Vegetarians in Paradise takes great pride in presenting its 24 Carrot Award to Vesanto Melina who has promoted veganism/vegetarianism through her research, teaching, writing, consulting, and lecturing.
Vesanto Melina has taught nutrition at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Seattle's Bastyr University. She was a coordinator for the vegetarian section of the Manual of Clinical Dietetics (Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetics Association) and is co-author of nutrition classics like Becoming Vegetarian (now in eleven countries and three languages), Cooking Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Food Allegy Survival Guide, and Healthy Eating for Life to Prevent and Treat Cancer.
Vesanto is widely known in the media--press, TV and radio. She is an internationally known speaker and has presented workshops on the topic of vegetarian nutrition to over 1800 dietitians throughout North America. Vesanto received the prestigious Clintec award for leadership in dietetics.
She has worked as a public health nutritionist, clinical nutrition specialist, nutrition consultant, academic nutrition instructor, and is currently the Past Chairperson of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.
As is customary, Vegetarians in Paradise takes this opportunity to interview each award recipient to share his/her accomplishments with our readers.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Vesanto Melina (VM)
VIP: What circumstances in your life resulted in the focus on diet and nutrition as a career choice?
VM: From early childhood, when my birthday parties were cookie-making parties, I have enjoyed making delicious food with and for family and friends. My mother was interested in health (with a pre-vegan version of healthy food) and fitness. My father did diabetes research with the discoverers of insulin and then cancer research, and inspired my interest in science. Nutrition represents the merger of the two forces.
VIP: What personal experiences led you to vegetarianism/veganism?
VM: Forty years ago, friends and I explored vegetarian cooking--six of us took turns cooking a vegetarian meal for each other 6 nights a week. So we'd cook once, eat well 6 nights. I still belong to a veggie meal club. Information about the health benefits linked with vegetarian diets was just emerging, so that was a plus. In the mid 80's I became aware of boar bashing-clubbing pigs on their sensitive snouts to force them into the truck for the slaughterhouse. Learning of the harsh conditions of killing day old male chicks, debeaking chickens, and transport of cows and "veal" calves, including downers, was enough to turn me vegan.
VIP: How do your friends and relatives react to your emphasis on a plant-based diet?
VM: My daughter Kavyo was vegetarian before I was; my tree planter son Xoph goes to India each winter and appreciates the excellent vegetarian food. We always have good vegan food around the house and people seem very happy with that. Becoming vegan was a natural for my partner Cam Doré. Cam and I live in a cohousing community and it is a veg-friendly place. I have to get along with people who are not vegan, and appreciate that they express their compassion in other ways, and that I can learn a lot from them. I have the sense that when folks know that they can be well nourished with plant foods and that it can taste good and be practical, they relax into thinking vegan is okay. Often that allows them to consider some of the reasons for being vegan.
VIP: You spent a few years in India and Nepal. What effect did those visits have on your life?
VM: After being immersed in academia, studying and teaching university, I lived in India for 4 years, along with 4 trips to Nepal. The Eastern experience gave a balance to a life that had kept me in my head, my mind. India has such a profound spiritual foundation, a reverence for life (including the lives of animals) -and great vegetarian food. Twenty years ago, sitting in the sun at the top of a mountain in Nepal, I realized that teaching people how to manage well on plant-based diet would be my life work.
VIP: Vesanto is a unique name. What's the story behind it?
VM: I was given the name at an ashram in India. My daughter Kavyo got her name there as well. My name meant springtime of love.
VIP: Can you tell our readers about your education?
VM: I had a top quality education in Vancouver and Toronto, then undergraduate and graduate degrees in nutrition at the University of Toronto and the University of London England. My father had done diabetes and cancer research in Toronto, and we lived in London while he did cancer research there. I then taught nutrition at the University of British Columbia and later at Bastyr University in Seattle.
VIP: In your career you've focused on research, teaching, workshops, consulting, and writing. Which of these areas brings you most pride and satisfaction?
VM: They all fit together. From individual clients, or when travelling, I meet near-vegetarians, vegetarians, and vegans in different parts of the world and learn their perspectives and what would be helpful to them; this shapes my writing. My co-author Brenda Davis and I have had a delightful collaboration for 20 years; we delve into the research, get up-to date scientific perspectives on vegan nutrition and health, and then do our best to write about that in an interesting manner.
It is fun working together and the process would be solitary and far less satisfying without Brenda. We carefully critique each other's work. Together, we create books that are highly regarded for their accuracy-and well-loved for being reader friendly.
VIP: What significance has teaching cooking had on your career?
VM: When teaching vegetarian nutrition, I quickly realized that including food brought a class to life. When we don't have access to a kitchen, I invite people to bring dishes to share, bring food to sample, or arrange for a veggie restaurant, caterer, or company to allow tasting. Cooking Vegan, co-authored with professional chef Joseph Forest, grew from cooking classes, which were so popular that people wanted to stay on into the night.
VIP: What are some of the awards you've received?
VM: I received the Clintec Award for leadership in dietetics. At first, dietitians were wary about vegetarian nutrition and more so about vegan nutrition. A chapter showing how to manage nutritionally without dairy products in our book Becoming Vegetarian was heavily criticized by a dairy industry dietitian in the mid 90's. In fact she wrote a 45 page booklet against it and ran a full page ad in a dietitian's journal (for which the journal editor later apologized).
I took a positive approach, realizing that dietitians were unfamiliar with vegan nutritional science. Soon our book became a best seller, with dietitians, physicians, teachers, and other health professionals as some of our most loyal supporters and promoters. Dietitians of Canada honored me with the Clintec Award. The 24 Carrot is my 2nd award, and is a great honor!
VIP: We notice you have an extensive speaking schedule. What topics important to you have been the subjects of these addresses? What success have you had in influencing non-vegetarian audiences?
VM: Within the past year, I did a cross-Canada, 6-city tour, sponsored by Dietitians of Canada for hundreds of dietitians, most of whom are not vegetarian. The topics were a) Update on Vegetarian, Vegan, and Raw Nutrition, and b) The Effective Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes with Vegan Diets. I also presented these topics to dietitians in Washington, Oregon, and other states. This year I have given updates on vegan and raw nutrition for vegetarian associations in Copenhagen, Aarhus (Denmark), Paris, and across Canada, as well as speaking in San Francisco (ivu.org) and the 6th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition at Loma Linda, California.
VIP: Of the books and articles you've co-written, which was the most challenging? Which was the most rewarding?
VM: The joint Position Paper on Vegetarian Nutrition of the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and Dietitians of Canada was a huge challenge. There were extremely critical eyes on every word written by my esteemed dietitian co-authors, Virginia Messina and Reed Mangels; we had to prove to those with adversarial attitudes that each point had solid backup.
Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis
When Brenda Davis and I wrote Becoming Raw and before that The Raw Food Revolution Diet, we addressed many of the unfounded beliefs and misconceptions within the raw community. Because of the myth busting, we wondered if Becoming Raw might be poorly received within the raw foods community. Instead it has been embraced as a very welcome science-based support for those choosing raw vegan diets.
VIP: You've been living in Cohousing and are a strong believer in that lifestyle. How does Cohousing work and why is it so special to you?
VM: Readers can see the very beautiful cohousing community where I live at http://www.windsong.bc.ca. Mine is the green house front on the Home Page. We are now building cohousing in Vancouver http://www.vancouvercohousing.com, and Cam and I can be seen on the members page, http://www.vancouvercohousing.com/category/community/members/ . Cohousing is the modern form of a small village, based on a Danish model, where people befriend and support their neighbors, http://www.cohousing.org/ . An objective is to live in peace and harmony inside my own head and with others. Community members are caring people that support my evolution in this direction.
VIP: What leisure activities and hobbies do you enjoy?
VM: I have a grandson named Chance who just learned to walk and now is enthusiastically taking up talking. It is fun to spend time with his parents, one of whom is my daughter. I greatly enjoy visits with my son. I listen to books on CD that expand my world vision and take part in Buddhist meditation classes.
VIP: What benefits have you realized yourself by following the diet and lifestyle you espouse? Can you give our readers the main features of your personal diet and exercise regimen?
VM: I do an hour of some sort of exercise daily. During the week this involves going to the gym for spin classes, deep water aquatics, Pilates, yoga, and stretch classes. Resulting in a sort of cross training. On weekends Cam and I cycle, and we take our bikes on trips, often cycling on converted railway beds. I have a vegetable and flower garden.
VIP: What are some of the organizations you belong to and support?
VM: I belong to PCRM, often speak for EarthSave and other vegetarian associations, give a little money to http://www.avaaz.org, to the Green Party, to PBS, and to organizations that provide education to girls in the Middle East.
VIP: What person or persons have had the most influence on your life?
VM: I am deeply touched by the fact that wherever I travel in the world, whether it is to Belgium, New Orleans, Halifax, Paris, Copenhagen, Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Maui, or Kansas City, there are people who have committed to making the world a better place through their dietary choices--and by many other lifestyle choices as well. It makes me feel that the world is a good place, a place of gradually evolving consciousness.
I am blessed to be North American, educated, and in a loving family. I am profoundly grateful to my physiologist father, my fun-loving, food-loving mother, and to my honest, dear, and hard-working son and daughter. I am so fortunate to have Cam Doré as my life partner as he teaches me about unconditional love and also keeps my computer working.
VIP: What goals have you set for yourself in the coming years?
VM: We will continue to update the books for which we are well known such as The New Becoming Vegetarian. I'll keep on with the speaking, writing, and consulting; it is such a pleasure and seems to be making a difference in the world, helping people to be fit and vibrant vegans in all stages of the life cycle. I hope and plan to get old (goal is 105 years) as a vegan in good health.
In 2013, The Book Publishing Company is releasing two versions of the update for our well-loved classic Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and myself. In June you'll see our Becoming Vegan: Express Edition, The Everyday Guide to Plant Based Nutrition. This book has been completely revised from the 2000 edition.
In the early fall, Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition, The Complete Reference to Plant Based Nutrition will be published. This version will be twice as big, expanding on all topics, packed with additional topics and in-depth analyses, and referenced throughout. It is intended for health professionals, colleges, and also for vegetarians and vegans who want a more in-depth understanding of the topics.