In memory of
We are a member of
IVU (International Vegetarian Union)
Vegan dietitians for life
Jack Norris & Ginny Messina
In Vegan Views No.123, Paul Appleby reviewed the book Vegan for Life by American dietitians Jack Norris and Virginia (Ginny) Messina (Da Capo Press 2011; ISBN 978-0-7382-1493-1, e-book ISBN 978-0-7382-1497-9). Here Paul interviews the authors.
you begin by telling us a little about yourselves and your paths to
Eventually I got some information from PETA that persuaded me to give up eggs from battery cage hens. Soon after, I stopped eating mammals and birds, then fish, and finally became vegan. I got involved in animal advocacy and in 1993 co-founded Vegan Outreach.
Vegan Outreach produces booklets exposing the conditions on modern day animal farms and in slaughterhouses. We personally hand them to millions of pedestrians each year, mainly at colleges in the U.S. and Canada.
I became a Registered Dietitian in 2001 after coming across numerous people who said they had been vegan or vegetarian and had not been healthy. I wanted to address this, along with other nutrition issues surrounding a vegan diet. Now I maintain the websites www.VeganHealth.org and www.JackNorrisRD.com
I'm not doing my various jobs, I like to play ultimate frisbee and
As someone who has always cared deeply about animals, but just wasn’t making the connection with the food on my plate, I was ready for a vegetarian message. I found that message in the 1970s cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen, which was dedicated to a “glossy black calf on his way to the slaughterhouse many years ago”. I don’t know why those words hit me so profoundly and changed the way I was to eat (and live) forever, but reading them started me on a path towards a very different kind of life and career.
It was several years later when I went to work for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) that I had my first exposure to a vegan message and an animal rights ethic. That’s an ethic that really touches on all parts of my life now because it underscores my work and all of my lifestyle choices. When I’m not working on vegan nutrition projects, I’m involved in local animal issues related to spay/neuter programs and the animal shelter.
When I can grab a little bit of leisure time, it’s usually spent reading, practising piano, learning to knit, and working in the garden.
prompted you to write Vegan for Life?
on vegans and calcium needs had been indicating vegans were not
getting enough calcium, and I had come across many vegans who had
become vitamin D deficient and suffered from severe fatigue. These
issues needed to be addressed.
These myths about B12 and calcium get repeated over and over again in the vegan community, sometimes even by those who are in positions of considerable authority in that community.
This was a big reason for writing Vegan for Life. We wanted to provide solid evidence to counter those beliefs and help vegans make optimal food choices.
Many vegans place great faith in the China
Study, and the book of the same name by Professor T Colin Campbell.
However, you do not cite results from the study in Vegan for Life,
saying that it “doesn’t provide information … on the health of
vegans”. Would you care to explain to readers why the findings of
the China Study are largely irrelevant to vegans?
There is certainly nothing wrong with doing this - it gives researchers an idea of what about those regions might be useful for further research, looking at individuals rather than regions. We now have a great deal of data on many of the disease markers of actual vegans, and some data on their disease rates, through the Oxford Vegetarian study, EPIC-Oxford, studies of Seventh-day Adventists, and a few other studies. That data, which is highly relevant to vegans at large, is what we focused on in the book.
Ginny Messina: I would add that the findings from the China Study aren’t exactly irrelevant to vegans. Any well-designed study like the China Study that looks at health impacts of animal versus plant foods has relevance to vegans. However, because it didn’t include vegan subjects, the China Study doesn’t speak specifically to the health of vegans. We can’t look at that data and conclude that vegans are healthier than lacto-ovo- vegetarians or pesco-vegetarians, for example.
Something that is also a little bit unique to our book is that we wanted to help readers understand that some types of studies carry more weight than others - or that they have different purposes. As Jack pointed out, ecological studies, which include the China Study, generate findings that stimulate further research. But they aren’t the type of studies that allow us to make statements about causal relationships between diet and health.
fact, there are instances where ecological studies have led us
completely astray. For example, the belief that vegans have lower
calcium needs than omnivores comes, in part, from an ecological study
that compared rates of hip fracture to
protein intake around the world. It showed that hip fracture rates
were highest in countries with the highest per capita protein intake.
The obvious conclusion is that eating protein causes weak bones. But
it’s turning out that this conclusion may in fact be wrong. There
are other explanations for the differences in hip fracture rates in
these countries, all of which are missed in ecological studies.
What are the main advantages of a well-planned vegan diet?
Jack Norris: On average, vegans have lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and total cholesterol levels. In studies done on healthy populations, vegans have had an average cholesterol level of 160 mg/dl (4 mmol/l) compared to 202 mg/dl (5 mmol/l) for regular meat eaters.
Vegans also have lower levels of triglycerides, which is interesting because many clinical trials have shown that high carbohydrate diets raise triglyceride levels; apparently this isn't the case for vegans. Vegans are less likely to have high blood pressure, and more likely to have lower body weight.
of all, after adjusting for all the factors that might affect
diabetes, vegans have been shown to have a 62% lower risk of diabetes
than regular meat-eaters. Not bad!
what we tried to do in our book was to recognize those advantages
without over-promising any particular health benefit. Not all vegans
are slender and not all vegans are protected from heart disease and
cancer. I always think of
those health benefits as a nice little perk anyway. The real
advantage to me is the positive impact we make with a vegan
fact is that a vegan diet is a foreign way of eating for most people
and so we have to actually learn how to meet nutrient needs. It’s
not hard; it’s just different. We do need to learn where to get
calcium and iodine, and we have to work a
little bit harder to ensure adequate intake of zinc and adequate
absorption of both zinc and iron. We also need to
ensure adequate vitamin D, although that’s an issue for everyone,
vegan or not.
Zinc is another area where I’d like to see some more data. Vegans often have lower intakes, and zinc is absorbed less well from plant foods. Does this matter? Since it’s hard to measure zinc status, and indeed the effects of the lower intakes among vegans, it’s something we don’t fully understand.
also need much better information about the health and nutrient needs
of older vegans. As a post-menopausal vegan, I’m especially
interested in the relationship of protein intake to health in older
women. It’s so important for preserving muscle mass and for bone
health. There is ongoing discussion among the experts in protein
nutrition about whether recommended intakes for older people are high
enough. I’d like to know more about how that impacts those of us
who are vegan and trying to hold on to every milligram of bone and
muscle we can!
message of Vegan for Life is: "Not so fast - there's more to it
Ginny Messina: My goal as always is to help make a vegan diet a safe and realistic option for as many people as possible. To that end, I plan to keep writing about vegan nutrition on my blog www.TheVeganRD.com and elsewhere on the internet. I also volunteer for the vegetarian practice group of the AND, contributing and reviewing written materials on vegetarian nutrition for dietitians. I have a book on vegan nutrition for women being published this summer and am working on another book for next year.
Jack Norris: I will continue to maintain www.VeganHealth.org and www.JackNorrisRD.com to make sure vegans have the latest pertinent information regarding their diet. And Vegan Outreach will continue to promote a vegan diet. We are happy to report that, in the United States, the demand for meat has decreased in recent years, saving millions of animals from a lifetime of misery - we plan to continue until our efforts are no longer needed.
Thank you for your time and for giving readers the benefit of your knowledge and experience.
© Vegan Views 2013