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amazing diversity of dietitian experiences.
Brenda Davis is a leader in her field and an internationally acclaimed speaker. She is the 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.
A few weeks ago a young colleague said something that made me smile, “You are living every dietitian's dream.ˮ Twenty-five years ago, these would have been the last words I would have expected to hear from a fellow dietitian.
My transition from omnivore to vegetarian occurred while I was a public health nutritionist and a registered dietitian. It has been quite an adventure.
Lessons on vegetarian nutrition from the "olden days"
My journey began in 1978 – the year I was married and the year I began my formal study of nutrition at The University of Guelph. I was an eager first-year nutrition student sitting in the front row of a basic nutrition course. Although admittedly an omnivore, I found vegetarianism wildly appealing and this was the day vegetarian nutrition made the agenda. Our esteemed professor spent 10 minutes teaching future dietitians the vast majority of what we would learn about vegetarian diets while attending university — lacto-ovo vegetarian diets are risky and pure vegetarian (vegan) diets are downright dangerous. I silently scolded myself for being seduced by a diet with such dubious distinction. Regardless, I couldn't resist keeping my finger on the pulse of all things vegetarian.
Taking the vegetarian plunge, with trepidation
In 1983 I landed my first job as a public health nutritionist in Northern Ontario. I designed and delivered nutrition education programs which were based on Canada's Food Guide. The thought of consuming a diet that eliminated two of the four food groups seemed preposterous. At the same time, the evidence supporting the benefits of plant-based diets was strengthening and slowly but surely lentils, almond butter, dark greens and tofu began replacing the meat and dairy products on my menu. In 1989, I gathered the courage to follow my heart and became a full-fledged vegetarian. My dream was to someday write a book on vegetarian nutrition.
Although becoming vegetarian felt right personally, it seemed risky professionally. After all, our nutrition education materials were based on omnivorous diets and vegetarian eating patterns were still frowned upon in dietetic circles. Feeling isolated and apprehensive, I wondered if I was the only vegetarian dietitian on the planet. I imagined being forcibly ousted from the profession. Although the idea of changing careers crossed my mind, my heart was in nutrition. Vegetarian diets deserved more serious attention — they had the potential to provide excellent nutrition for a growing population, with impressive ecological and ethical advantages. Dietitians had a vital role to play in ensuring plant-based diets were appropriately planned. If I did not have the courage to be a leader in this area, who would?
Courage and compassion turn dreams into reality
Shortly thereafter my family re-located to Vancouver, British Columbia and I joined two colleagues, Victoria Harrison and Ketti Goudey, in private practice. I was astounded to learn that one was vegetarian and the other was near-vegetarian — I was no longer alone. We worked at a lipid clinic, gave lectures, taught cooking classes and counseled patients. I also started teaching an academic nutrition program at a local college. In 1992, three vegetarian dietitians (Vesanto Melina, Victoria Harrison and myself) attended the 2nd International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, held in Washington, D.C. and decided to write our first book on vegetarian nutrition.
Our timing was perfect. We published Becoming Vegetarian in 1994 and within nine months it was a national bestseller. Vesanto Melina and I went on to write Becoming Vegan (2000), The New Becoming Vegetarian (2003), The Raw-food Revolution Diet (with Cherie Soria)(2008), Becoming Raw (2010), Becoming Vegan: Express Edition (2013) and Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition (2014). Becoming Vegan: Express Edition won the Canada Book Award. It also received an honourable mention as a finalist in ForeWord’s Book of the Year award and was given a star rating by the American Library Association as the “go-to book" on vegan nutrition. I also co-authored Defeating Diabetes (2003), Dairy-free and Delicious (2000), and was a contributing author to The Complete Vegetarian (2009). These books have sold over 660,000 copies and have been translated into 8 languages.
The vegetarian and vegan nutrition books paved the way for my three year stint (1999-2001) as Chair Elect, Chair and Past Chair of the Vegetarian Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).
Writing books also landed me countless exciting speaking engagements. I have spoken in 10 countries on 5 continents and at national dietetic conferences in 6 countries. One of the highlights was Taiwan; I was invited to speak at the Tzu Chi International Medical Association Conference in 2008. Local dietitians hosted the 1st Annual Vegetarian Nutrition Conference of Taiwan to coincide with my visit and I was the keynote presenter.
Writing and speaking about diabetes provided an opportunity for me to serve as the lead dietitian for a lifestyle intervention research project in Majuro, Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are remote islands about 2300 miles southwest of Hawaii with the highest death rates from diabetes in the world. Working on this project turned out to be one of the most challenging and satisfying career decisions of my life. The Marshall Islands work began in 2006 and I continue to return regularly, with my last trip being in February of 2014. I am currently writing a research paper about diabetes on the Marshall Islands and have co-authored three articles on other subjects in peer-reviewed medical and nutrition journals.
Looking forward after 31 years as an RD and 25 years as a veg-RD
Twenty-five years after becoming a veg-RD, I am grateful for the courage I had to follow my convictions. I was not ousted from my profession — to the contrary, my peers have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. It is a privilege to be a registered dietitian and I look forward to the next 25 years with great anticipation!
Dare to Dream
Take a chance on yourself – you are accomplished, articulate, confident and compassionate. Your contributions to this profession and to our local and global communities will be nothing short of extraordinary.
Editor’s note: It can be terrifying to go against society’s norms to be who you truly want to be. Ultimately, diversity creates strength in our profession and ensures we truly are the nutrition experts in every area. Thanks for sharing your amazing story with us Brenda and for having the courage – 25 years ago – to step outside the box!