contaminated from animals. From these holding tanks that seep into water systems. But the question of clean sprouts: are clean sprouts helpful? Think about what a sprout actually is. A sprout is a little seed that’s going to take the storage form of nutrients in the seed and transform those into products that will sustain the life and growth of a new plant. So not only are you liberating all of the stored nutrients, but you’re actually growing new nutrients. You’re massively increasing the vitamin C and the vitamin A and all of these nutrients that are important for the life and health of the plant. The phytochemicals—it’s unbelievable the increases in phytochemicals, and the increases in certain nutrients, and the changes in protein that are extraordinarily positive when you sprout.
Caryn: It’s really a magical thing. So if we grow our own sprouts with our own clean water, they should be okay.
Brenda: No, not necessarily. Because the contamination is at the level of the seed.
Caryn: Oh, okay.
Brenda: You need a source of seed that is trustworthy and reliable. Even with that it’s not a bad idea to disinfect seeds before you sprout them.
Caryn: How do you do that?
Brenda: We’ve got a couple of suggestions. There’s just a warm water bath. Some people recommend various methods of soaking and so forth to get rid of any of the bacteria that may be lodged in the cracks and crevices of the seeds. There of course are companies that are very, very careful and we can rely on trustworthy companies as well to make sure that their seeds are clean.
Caryn: Very interesting about the sprouts. I’ve heard many mixed things about them, but I’ve never heard about those little nooks and crannies that cause all the trouble.
Caryn: Now what about mushrooms? I’ve heard that cooked mushrooms are good and raw mushrooms are not.
Brenda: Mushrooms are another one of those things that are a little bit tricky. I actually did include a section in the food safety chapter on mushrooms. The common sort of edible mushrooms—like button and cremini or the brown mushrooms, portobello, shiitake mushrooms—all contain the compounds we call hydrazines. They are toxic to the liver and are carcinogenic. Shiitakes also contain a bit of formaldehyde, which a lot of people don’t realize. Formaldehyde does happen to be in a number of foods in tiny quantities and that’s not usually a problem, but however. They can be at higher levels in shiitake mushrooms. The deal is that the main compound in sort of the button portobello mushrooms is called agaritine. Agaritine is a known carcinogen but at probably fairly high levels. The big question is, when you eat a little bit of raw mushrooms, does that really increase your cancer risk? There actually is an estimate that if you ate a tablespoon of raw mushrooms a day it would probably increase your lifetime cancer risk of about 2 cases in 100,000 people.
Brenda: Not huge, but that’s not a very huge amount of mushrooms. A small amount of mushrooms. The deal is, is that most methods of food preparation decrease the amount of agaritine in mushrooms. Just storing them in the refrigerator will reduce it a little bit. Boiling mushrooms reduces it by close to ninety percent. Certainly, cooking reduces it. Now canned mushrooms contain almost no agaritine—it’s all gone by the time you process to that degree. Now, the question is with raw: is there any way of preparing raw to get rid of agaritine? We’re not absolutely positive, but it looks as though soaking and dehydrating is fairly… Agaritine seems to disappear when something is exposed to air and water and so forth, so it looks as though marinating mushrooms in whatever—lemon juice, vinegar, whatever we would normally marinate them in—will produce some significant reductions. But all of that having been said, I think that we should be a little bit careful with our raw mushroom intake. If you do consume raw mushrooms, it probably is worth at least marinating them overnight. But it’s probably best not to be eating them on a daily basis. Dehydrating produces very small reductions in agaritine, but still there’s quite a bit left there.
Caryn: So the supplements that are out there, reishi and coriolus, and some of these other super mushrooms that are—
Brenda: Those aren’t the same mushrooms. I don’t know. When I studied all of this, it seems as though it’s the common edible mushrooms like the button and the portobello and the brown mushrooms that contain this compound, this agaritine. And shiitake with some formaldehyde. I did not see anything about these less common mushrooms that are being used as medicinal mushrooms, and I’m not sure what process they go through to actually turn those mushrooms into powders or whatever, and what level of reduction in any harmful compound that might be present would result from that processing. So I could not speak with any confidence on whether or not these compounds would remain in these products. My guess is probably that they don’t contain a lot of agaritine and that they’re probably fairly—I would imagine that they’re quite safe, but I don’t know that.
Caryn: They’re getting a lot of press about their anti-cancer properties. Okay. Very, very good. Very interesting. Okay. Let’s move to your work in the Marshall Islands.
Caryn: Now how did that all get started, down under?
Brenda: It was just a very, very fortunate chain of events that led me there. I was presenting something called CHIP, and you may have heard of CHIP—the Coronary Health Improvement Project. Hans Diehl from Loma Linda University started this, and it’s a vegetarian program that really teaches people in-depth information about diet and lifestyle changes for protecting them against disease, and even in some cases reversing disease. They go to this class for like three hours a night, four days a week for a month. Anyway, every year they have this big symposium, and I was the key speaker for the symposium in I think it was 2005 or something like that. One of the people that came to the symposium was a doctor who was just asked by Canvasback Missions, which is a Seventh-Day Adventist mission group that brings doctors to the Marshall Islands and to Micronesia in general to help the people there. They had just hired him to do this work on this diabetes research project, and he needed desperately somebody to create a program and conduct the program. I did this presentation on defeating diabetes, and he said, “That’s the book we need to use!”
Brenda: And so they approached me and said, “Would you consider helping us?” My husband took a leave of absence, and my son happily took a leave from high school. My daughter was already in university. We just headed on down there, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. These people—seventy years ago there was no diabetes in this country. None. These are little tiny islands. First of all I should tell you where the Marshall Islands are. They’re about 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii in the middle of nowhere, and they were actually used as atomic bomb testing grounds just after the Second World War. Fairly small population, lots of little islands, but about 30,000 people on their biggest island, called Majuro.
Caryn: What kind of people are there?
Brenda: They’re Polynesian basically, yeah. They look a lot like our native, our aboriginal people.
Caryn: Right. So how did their diet get so off track?
Brenda: Oh, it’s just an unbelievable story. Well, they went, like I said, seventy years ago, zero—there was no diabetes—to today, half the adults thirty-five-plus have diabetes. It’s unbelievable. Anyway, the situation is that they went from eating off the land, living off the land. All they ate—well, sixty percent of their diet was coconut. They ate coconut, green leaves, pandanus, bananas, breadfruit—whatever plants they could get. Plus fish, of course—whatever they could catch from the coast of these little islands. That’s all they ate. Nothing processed.
Caryn: Right. That’s a pretty healthy diet.
Brenda: Yeah, nothing was processed, nothing was that bad; it was a very healthy diet. They went from that to eating honestly I can say the worst diet I’ve ever witnessed anybody eat in my life. Just to give you an idea. Seventy years ago, you have a full belly in the Marshall Islands, you were well-nourished. They think that it’s still the same case. They think if they have a full belly they’re well-nourished, and most of them think that diabetes is caused by radiation.
Caryn: Oh gosh.
Brenda: What actually happened was of course, they started to be affected by imported foods and they got these little rations as well to replace the food that they had been eating when they got kicked off their island for the testing. There were all kinds of little… I shouldn’t say that. They did get rations which introduced them to some new foods that they liked. Whenever you concentrate fat and sugar and salt, people usually like the taste of it. So SPAM became quite popular, white rice, these sweet drinks. And now just let me tell you what they eat for the day. Well the kids’ breakfast is often ramen noodles—which are those dried, fried noodles—with Kool-Aid powder sprinkled on top. I kid you not. They’re eaten dry, out of the package—they crack open the package, they sprinkle Kool-Aid powder on top, and then often on top of that they sprinkle on a little what they call ajinmoto or MSG.
Caryn: Oh gosh, who created this nightmare?
Brenda: And if they don’t have that, they might have a Popsicle and a can of pop. Or they might have a bag of chips and an ice cream cone. They have whatever they feel like having. Whatever is there. And then lunch and dinner are always, always white rice and meat. There’s rarely a vegetable to be seen. The white rice has a glycemic index of 83. Just so people know, sugar has a glycemic index of 68. It’s just a very high glycemic index rice with very fatty meat. So they love chicken and they love SPAM and canned corn beef and turkey tails—all the parts of the animals people here don’t want to eat get shipped to these kind of islands where people don’t have a lot of money. They eat turkey necks, turkey tails. They eat pig feet, pig tongue, pig intestines. Just all of these…what do you call them…meats. These “variety meats,” I guess you’d call them. That’s their diet. Of course between all of it, their favorite beverage is called Luau. It is a concentrated high-fructose corn syrup beverage. First ingredient: high-fructose corn syrup.
Caryn: To participate in your program, how do they respond to it?
Brenda: Okay. So the program, what we did is we did a research study which is now over. Now we’re doing public education. The research study was designed to compare usual treatment for diabetes with a very aggressive lifestyle intervention program where people would be with us for at least three months. They’d be with us for the first month four times a week for six or seven hours each time, and we would feed them three meals a day and exercise and all sorts of education. What ended up happening is the people that caught on and decided they were actually going to do this did unbelievably well. We have stories. There was one pilot who had lost his ability to fly because you can’t fly with diabetes. And he was young—he was in his thirties, his sugar was through the roof. He came and his fasting sugar is now absolutely normal. He is not on any medication and he no longer has diabetes. We have several cases of people that have completely reversed their situation, are no longer on any medications, and have normal fasting sugars. We did put many people through interventions, usually twenty or thirty people at a time. Followed them, got all of their lab work and so forth. Some of them went back to their usual way, which is acceptable, er…expected. We would expect that to happen. But certainly the ones that really did stick with it just did amazingly well. Amazingly well.
Caryn: They have access to healthy food there? Do they grow their own food?
Brenda: Well the problem is, is that they’re on a coral reef. The coral reef isn’t that conducive to growing food. There are little pockets where they’ve got better soil on the island. We’re trying to teach them how to… Our program involves bringing in agriculture experts, helping them to plant their own gardens, even if they have to plant them in pots. Just to try to figure out how we can get more produce, ‘cause the produce that’s imported as you can imagine, it costs a fortune. That’s one of our biggest challenges, is getting them to grow food. Of course they have a year-round growing season; it’s eighty-two degrees there day and night, hundred feet below the surface of the water it’s always the same temperature. There’s always a pile of sunshine.
Caryn: What happened to the foods that they were originally eating, the coconuts and…
Brenda: The problem is that there’s enough of that on the island for maybe, I’m guessing, a thousand people. There’s thirty thousand people on the island.
Caryn: There’s too many people.
Brenda: There’s too many people. One thing we could try to do is import from smaller islands, that kind of thing. But that’s the big challenge. What I’m trying to teach people now that we’ve gone public and we can actually educate the public is that they will have to import some food to feed that population. They have a choice: they can import food that will kill them or they can import food that will sustain them and provide some health. What we’re trying to teach them is, instead of SPAM try beans. Beans cost a fraction of what SPAM costs. They’ve got all kinds of fiber and phytochemicals.
Caryn: That’s right. You can ship them a lot more easily, just dried beans.
Brenda: Exactly, exactly. We acknowledge that we want them to eat as much local food as possible, we want them to grow as much food as possible, but because they do have to import some food they need to be making better choices with the food that they’re importing.
Caryn: Do they speak English there? What language do they speak?
Brenda: They speak Marshallese, but English is their second language.
Caryn: Okay. Do you speak Marshallese?
Brenda: Certainly most—I would say the more educated people communicate very well in English. The less educated people are sometimes quite challenged with English, so it’s a little difficult for them. What we’ve done with the program is whenever we do a program we have someone translating for us, and in some cases we get in physicians who can speak the language and who will deliver lectures. So some lectures will be delivered in their own language and some will be in English but translated.
Caryn: Well this is a really great thing you’re doing, but the terrible thing is that this problem doesn’t exist just in the tiny Marshall Islands.
Brenda: No it sure doesn’t.
Caryn: No. All of North America is being hit with diabetes as one of the major chronic ideas because people are eating such horrible, horrible things that they are calling food.
Brenda: Yeah, exactly. What we’re seeing is the South Pacific is riddled with diabetes. We’re seeing great interest from a lot of other countries right now. We even had representatives from the World Health Organization come to see what we were doing. We’ve probably had a dozen presidents go through our center from different countries, taking a look at what we’re doing. It’s definitely a lot of interest. Now in developed countries—in North America and in Europe and so forth—we are definitely seeing diabetes start to rise to epidemic proportions, but especially in North America and the States. We’re at probably ten percent of the population or very close to it, whereas in the Marshall Islands they’re upwards of thirty percent of the whole population practically. They’re in a more serious situation, but we will be getting there because we are much more obese than they are.
Caryn: You know their lifespan there in Marshall Islands right now?
Brenda: They live generally to the early sixties, I would say, but there are a lot of people that die very young. A lot of what happens—the number one surgery in the Marshall Islands is amputations due to diabetes, and once they’ve had a leg amputated they die within a year or two quite often.
Caryn: Yes. Oh gosh this is such a nightmare.
Brenda: It’s just really unfortunate. You see what happens is they get a little sore, and they’re scared to go to the hospital because they think if they go to the hospital the doctor’s going to cut their toe off. And so they wait. And they wait. And they wait. And they use local medicine and they try all of these different things and they wait until the infection has gone right into their bone and they’ve got gangrene coming all the way up their leg before they actually end up in the hospital. And if they live, the leg’s got to come off.
Caryn: Yeah, this is really heartbreaking. Okay, so the message here folks is that diabetes is completely reversible and preventable—at least Type 2 diabetes, most cases.
Brenda: Yeah, Type 2 diabetes is a disease that is pretty much a hundred percent preventable. It is a disease that doesn’t have to happen to anybody. In the Marshall Islands seventy years ago there wasn’t any diabetes because people ate off the land and were physically active; they had to work hard to get those coconuts off those trees. The reality here, it’s the same thing: we’re becoming more sedentary and we’re eating more highly processed foods. It’s just a formula for diabetes. That’s all it is. We’re just going to see as our body weight increases, as our percentage of obese people increases, our rates of diabetes just follow. It’s a perfect little parallel. It’s a very unfortunate thing, but I think we as individuals need to be empowered to know that we can prevent this disease. It does not have to happen to us; it does not have to happen to our children. We’ve got to get active and we have to start eating real food.
Caryn: That’s right. Real food, folks. We have a few minutes left, and what I usually like to do is talk about favorite foods. But before we do that, do you have anything else you want to add about your books or the program that you’re involved with or your website? Where we can go—
Brenda: My website is brendadavisrd.com. I think the main thing that I would say is that, I guess if I could add one other thing, I would love to say that a lot of people who are into vegetarianism and who are animal rights activists and so on, often they say, “Well it’s not about me. I’m doing this for the animals so it doesn’t really matter if I eat junk food.” I oppose that position so strongly because as a vegan, you’re often the only vegan that many of your friends have ever met. You are the example of what a vegan is.
Caryn: That’s right.
Brenda: If they see you being unhealthy, you have no energy, whatever, all the different problems that you face, then to them that is their number one rationale for why they need to eat meat. You become exhibit number one for why we need to eat animals.
Caryn: We need to be energetic and beautiful and glowing and…
Brenda: We need to do the best we can to be a good example of health.
Caryn: Right. I agree.
Brenda: To me, we have a responsibility. If we really want to see the world shift in this direction, we have to take good care of ourselves. Because the whole vegan thing is on trial in the eyes of the world. There aren’t a lot of people that have been vegan for eighty or ninety years. Until there are, until we have a whole population of people that are lifelong vegans, we are on trial in the eyes of the world. So forgetting about B12 and saying, “Oh it doesn’t matter” and you end up with a baby with B12 deficiency, it hits the headlines, it tells the whole world that vegan is really a bad diet and that babies die because they eat vegan. Those kinds of things to me are just inexcusable. We have got to figure it out. We’ve got to figure it out well, and we’ve got to prove that we’re smart enough to eat a healthful diet without slaughtering animals in the process.
Caryn: Right on.
Brenda: So it’s our challenge.
Caryn: Yeah, it’s so frustrating when you read in the news because people on the standard American diet, it’s a diet for all kinds of horrible diseases and it should be headline news every day, but any little flaw in the vegan diet—and there really are few and they’re all preventable—that gets headlines.
Brenda: That’s right. They will hit the headlines and you can rest assured it goes on their exhibit list for why people need meat.
Caryn: Right. That’s right.
Brenda: We’ve got a challenge, and it really wouldn’t be that difficult for us to succeed and move people. Especially with what’s happening in the environment. People are getting on the bandwagon and recognizing that plant-based diets offer such a tremendous advantage ecologically. We have to prove that there’s no excuses for not going this way. You can’t use the excuse that a vegan diet is unhealthy. You can get anything you need doing this.
Caryn: Okay, so we just have a couple of minutes and I wanted to know: what are your favorite foods?
Brenda: Blueberries. I love fruit, to be honest; I’m a big fruit person. I love berries and I absolutely love my nuts and seeds as well. Those are definitely favorite foods. But if I think of meals, I love my breakfast with my sprouted greens and all the fruits and nuts and seeds, and I love salads. I love greens. Kale. Absolutely love kale. I’ll make a great big salad with all kinds of stuff in it: watermelon radishes and you name all kinds of strange vegetables. I like to make it a complete meal, so I’ll throw some beans on top, throw some strawberries or whatever, and then make homemade dressings with tahini or almond butter or whatever and try to make a really healthy meal that way. I love flax crackers with fermented cheeses on that you can make with nuts and seeds. So, yeah. Those are my favorites.
Caryn: I had a question, and it’s just escaped me. Oh well. Are there any particular recipes, anything decadent that you have on occasion that you like?
Brenda: Oh, you know what? I love—this is a cooked thing, but I love cinnamon buns. I make cinnamon buns with sprouted grains, so I love those. I love vegan cheesecakes, all of those kinds of goodies like everyone else. And of course I love dark chocolate. Who doesn’t, right?
Caryn: Right. I think it’s so important to talk about this, especially after everything else we’ve talked about because I always want to leave and give the listeners the impression that this is a diet of satisfaction. This is a diet of just joy and we don’t feel deprived. You can have everything. And when you’re on this diet, you naturally crave the foods that are healthier and occasionally you can have these wonderful treats. It’s all there.
Brenda: Absolutely. And today, even more so than a few years ago. We just have every option you can possibly imagine and everything’s just getting better and better and better.
Caryn: That’s right. Brenda, it’s been great having you on the show.
Brenda: Thanks, Caryn.
Caryn: I really invite everyone to check out your books, especially this new one on Becoming Raw. It sounds like there’s a lot of information in there that people would be interested in, even if they’re not going to a completely raw diet.
Brenda: Absolutely. Even if you’re not raw or you don’t have any interest in becoming raw, I think you would really get a lot out of the book.
Caryn: Right. Thank you so much.
Brenda: Thank you.
Caryn: You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. I’m your host, Caryn Hartglass. Next week we’ll be talking with A. Breeze Harper, the editor and author of Sistah Vegan. Really looking forward to that show. Thanks for joining me today.
Transcribed by JC, 3/5/2016