Transcript of the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 12.
Vesanto Melina on how to improve your plant-based diet, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' position paper on vegan diets
Karina Inkster: Renowned dietician, Vesanto Melina, joins us today to discuss mistakes vegans make with their diets, why exactly vitamin B12 is important, and what it does in our bodies, and so much more.
Karina Inkster: I am very excited to share with you an interview with Vesanto Melina. She's been a registered dietician for 53 years, and she's the lead author of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets.
This is the most-read position paper of the entire academy, and it's referenced by pretty much all vegetarians and vegans when we need to show health professionals or family members or friends a research-backed statement about vegan diets from the world's largest organization that represents food and nutritional professionals. We talk about the type of research that went into creating the position paper, how it's evolved over the years, and its most recent edition.
Vesanto is an internationally known speaker, co-author of award-winning books that are classics in plant-based nutrition, a consultant for people who want to fine-tune their vegan diets, and an instructor for a three-part nutrition series through the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in California.
When it comes to Vesanto's favorite vegan dishes, there are three in particular that she makes in large batches on a regular basis. The recipes are all featured in her books which we link to in our show notes. There's a red lentil curry that you can make in less than half an hour. There's a salad with kale, romaine, and two types of cabbage. There's a salad dressing to go with that called Liquid Gold dressing. The name isn't just for the color but, also, for its nutritional wealth. Three tablespoons of that dressing gives you half of your daily B12 and your whole day's supply of omega-3 fatty acids.
We've got two of these three recipes in full for you at our show notes. You can access those at nobullshitvegan.com/012. You're just going to have to go there and find out which ones we have for you.
In addition to the position paper, we discuss myths around vitamin B12, some mistakes vegans commonly make with their diets, how the vegan movement is taking hold around the world, and much more. Let's get to the interview.
Karina Inkster: Vesanto, thank you so much for being on the show today!
Vesanto Melina: Thank you, Karina, I'm delighted to.
Karina Inkster: You’re a fellow Vancouverite, which I actually didn't know until I looked up your website. I'm like, "Oh, you're in the same city as me!"
Vesanto Melina: This is sometimes called “Vegcouver” now.
Vesanto Melina: People in Winnipeg that I know call it Vegcouver.
Karina Inkster: Honestly, it's kind of odd that I haven't heard it called that yet, but it totally makes sense.
Vesanto Melina: It does, doesn't it? I was looking at the Happy Cow website the other day, and I think if you just clicked Vancouver and had a radius of 10 miles, there were 260 different plant-based food outlets that came up.
Karina Inkster: Oh, wow.
Vesanto Melina: That included stores like Choices and that kind of thing, too. Then, if you just got down to vegan restaurants, you got 26.
Karina Inkster: That's pretty impressive.
Vesanto Melina: Isn't it?
Karina Inkster: Some places have zero, right?
Vesanto Melina: Right. But so many places have plant-based nutrition. In the last, I guess year and a half, I've been in Grenada, Spain, and this is all speaking at events that were very well attended, Reykjavik, Iceland, Montreal, three islands in Hawaii, in California quite a lot, and Vancouver and Montreal. Even in Reykjavik, they had to keep bringing in chairs, and people were paying $40 for a one-hour talk.
Karina Inkster: That's amazing.
Vesanto Melina: I know, it's just really happening, so it's quite exciting.
Karina Inkster: It actually reminds me that I was speaking with someone on Skype who lives in Sweden, and he said about veganism that it's not a trend anymore. It's now a shift. People are just making this shift everywhere. I thought that was a great way of putting it.
Vesanto Melina: Yes, wow. It is, so many different places. I find sometimes that if people look at the news, and they feel kind of discouraged about the world, in this perspective, I go around the world and feel really encouraged, because there are so many people that are just voluntarily and independently sometimes with a group or their family making a change, making a shift for themselves. They may not even have support around them. They're still doing it anyway in all kinds of different places.
Karina Inkster: Right, that's a great way of looking at it. Speaking of all kinds of different places, you just got back from teaching in California, right?
Vesanto Melina: That's right. I was just down teaching there last weekend. There's a school that started out as a raw food chef school when the raw trend was really high. 20 years, 10 years ago, there were a lot of people that wanted to go 100% raw. Many people went in to train as chefs or become a chef for their own personal reasons.
This school called the Living Light Culinary Institute started. It became very popular. Now it's moved with the times, and it's a vegan and raw chef school. You can still look it up at rawfoodchef.com and then look up my co-author Brenda Davis and I under the nutrition programs for the nutrition courses. But, it's been the most exciting thing for me. I love going down there. There are people from all over the world. I've had dieticians from Chile, people from Italy, from Paris, from Lyon in France, from New York. I had someone in the last class who was Miss New York.
Karina Inkster: Oh, wow.
Vesanto Melina: She was also a yoga instructor just an amazing yoga teacher. She was on the cover of Asana Magazine recently in the fall.
But, there are just all sorts of people that have just decided to do this, and they want to do it really well. They want to provide wonderful, wonderful food. It's quite exciting, and it's fun to be in that kind of a climate where people have come all that way, because they just care about nutrition and making it so appealing.
Karina Inkster: For sure, yeah, that's really cool. I feel like because of this shift, because it's not a trend anymore, it actually means there are so many different kinds of people who are now attracted to this way of eating.
Vesanto Melina: That's right.
Karina Inkster: There's so much diversity, all over the world. It's pretty amazing.
Vesanto Melina: Then, there's some people ... One I know is Dr. Neal Bernard who's such a brilliant medical doctor and leader and was Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and he'll just eat real simple food. He likes a can of chickpeas. He'll open it up, and there's some good protein. There's just a whole spectrum of how we can do this. My husband likes making stir-fries. He will make really healthy ones and just loves having all kinds of different vegetables every time and doing it different ways. Then, some people like to do it in a very gourmet manner. Anyway, it's quite fun.
Actually, when I first became vegetarian, which was in the late '70s, it was because of good food. It wasn't because of any reasons about the environment or avoiding cruelty to animals or even health at that time. My friends and I just decided we were going to try this out. What we did was each cook one night a week, and we took turns. This was in Vancouver. There were six of us, so six nights a week... We tried to outdo each other in making good food. Each night you'd get this wonderful food, and then you didn't have to cook for the rest of the week except your night. It was really a fun introduction, I found.
Karina Inkster: That's really cool. That's a great way of doing it. Was there some event or some knowledge that you gained that then made you choose the vegan direction from there?
Vesanto Melina: Well, I had taught university, and I had started that actually a long time ago in 1965. I've been a dietician for 53 years now, I think it was, yeah, 52 and a half years. I started teaching nutrition at UBC. I've seen this tremendous evolution. In the late '70s, I became vegetarian. I actually spent time in India, four years in India where they have excellent cuisine, just amazing cuisine. I learned about that, and the nutrition and health side of it actually followed that. I came back from India and realized the other dieticians I knew hadn't really been trained about plant-based nutrition. I started doing classes in continuing education at UBC or at little workshops for dieticians and realized quickly, and then had publishers that wanted me to do a book with them, realized that people needed to know how to do it well.
That's been our pivotal point really. Wherever you are on the spectrum moving towards plant-based, here's how we do it really, really well to be in excellent health, because there are a few little tricks to learn.
Karina Inkster: For sure.
Vesanto Melina: As with any healthy eating pattern, so once you learn those, then you're well on your way. You can learn it, as I say, in the gourmet style or the simple style or whatever style you want. But this just sets your course like pointing your sailboat in the right direction with the rudder pointed the right way. I went to someone who was spearheading a program called Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Farm Animals, so she wasn't saying don't eat animals. She was saying treat them well before slaughter basically.
When I went to talk to her, I learned things, for example, that they would, say a calf broke their leg while they were in transit. That they would put a chain around their leg and drag them off the truck, so they'd bounce on the ground.
Karina Inkster: Oh, that's horrible.
Vesanto Melina: There were hundreds of these happening in Canada, because, of course, the conditions are very difficult in transit when they're in the trucks going to the slaughterhouse or going to different feeding areas. Also, for pigs the weather's really difficult. They can freeze to the side of the truck. Just the things I learned were so horrifying to me that I decided I didn't want to include animal products.
I didn't like the debeaking of chickens which they do for eggs. When they cut off their beak, but they don't have any anesthetic. They do that, so they won't peck each other very badly while they're so crowded together. Even when they're what's called free-range, they're indoors. They can't get out in Canada. There's a little corner area where they could get out the door, but hardly any of them ever find that door, that little exit, and there isn't that much room out there. They can't be outdoors all year in Canada.
I just found the whole situation made me feel like helping people who wanted to not eat animals at all, helping them just do it in really, really good health. Not to say somebody should be in a certain place, because as you can see, I've been in many different places over the years, just gradually getting more and more plant-based, and realized that I was a decent person at these different times just doing my best with my current understanding. I really like to extend that to other people too.
Karina Inkster: Right, that's a really great point. Instead of finger-pointing or saying, "You're not doing it perfectly enough," or anything. That's not doing our movement any service, really.
Vesanto Melina: That's right. That is how many, many of us change. We're just gradual. We go, "Oh, my friend wants to eat this way, so I could go to the restaurant with them." "Oh, here's a really good variation on one of my favorite recipes that I can try." They just gradually ... "Oh, I found some new produce." "Oh, I'm trying a new fruit or a new vegetable every week or every month."
It can be just a delightful exploration and gets you healthier and gets you supporting the environment and gets you avoiding cruelty to animals, all at once.
Karina Inkster: If that's not a win-win situation, I don't know what is!
Vesanto Melina: That's true.
Karina Inkster: That's awesome. Well, I think our theme in our conversation is basically going to be exactly that. Helping people wherever they are right now to eat in a more plant-based way, or if they're already plant-based to do it in a way that's going to hit all of those things. It's going to make them feel great, going to be delicious, and will help the environment and reduce cruelty to animals.
In your work, what are some, let's call them mistakes? I don't really like that word, but what are some things that people maybe could do better on a vegan diet?
Vesanto Melina: Well, I'll focus really on two things. Although there are a few, so we want to get the calcium right. We want to make sure we've got iron-containing foods. These turn out to be quite doable, and we could spend more time on those. But, the two that I'd like to focus on here and, by the way, we cover these in great detail in our books, Becoming Vegan, either the comprehensive edition which is more for real nutrition enthusiasts and health professionals, or Becoming Vegan, Express Edition, which is about half the size, about 300 pages sort of thing.
Karina Inkster: Perfect.
Vesanto Melina: It's for people that want a condensed version. It's called The Express Edition. We just go over all the different things. Calcium, here's how you do it. Once people get the knack of it, and it's just a few pages on that, people will go, oh, okay. I can do it now. It gives, sometimes, like if somebody has a child that they're bringing up as vegan, and they'll need to just know a few little tips, it'll clarify that. Then even their mother-in-law can go, "Oh, good. Well, I think it's okay then."
Karina Inkster: Right, that makes sense.
Vesanto Melina: The two that I'd like to focus on are first of all including a reliable source of vitamin B12 and also using legumes or beans, peas, lentils, soy foods, making sure you include those.
Karina Inkster: Okay. Let's go over the B12 first. We've talked with a few guests already about B12, but we haven't really covered all the different angles. It seems to be a recurring theme that this is super important, especially for people who are 100% plant-based. Why is it important in the first place? That's something we haven't really covered yet – why do we need B12?
Vesanto Melina: Okay. All the B vitamins actually work in teamwork. They help us release energy from foods. They have quite a wide number of roles, and they work as part of a team. B12 has a special function of also creating or helping to build the myelin sheath around nerves, which is a protective coding around nerves. It can take a long time to run out of B12. We recycle that vitamin very, very well. There have even been people who didn't get any noticeable source for 20 years, and then they got into big trouble, in terms of their nervous system functioning or by that time, malfunctioning. It affected how they could move their feet, their foot would kind of flop, and they couldn't walk very well. They would have damage that would affect their brain development by that point. So it's really serious that we definitely need this. We need it to have the myelin sheath around nerves.
The other key point is it helps red blood cells divide. Blood cells get bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, and then they split in half. That's how you get more. When they're old and worn, they'll destruct, then you have to get some more. The way you get new ones is the red blood cell gets bigger, bigger, bigger when it's ready, basically almost to have a baby, but what it does is divide itself in half. If you don't have vitamin B12 in adequate amounts, your blood cells will get bigger, bigger, bigger, but they don't divide properly and they can't do their job of carrying oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide. They just can't do that as well, so you get macrocytic anemia or megaloblastic anemia. Megalo or macro meaning big, big cells. People can look in the lab tests, and see your cells are really big. Your red blood cells, they're not normal size at all. Then you can detect that B12 can be a deficiency. There's other tests to do this.
At that time, people get really tired. Just the oxygen delivery system isn't working properly, the carbon dioxide ridding yourself system isn't working properly, and it has devastating effects. B12 is absolutely essential to life, so there are other little effects. Well, they're not little, but they're not quite as crucial as those two, but gastrointestinal effects, and also something called homocysteine gets higher. This is a compound that could be toxic if it built up, but vitamin B12 helps us get rid of it. Now, homocysteine, if it gets into high amounts, it can raise our risk of heart disease drastically. Here we’ve got a diet that's wonderful in terms of reducing our risk of heart disease, but if you don't have B12, you negate that whole advantage that you've had.
Karina Inkster: Right, yeah. I mean, clearly it's crucial.
Vesanto Melina: It is, yeah.
Karina Inkster: Clearly, we have to make sure that we're getting enough at all stages of the lifecycle. Now, before we started recording, we were chatting a little bit, and you mentioned a really interesting concept, which is B12 is natural. That might be something that people say, "Oh, it's not natural to take a pill." What's the deal with that? What's some thinking around this?
Vesanto Melina: Okay. Well, in the real cycle of nature, we actually get B12 from bacteria. It's only in animal products because of all the bacterial contamination that's in milk and in animal flesh that's produced the B12 that's there. When you're eating clean, plant foods, you don't have a source of B12. There was an interesting study when people were plant-based in India, and then they moved to London. When they were in India, they would have a little potty under their bed, and they'd have something called night soil. They'd go and dump it outside the door on the areas where they were growing vegetables for their family. There was bacteria from that, and that would just be a cycle of nature. It was a little bit more natural than when they moved to London, England, and they bought their products from a market. And it had been grown, and washed, and was in really clean conditions, and they started to develop some B12 deficiencies. It's interesting.
Karina Inkster: That is interesting.
Vesanto Melina: Yeah. They moved to a cleaner environment. Now, we actually like to live in a clean environment, and we want to have clean produce, and the idea of having dirt, and little bits of all this bacteria, so it just isn't what we're welcoming into our lives now. The option for the plant-based world is to take a supplement or use a fortified food. B12 originates from bacteria. Then it's put in a supplement form.
It's the stringiest little amount. You could have, for example, a multivitamin, mineral supplement that had 25 micrograms. Microgram is a 1,000th of a milligram, which is a 1,000th of a gram. I mean, it's just teeny, teeny, teeny. You could have 25 micrograms in your multivitamin, mineral supplement or you could have 1,000 micrograms, which is one milligram twice a week. Then it's just solved. It's like having the dot at the end of a sentence that big. It's just tiny. The pill’s a little bigger than that because there's some packing stuff around it, but it's just a very, very simple, little solution. But we want everybody who is plant-based to make sure that they get that B12, and they don't end up with any of these problems to the nerves, to the red blood cells, to the homocysteine, and heart disease risk.
Karina Inkster: For sure, yeah, that makes total sense. Well, let's transition to your second point or second, so-called mistake, which was about legumes and beans, I believe.
Vesanto Melina: Yeah. One of the things, which I find people are getting a lot better at this, and of course, we've got wonderful, wonderful products, but sometimes people will just leave out meat or leave out meat, and eggs, and fish, and chicken, and dairy. Then carry on with what they've got left. One of the most sensible things to do is to replace those animal products that are basically classified as protein sources, even though they're mostly actually fat sources, but replace them with a good plant protein. The superstars of the plant world are legumes. That includes beans, pea, and lentils. There's about 20 types of beans. And I'm going to ask you something, so get thinking.
Karina Inkster: I'm ready.
Vesanto Melina: I'm going to ask you if you could think of as much as 20 types of legumes.
Karina Inkster: I don't think so. I could think of some that I haven't tried yet, some of the more obscure ones, but-
Vesanto Melina: Well, tell me how many you think of.
Karina Inkster: Oh, man. Types of legumes.
Vesanto Melina: Yeah.
Karina Inkster: Including different types of beans, right?
Vesanto Melina: Yeah, that's right.
Karina Inkster: Okay. Well, there are orca beans, kidney beans, navy beans, black beans, chickpeas, at least four different types of lentils.
Vesanto Melina: You're doing pretty well here.
Karina Inkster: That's only nine. That's not even half.
Vesanto Melina: Okay. Well, think of some more colors.
Karina Inkster: Are there any that are purple?
Vesanto Melina: Probably. Well, there's some green beans that are purple.
Karina Inkster: Yeah, that's true.
Vesanto Melina: And those count too.
Karina Inkster: Oh, fava beans. Forgot those.
Vesanto Melina: That's right. There's white beans, cannellini beans, black beans, red beans, anasazi beans that are kind of speckly. There are adzuki beans.
Karina Inkster: Right, of course.
Vesanto Melina: There's just such a wealth, and we haven't even ... There's lots of people listening that'll say, "Hey, you forgot chickpeas or garbanzo beans or you know." But-
Karina Inkster: Oh, there are so many on the list that I'm sure are just not even in my brain right now.
Vesanto Melina: That's right. Around the world, people have had these as their protein sources and they kept people in really good health, and they all have been onto the tricks. Okay, who knows how to create good black beans? Well, we look at Hispanic areas. Who knows how to do chickpeas? Well, there's quite a few clients that do very brilliant things with chickpeas, whether it's around the Mediterranean or in India. In Asia, they're quite good at red beans. And just different parts, they've come out with these really good ideas. French Canadians have split pea soup. Raw food people will eat peas in the pod, lots of them or spout lentils. Anyway, there's just so many different options. I think it's fun for people to go, oh, yeah. There are some things that I like and I already eat that have beans in them. They may not think of that initially.
Then there are, when we were first writing books, Becoming Vegetarian and Cooking Vegan, and so on that we would think, if your kids say they're not so familiar with beans, you might cook some red lentils and put it in your pasta sauce, and they just kind of blend in there.
Karina Inkster: Yeah, definitely. That's a secret ingredient in my shepherd’s pie. Nobody knows.
Vesanto Melina: Okay, yeah! It is really fun, but it is something that sometimes takes some culinary exploration or going down a different section of the supermarket. Sometimes people want to use canned ones. Sometimes they'll want to use frozen products that are really easy to use. Sometimes they'll want to cook them from scratch.
Karina Inkster: That makes sense. I think the moral of the story is there's probably a legume that you haven't tried yet, even if you feel like you've tried them all. There's probably some that are still new to you, me included, of course. You can get as fancy or as simple as you want. I mean, there are so many options. There's no one-size fits all approach. You just pick what works for you, and make sure that they're part of an otherwise varied diet, and then you're basically good to go.
Vesanto Melina: That's right, yeah. That really helps people keep their blood sugar level between meals because if they just go, say they're at their work. And there's some pasta thing for lunch. That will maybe get you through for an hour or two into the afternoon, just over an hour, but your blood sugar will drop. Whereas legumes, they have this good staying power. They have a delivery of carbohydrates that's easily delivered in a gradual way. And so, that'll keep your blood sugar level for up to, say three hours, even four. I find that it can be helpful to have hummus ready after school when kids come home, like veggies and, or crackers, and hummus dip. That'll be a good protein source.
Karina Inkster: You're making me hungry thinking about all these options.
Vesanto Melina: Yeah, it's good, isn't it? I remember a headline when I first started writing. This would be in the 80s. I remember in the Vancouver Sun when I was interviewed, it said, "No more hippie slop."
Karina Inkster: Wow. How far we've come since then, hey?
Vesanto Melina: We sure have, yes. Yeah, one person, Ron Pickarski won gold medal in the Culinary Olympics for all types of food, but with plant-based meals.
Karina Inkster: Oh, that's amazing.
Vesanto Melina: We're just finding there's really great food to be had and great food to be had in cities, wherever our listeners are.
Karina Inkster: Definitely. Well let's change gears a little bit. It's something that I'm super interested in and something you've had a huge role in, which is the official position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You're the lead author. It's gone through a few different iterations, but I'm very interested in how it came about in the first place. Then maybe we can go into how it's changed since then.
Vesanto Melina: Okay. Well, as you can imagine, since I started being a dietician, which I told you how many, five decades ago. When I first started, people were very wary about plant based nutrition. They said in textbooks that adult men and also women who were not pregnant could leave meat out of the diet. That was it, children, no way pregnant women, no way. Everybody had to use dairy products. There were four food groups. There was no recognition of ethnic differences, some people were lactose intolerant, there was no recognition of the widespread nature of that kind of reaction to cow's milk, and there was no support for plant based diets. They were thought to be risky. In the mid '70s things started changing around, and the textbooks which had up to say 1975, it said these diets are risky, they started to say that it seemed to be possible to be vegetarian, to leave meat out.
There was one textbook that had classified vegetarian diets in with food frauds. They just had it in this diet, in this chapter so it was really crazy ways of eating. In 1975, they changed the chapter title to Alternative Ways of Eating. That was quite a shift, and still there was some reason for that because we didn't have that much research. But in the late '80s there became research on women who were pregnant. This was at a place called The Farm in Tennessee, but there were about 500 women who went on vegan diets. They knew about vitamin B-12, they had a tofu factory on their place where they lived. It was a community and there were lots of people that were married there, and there was a midwifery center, and they were having all these babies, and they went through this whole experience vegan, the whole community was about 2,000 people.
There were between 700 and 800 births. The Center for Disease Control and some local doctors started looking at this population group and also the children that were born. To their surprise, they found that there was no negative impact on birth weights. The birth weights were fine, just as people who were eating animal products. These were all vegan moms, and they found that also the children grew normally, but they were a little bit slimmer. There was also a study in England, they found that some of the children were a bit smaller at weaning age, but by age five they'd caught up to all the other kids. This kind of research was tremendous support for, "It's okay to be vegan." That was said very cautiously.
You wouldn't find that many health professionals saying it with enthusiasm, but at least we knew it was possible. Within some years, the Academy, well, it was called the American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada, started having a position and telling their members that it was okay to be on vegetarian diets. Vegan diets were still thought of as kind of risky, but over time the current position paper now says that it's fine to be vegetarian, including vegan at all stages of the lifecycle. That's been a part of the position paper for a few decades now. If people want to look at that paper, they could look at my two websites nutrispeak.com, or becomingvegan.ca, and there's a link to that position paper.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say it's their most widely read position paper. It's used all over the world, and people can show it to their doctor, or their in-laws, or somebody who's really cautious about plant based diets, and wonders if there's enough research to back it up. These papers are very, very carefully peer reviewed. Every little word, every phrase is watched with great care by a number of health professionals who really know the science, and so it's something you can be quite confident about. But it takes you through the different nutrients, talks a little bit about trends, and goes through protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B-12, stages in the life cycle. A new feature in it is talking about the environment.
Karina Inkster: That was my next question! There are so many different iterations, and the one thing I noticed was ... I'm just looking at it right now ... that it says plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products.
Vesanto Melina: That's right, yeah.
Karina Inkster: I didn't remember seeing that in other versions of this, that's kind of interesting.
Vesanto Melina: I'll tell you, that was a very, very challenging piece to get in. We had one person, and you don't know who's reviewing the papers. It's all kept blind from each other. It's also kept separate from influence, like you don't have Tyson Foods trying to influence you. They don't even know who's writing the paper.
Karina Inkster: Right, makes sense.
Vesanto Melina: Interestingly, so we had one person, one reviewer who did not want all that environmental things in. This person kept saying, "Well, you should make the point that when animals are raised in fields outdoors that's getting a little bit better environmentally too, before they're slaughtered." Then we could make the point, "Well, this isn't about that type of food, it's about vegetarian diet, it's not relevant." A lot of environmentalists seemed to have difficulty accepting changing their own personal dietary habits. Even though we're aware now that the impact of that could be more effective than changing your transportation choices.
Karina Inkster: Yeah, that's a huge thing given that animal agriculture is such a main source of greenhouse gases, and horrible pollution, and things like that.
Vesanto Melina: That's right, it damages the waterways, uses huge amounts of water. Somebody could give up showering for six months and the water usage that's saved it would be equivalent to not eating a burger. It's astounding when you look at how on earth does that work? It's about water that's used on crops, water that's used to clean different areas, there are just so many different aspects. We're finding that the environmental impact is just starting to be understood. But the position paper does have a good section, and all the different sections are referenced. It gives people a starting point.
Karina Inkster: Yeah, definitely. How has this position paper changed, or has it, other than adding the environmental side of things? I mean it's gone through, I don't know exactly how many different versions, but throughout the years there's probably things that have changed based on new research that comes out?
Vesanto Melina: That's right. Yeah, some of the recent ones, for example, I just gave a presentation in California at the 7th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition. It was just updating some of the changes. One of them was that there is this environmental section, which is entirely new. One is how much plant-based nutrition has spread. How, as you say, it's becoming more of a shift rather than a trend, but we do use the word trends. Another one is about iron and we have thought in the past that the iron from meat is, I'll use this word, better absorbed than the iron from plant foods, but we've had a shift in that concept. What we find is that the heme iron that makes up just somewhere in the range of half of the iron you need is absorbed whether you need it or not.
Karina Inkster: Interesting.
Vesanto Melina: The non-heme iron that's in plant foods is better absorbed if you need it and it's not absorbed if you don't need it. Now, iron is a pro-oxidant. It can lead to something kind of like rusting, oxidation. We actually like antioxidants to protect us, not pro-oxidants that will promote oxidation just to be sitting around in our bodies. One of the interesting differences is that we found that we don't necessarily want such high serum ferritin levels. That's an indicator of iron status. I've found a lot of people on vegetarian diets have somewhat low serum ferritin, but their hemoglobin's fine.
Hemoglobin is your working iron and serum ferritin is like the iron that's sitting on the shelf in case you happen to need it next week type of thing. The hemoglobin, you definitely need that to be in the right range. If serum ferritin's at the low end of your normal range, that can actually, as it turns out, be a possible health advantage. There's been research from Korea, from Amsterdam, from the Netherlands, from Austria, that shown that low serum ferritin levels when they're combined with adequate hemoglobin can be linked to less risk of Type II diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, and maybe other diseases like cancer and heart disease.
Karina Inkster: Right, that's pretty major.
Vesanto Melina: We don't want these pro oxidants sitting around necessarily. Now this is something to work out on an individual basis. If somebody's really tired, they don't have enough working iron, but there have been shifts like this that are in the new position paper.
Karina Inkster: Right, yeah. I mean that's how science should work. It's the best method we have of learning about the world, and it keeps changing, and we keep improving our understanding of things, and so it's really cool to see how that's actually manifesting in large scale positions like this. This is our current official position and it might get updated, and it probably will get updated, but here's where we're at now based on the research that we have so far.
Vesanto Melina: We find a lot of labs don't know that, or doctors. It's just these things filter into the mainstream medical world rather gradually.
Karina Inkster: Right. That's a good point. Well at least it's going in the right direction, at least from what I can tell.
Vesanto Melina: That's right. It is, it is.
Karina Inkster: So we're going to have links to your books, and your website, and the position paper in the show notes for this episode. But can you share where our listeners can connect with you either your website or Facebook perhaps?
Vesanto Melina: Oh, sure. The chef school I talked about is rawfoodchef.com. There are nutrition programs, it's quite a fun thing if people want to come and learn about chef stuff, and then Brenda Davis and I do the nutrition courses.
Karina Inkster: Excellent.
Vesanto Melina: Then my websites are nutrispeak.com and becomingvegan.ca.
Karina Inkster: Perfect. Thank you so much for being here and sharing your knowledge; it's been really great. Thanks so much.
Vesanto Melina: Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.