Build an attitude of gratitude around meals. — Make mealtimes sacred, joyful, and interesting. This is the opportunity to connect with those you love. Be mindful about where your food is coming from and grateful for all the effort it took to bring that food to your table.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brenda Davis
Brenda is a registered dietitian and widely regarded as a rock star of plant-based nutrition. VegNews called her “The Godmother of vegan dietitians.” In 2007, she was inducted into the Vegetarian Hall of Fame.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am a registered dietitian who went through a very traditional dietetics program in the late 70s early 80s and became a public health nutritionist. The dietetics world at that time was not supportive of vegetarian or vegan diets. Regardless, I became convinced that plant-based diets were a good idea because the mounting evidence for human health, and indisputable evidence for ethical and ecological advantages. When I began, I wasn’t sure if there was another vegan dietitian on the planet. I felt alone, and to be honest, a little afraid that I might be ousted from my profession. At the same time, I was determined develop evidence-based resources that would support individuals and families who were committed to being vegetarian or vegan. I went on to co-author 12 books, several of which were award winners or best-sellers. These books have sold close to a million copies in 15 languages. I have had the opportunity to speak to my peers in over 20 countries.
My 12th book, Nourish: The Definitive Plant-based Nutrition Guide for Families was co-authored with pediatrician, Reshma Shah. We met on an airplane and felt an instant connection. Reshma and I knew that the plant-based world needed a comprehensive guidebook for families and decided to do it together. The experience has been incredible. Reshma is brilliant, articulate, and level-headed. I feel very privileged to be working with her.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Sometimes, I think my life sounds like a bit of a fairy tale. I have had so many remarkable experiences. I flew to Saudi Arabia to do a consult for a prince. I set up a diabetes intervention research program in a TB and leprosy clinic in the Marshall Islands. I had the privilege of doing a lifestyle intervention demonstration project in Lithuania with the founding president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. John Kelly. I did a 48-state speaking tour in the United States over 8 months. But the story I would like to share happened in 2008 when I was in Taiwan giving keynote lectures for the Tzu Chi Medical Association Annual Conference, and for the First Annual Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Conference. I will never forget, after giving my lecture for the medical association, the entire audience stood and recited a poem to thank me. It was incredibly touching. After my lecture I received a tour of the medical school and hospital. In the hospital kitchen there were a dozen or more huge bags filled with the organic greens the Buddhist nuns had just picked from the gardens surrounding the hospital. I asked them about the greens, and they responded that it is the most important food for the recovery of their patients. I was stunned. It was unbelievable to me to see a hospital feeding patients healthy food and really understanding the connection between food and healing. Then I was taken to the medical school and I was informed that each medical student works on a cadaver to learn to practice medicine. However, before the first surgery, the student spends about 3 months with the family of the deceased, so they grow to love and respect the individual who will be their “silent mentor”. Before touching the body, they give thanks for what that person will teach them on that day. Then, when they have completed their work (after several months), the medical students put on a 2 to 3 hour performance to honor the families who shared their loved ones with the medical students. I had the privilege of watching that performance and being a part of a parade by the townspeople to honor the deceased.
This story taught me that life’s most valuable lessons often come from people with very different experiences than our own. By observing and listening we not only expand our own knowledge, but we begin to understand, appreciate, and respect a great diversity of experiences. There is absolutely no one we can’t learn from.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the biggest mistake I made was to undervalue my own services. I gave my services away for years, and although I continue to do that, I do it more selectively, and do not hesitate to charge reasonably when that seems appropriate.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, absolutely. Apart from my wonderful husband, my mom, my children, and my entire family, there are two people who I’d like to mention. The first is my long-time writing partner, Vesanto Melina. Vesanto and I wrote 8 books together. Vesanto is a remarkable person and has been a mentor to me. She is a strong and brilliant woman. At 78 years of age, she is still writing, speaking, doing consults and inspiring others. The second is my number one support person, and dear friend, Margie Colclough. It is hard to describe the extent of what Margie does for me — editing, recipe testing, advising, organizing…the list goes on. But most of all, she supports me in every way. I could never imagine having a friend like Margie — she thinks about everything she does, and is truly the most conscientious person I have ever met.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
The work Reshma and I are doing will provide families who want to make more ethically justifiable and ecologically sustainable choices around their food choices do so with confidence. We are providing solid guidelines for all who wish to eat plant-based, or who are trying to support patients or clients who are plant-based, to succeed brilliantly.
I will never forget walking through a nutrition exhibition when a young couple ran up to me with tears in their eyes and thanked me for writing the book that saved their baby’s life. I thought about all the sacrifices that I had made to write that book, and how their words would fuel my writing for many years to come.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
1.) Include a wide variety of colorful unprocessed plant foods in your daily diet:
- At least 10 servings of vegetables and fruits
- At least one serving of legumes (beans, lentils or split peas)
- Intact whole grains.
- Nuts and seeds (including omega-3-rich choices)
- When you base your diet on whole plant foods, you naturally maximize the most protective components in the diet, and minimize those that are most pathogenic.
2.) Eat regular meals without overeating. Seventy percent of the American population is either overweight or obese. If you are normal weight, you are in the minority. We are exposed to endless ultra palatable foods, and it is killing us. Most people recognize hunger or starvation as a form of malnutrition, but are unaware that the number one form of malnutrition globally is overconsumption leading to diseases of excess.
3.) Build an attitude of gratitude around meals.
Make mealtimes sacred, joyful, and interesting. This is the opportunity to connect with those you love. Be mindful about where your food is coming from and grateful for all the effort it took to bring that food to your table.
4.) Prepare most of your food at home.
When food is prepared from scratch it has a greater power to feed the soul. When we put love and effort into our food, we reap the rewards on so many levels.
5.) Exercise every day.
Many people say that they don’t have time for exercise, but I know as one very busy person that when something is a priority, it gets done. From the time I was 17 years old I have made exercise a part of my daily life. Now, in my 60s, I am enjoying the perks of regular physical activity. I run, hike, bike, roller blade, canoe, skate, ski, do yoga, and engage in whatever fun sport that I am invited to play. I feel about the same physically as I did when I was 30. Exercise is not an option — it is an imperative if you hope to maintain health over the decades.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I think I am already a pioneering member of that movement — the whole-food plant-based movement. It is alive and well.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Use a referencing program if you are writing a book with hundreds or thousands of citations. It will save many hours of grief.
- Don’t hesitate to connect with experts in whatever area you are writing about. Experts are often happy to ensure that their message is accurately conveyed.
- Don’t undervalue yourself. People will compensate you for your valuable services.
- Learn to use social media — I am still working on this.
- Don’t be afraid to change the system if you believe the system needs changing.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
I would say veganism because it encompasses all of the above. Being vegan is about widening our circles of compassion; it is about sustaining our planet for future generations; it is about reducing the pain, suffering and death of billions of animals used each year for food; it is about doing what we can do to preserve health so we might enjoy an exceptional quality of life in our advancing years.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I am at:
Thank you for these fantastic insights!