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For 16 years Catherine has studied, worked and lived food. I have yet to meet research she is unaware of, a health issue she can’t provide dietary advice for or a recipe she can’t fix. Five years ago she decided to be a vegetarian. Two years ago her disgust with factory farms, her concern with the health implications of dairy and her understanding of the disastrous environmental and animal life impacts of all of it led her to be a vegan.
Here is a bit of her story.
What do people not know about the food they are eating?
When people look at their dairy and meat packaging they see red barns and happy animals. This could not be further from the truth. The chicken you buy from the grocery store does not come from a farm where they are outside and running around. They come from factory farms also known as Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs) where they were housed with 150,000 other chickens. Factory farms can exist because people do not know where their food is coming from. I have a degree in nutrition and I did not know where my food was coming from.
Doesn’t being a vegetarian prevent a lot of that?
I thought by being a vegetarian I was preventing cruelty, but the dairy industry is one of the cruelest to animals. Dairy cows are raised in very confined spaces where it is at times difficult for them to move. They are not outside. They are forced to eat a very unnatural diet, corn instead of grass, which makes them very sick. They are given a lot of hormones so their milk when come in faster. Because they have an unnatural amount of milk production it causes a lot of infections and because of this they are given a ton of antibiotics. 75% of all antibiotics sold in this country are given to farm animals to try and keep their diseases under control. The male dairy cow is killed in the first few days or sold to the veal industry. After the female cows dairy production is over they are killed too.
What about cage free eggs?
Not being in a cage is definitely an improvement, but they are still housed indoors with 1000’s and 10’s of 1000’s of other animals.
And eggs that come from hens in cages?
The hens are in battery cages where there are 4 hens in a 16” wide cage. They are in there every day until they die. When they go through the molting process, when they lose their feather and grow new ones, they stop laying eggs. During this time, factory farms put them in the dark and take away their food and water to increase the stress level. Increased stress level causes the hens to lay eggs.
What do you have to say about the argument of, ‘If you don’t eat meat, you won’t get the protein you need.’
That is the #1 comment I get. Ironically, we get way too much protein in this country. On average we need about 50 grams of protein a day. Americans typically get 100 grams which is very damaging to the body. Animal protein is very acidic. When you have excess protein in your blood, your blood becomes acidic and your body will pull calcium from your bones to try and neutralize the acid in your blood. So you are actually losing calcium from eating too much animal protein. Too much protein is also extremely hard on the kidneys.
I get protein from 100% whole wheat bread, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, beans, nuts, seeds, tempe, tofu, seitan. Fruits and vegetables also have protein.
What about organic milk?
It is better because the cows are not given antibiotics or hormones but environmentally they are still producing massive amount of waste. Factory farms are the number one cause of greenhouse causes and male cows are still killed with organic milk.
Where do vegans get calcium from?
Dairy is really touted because of calcium. Cows get calcium from eating grains and grass. We get calcium from drinking their milk.
But with factory farming cows are not eating grass anymore. They are eating corn [which does not have calcium] so factory farms are supplementing calcium in the cows diet. What you do as a vegan is cut out the middle man and just eat green leafy vegetables to get your calcium.
Holy false advertising.
The idea we need all of this calcium in our diet is not supported by research. It is the dairy industry that pushes this. We need calcium to protect our bones. You would expect, based on what the dairy industry tells us, that countries with the highest amount of calcium intake would have the lowest rate of osteoporosis and hip fractures. But, when you look at studies we are actually seeing the exact opposite. Countries like the United States and New Zealand where people take the recommended 1200 mg of calcium per day have the highest rate of hip fractures or osteoporosis. If you look at countries that have very low rates of calcium intake, they have a very low rate of hip fractures and osteoporosis.
You also need to look at where the information about your food is coming from. Meat and dairy companies benefit from you believing their advertising. The USDA is organization responsible for developing policy on food and health but it is also the same organization that needs to push dairy products. The USDA has indicated that Americans need to eat less saturated fat. But at the same time they formed an organization called Dairy Management that gave millions of dollars to Dominoes Pizza to figure out how to put more cheese in their pizza to push more cheese products.
Does calcium cause hip fractures?
It is not that calcium causes hip fractures. But what you can say is that people who have higher calcium intakes are getting it from animal products, from dairy, milk, cheese, yoghurt. This high intake of protein causes your blood to become acidic and the body attempts to neutralize the acidic blood by taking calcium from the bones. People with higher intakes of animal protein have more calcium pulled from their bones which may cause more hip fractures and cases of osteoporosis.
What kind of milk do you recommend?
Soy milk. Always buy organic because 80 – 90% of soy products in this country [The United States] are genetically modified. I tried all the drink kinds of milk. I ended up with hemp milk. It has more of the consistency of milk. But people can also try almond milk or coconut milk. When I first put soy milk in coffee it took me awhile to get used to it.
What about things people can do who want to be more responsible with food choices but don’t want to be a vegan either?
The first thing they could do is substitute soy milk or a different kind of milk with cows milk. You can not tell the difference at all in the end product.
People hear the word vegan and they think, ‘I am never going to do that. I am never going to give up meat and I am never going to give up cheese.’ But I think there is a whole message that gets missed, and that is, ‘Don’t choose to do nothing because you can’t do everything.’ Maybe you just make simple changes with your milk or don’t eat meat one day a week.
How has being a vegan changed your life?
I lost 20 pounds from going from vegetarian to vegan. My cholesterol dropped. My triglycerides were cut in half. My LDL (the bad cholesterol) was cut in half. My HDL (the good cholesterol) went up 20 points. My blood pressure dropped.
My skin cleared up. Ever since I was a teenager I had fought acne. I went through every single treatment my dermatologist gave me even taking Accutane. It would clear up for a while, but it would always come back. Ever since I have been a vegan it has never come back.
What is worse for the environment meat or dairy?
Lamb shank is the worst, then beef, then cheese. There is a great guide to how your food choices affect the environment online.
What was the hardest part about being a vegan?
Food, cooking and eating with friends is something I have always been interested in. At first I felt a little out of what people were eating. But that has lessened as time has gone by. When I get together with friends I always offer to bring something. If you just bring food and present it and don’t make a big deal about it being vegan people start getting interested and asking questions.
I feel like in the United States there is a lot of chest pounding about eating beef and there is no reaction to that, but you kind of have to downplay being a vegan or even a vegetarian.
I read a quote, I am paraphrasing, but it went something like, ‘To put your elbows on the table is bad manners. To burp at the table is bad manners. But there is nothing wrong with putting an animal on a table that has been tortured its entire life.’ I think part of the problem is that we do not know how it got to our plate. I think people think animals are living this really nice life and then they are killed for our consumption. Some of the meat out there is. If you are going to the farm and are making a connection with the farmer and buying it from them then yes, that meat is out there. But, that meat is not in grocery stores.
Where can you buy the meat we think we are getting?
At store like Whole Foods grass fed beef is available. This is better but that still does not mean they are not being raised with a lot of other animals. To get the kind of meat that we think we are eating it really takes effort to make a connection with a farmer in your area and go to that farm and see how animals are raised. At least then, you are buying what you think you are. When you are buying meat at Kroger, Meijer’s or a large grocery, what you are buying is coming from factory farms or CFOs – Confined Feeding Operations.
I think there are some people who think, ‘I do not give a shit about the fact that I am eating animals or the environmental impact.’ What is the personal health impact they are taking by eating meat and dairy?
Even if people don’t care about animals I would hope they would care about themselves and their children’s health. If you look at the typical American diet or other countries that are increasing their meat consumption what you are finding is higher rates of obesity, higher cholesterol, high risk of heart disease, increased blood pressure, increase risk of Type 2 Diabetes and increase of all cancers. Dr. T Colin Campbell who wrote The China Study proved that you can turn the cancer gene on and off just by feeding rats animal protein.
How do you make tofu interesting?
I remember thinking tofu was kind of gross. The negative thing about tofu is that it does not have a taste, but the positive thing is it will take on whatever flavor you give it. Marinate it for a couple of hours or overnight to make it interesting. A little soy sauce, a little squeeze orange, ginger, garlic can be a great marinade. Then pan fry it or mix it in with the stir fry. Let it marinate for as much time as you have. If you have a half hour let it marinate for half an hour.
What about clothes, shoes, and belts? Where do you find non-leather options that still look professional?
Alternativeoutfitters.com, stevemadden.com, francosarto.com and newbalance.com are a few. It is pretty easy and you actually end up saving money not buying leather.
I was at PayLess Shoe Store one day and I found a purse I wanted, but I could not find the tag to see if it was leather or not. So I asked the sales woman if it was leather and she said, “Oh honey not for that price.” Leather is cheaper for the companies not to use as well.
What about your husband? He was a chef at one of Michigan’s best restaurants, now co-owns an Matt’s Mix All Purpose Seasoning company with you and is a carnivore. How did that transition go?
He was really supportive of it. I took the cooking on and he never complained about what we were eating. For a long time he would not bring meat and dairy in the house. It was not that I wanted it that way. He said that he felt better about not having it in the house. He liked that our house didn’t smell like chicken or fish and he likes that he does not have to worry about cross contamination with cooking. When we go out to eat he will almost always get meat. But he will always say that he knows he would feel better if he didn’t eat it. He admits it is almost an addiction and needs to have it at certain time.
Is there any truth to that? Is there an addiction to eating meat or dairy?
There is a strong connection to the food we grow up with. There is food we go to for comfort. What I hear most is that people could never be vegan because they could never give up cheese. I thought the same thing.
There is a compound in dairy that is a derivative of an opiate. The purpose of it is when the animal or the baby is feeding it makes them feel relaxed. It is nature’s way of making sure the animal or baby continues to want to nurse. So there are actually components in cheese and dairy that gives a calming effect and makes the body crave more and more of it.
Where is the most unusual place to find animal products?
Gelatin – you find it in a lot of candy, marshmallows, baked good. Lanolin – it is in a lot of lotions. Some red food coloring that actually comes from smashed up beetles.
Why is a non-dairy diet good for asthma?
Dairy is very mucus forming. You will notice when you are sick you do not crave milk or ice cream because it is mucus forming.
What other problems does dairy exacerbate?
With kids that are always getting ear infections, doctors will tell the parents to remove dairy from the diets and they will stop.
What was the hardest thing to find a replacement for?
At first I was trying to find replacements. I was trying to find the mock turkey sandwich. What I learned is it is easier to change than try to replace. Instead of trying to find a version of cheese I could put on burritos, I would add more veggies, salsa and avocado. It actually tastes better.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about being vegan?
That every vegan has dreadlocks and wears Birkenstocks.
How does your body feel different?
I say I feel lighter, but I don’t mean in weight, although I have lost weight. But I mean I feel lighter in energy and I have a lot, and I mean a lot, more energy.
So for almost two years, you have not eaten anything that was not vegan?
Over the past 2 years I have not been a ‘perfect’ vegan. I have eaten cheese pizza. Hopefully they won’t take my vegan membership away. But what I find is that it inevitably would make my skin break out, which is most likely from the hormones in the cheese, or I feel bloated and generally unwell. I strive for progress not perfection. I strive to feel the best I can while doing the least amount of harm possible.
Is there anything that really surprised you about being a vegan?
My sugar cravings went away.
You went to college to become a Registered Dietician. How was your education in conflict with what you have learned since then?
Through 4 years of college it was never discussed where our food came from and when I was going to college, factory farming was in full swing. Being a vegetarian or a vegan was talked about as far as their definitions. In no ways were we told how to plan for people with vegan or vegetarian diets. The meat and dairy industry is a very powerful industry. The free resources given to universities are provided by them. What textbooks say are heavily influenced by the meat and dairy industry. In doing meal plans, I was taught that patients should have 2 – 3 servings of dairy. When I first started working and patients told me they didn’t drink milk or they didn’t eat dairy, I had no idea what to do.
Is there anything you miss from your non-vegan days?
Not really. Sometimes I will see a pair of shoes that I really like and I will then look at the label and find out that they are leather and feel a little bummed. But, overall it just doesn’t feel like a sacrafice to be vegan. I actually feel incredibly lucky to have found it. It has changed my life for the better in so, so many ways.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you or anything you think is important to add?
There is a lot of information out there that shows that plant based diets reverse heart disease without the need for surgery. When people have asked insurance companies and medical facilities why they are not pushing diet education instead of heart surgery they are told it is because it is, ‘too extreme.’ Somehow cutting your chest open and surgically implanting stents is less extreme than changing your diet.
We are raised to think different things about different animals. If someone harms a dog, we have laws to protect them. With pigs and chickens and cows they are not only horribly abused, we are actually paying for it. Three times a day some people are putting horribly abused, murdered animals in their mouths.
All the time people say, ‘I can’t give it up because, it tastes so good’, or ‘If animals weren’t meant to be eaten they wouldn’t taste so good.’ For me, what I finally realized is the only reason I ate meat is because I wanted to and in the end that is not a good enough reason.
Catherine is a Registered Dietician at one of the largest hospitals in Michigan and co-owner of Matt’s Mix All Purpose Seasoning. She has helped people with different diet and health needs get healthy for over a decade. She is available for private diet consultations whatever your diet needs or goals may be. Consultations are $100. For further information, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommended Resources for those who want to incorporate more veganism in their life or learn more about being a vegan and healthier eating choices.