An Interview with Jack Norris, co-founder of Vegan Outreach
As I continue to celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month, I am so happy to feature a recent interview with Jack Norris, a fellow registered dietitian and plant-powered mover and shaker. Read my interview with Jack below to learn about his animal and vegetarian advocacy, as well as his vegan lifestyle.
Jack Norris is a Registered Dietitian and President and co-founder of Vegan Outreach. Along with Ginny Messina, MS RD, Jack has written the book Vegan For Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet. Jack writes a nutrition blog at JackNorrisRD.com. He is the author of Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It? and maintains VeganHealth.org. In 2005, Jack was elected to the Animal Rights Hall of Fame.
1. What are generally some of the first reactions you receive when people discover you’re a vegan?
They tell me they’ve been eating less meat or have been eating organic meat.
2. When and why did you decide to become vegan?
I went on a fishing trip in 1986 that made me start thinking harder about how humans treat animals. It felt wrong to me that if a fellow human were drowning we would be doing all we could to save them, but a fish suffocating (on land) was of no moral concern. I had a strong desire to intervene on behalf of the fish. In the next few years I came across Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, as well as information from PETA about factory farming and that began my journey into animal and vegetarian advocacy.
3. After becoming vegan, what personal benefits did you gain?
I lost a few pounds and I suspect my cholesterol went down – I don’t think I’d ever had it tested until after I’d been vegan for a couple years and it was 117 mg/dl. It’s now in the 150-160 mg/dl range which is about average for vegans.
4. What are some of the biggest challenges in eating a vegan diet?
For me, it’s been that too much fiber doesn’t sit well with me. So I actually eat less whole foods than I want — quite the opposite problem that most people have. And because I eat more processed foods, I have to watch my sodium intake.
If I had to guess, I would say that iron deficiency anemia is the biggest cause of people going back to eating meat, particularly among women. In most cases, there are other options, such as adding vitamin C (which increases iron absorption) to meals and not drinking coffee and tea with meals (which lowers iron absorption). Getting enough calcium and vitamin D can also be challenges for some people. And if you have a soy or gluten allergy, things can become difficult as well, though still doable; many vegans have one or both.
5. From a male perspective, what are some of the biggest misconceptions you hear regarding a vegan diet?
Of course, the stereotype of vegan men is that they are wimps. There are multitudes of vegan bodybuilders that anyone can check out on the Internet to see that isn’t the case. It’s also worth noting that standing up for those who are weaker than you, in this case animals, is a sign of strength, not weakness. I love the PETA bumper sticker, “Real Men are Kind to Animals.” That says it all.
6. Do you think it’s harder for men to be vegans than women?
From a nutrition perspective, I think it’s easier, because iron and calcium are much less of an issue. But men do “like their meat.” The trick is to make sure you eat enough protein. A Tofurky sausage has 29 grams of protein – the perfect antidote to the problem. There are more whole food sources of protein such as tofu and beans, but if you want a quick, meat-like fix for protein, Tofurky rules.
7. What are favorite plant-based go-to meals?
I hate to say it, but I’m kind of big on spaghetti and tomato sauce. If I’m feeling like a protein boost, I add some Tofurky sausage to it. Tofu scramble with fried potatoes and toast is also a big favorite of mine. My wife makes me lasagna a couple times a year for a real treat — note: I do the dishes! I always like a good yellow curry in Thai restaurants and aloo gobi in Indian restaurants. For vegetables, I love spinach and corn on the cob is one of my favorites.
8. Do you have any favorite vegan products? If so, what are they?
Does Sofritas from Chipotle count? I already mentioned Tofurky – Italian sausages, deli slices, and the Tofurky Roast. Amy’s vegan pot pies are another big favorite. Jokerz candy bars are simply unbelievable – I try not to make them the basis of my diet.
9. What are some of your favorite plant-based resources for recipes and other health inspiration?
As you might have figured out already, I do not cook much beyond boiling water, and have not used a recipe in eons so I am unhelpful in that area. The plant-based resources I use are Ginny Messina’s TheVeganRd.com, Dr. Michael Greger’s NutritionFacts.org, the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (DPG), and the Vegetarian Resource Group’s blog. I use the Linus Pauling Institute’s website quite often for information on micronutrients and the Harvard School of Public Health’s newsletters. Beyond that, I usually stick to reading published research.
10. As a dietitian, do you feel that the nutrition community is beginning to embrace plant-based eating, or do we still have a ways to go?
It seems like dietitians are more and more interested in plant-based eating judging by how many are involved in the Vegetarian Nutrition DPG.
11. What are some of your best plant-based nutrition tips?
I supplement with zinc. I have no reason to think this is necessary for most vegans, but I believe that it has really helped me get by on less sleep (not necessarily a good thing over all), get less colds, and when I do, they are mild and short-lived.
If you are someone who likes greens (I love them!) and can eat a lot of them, then you definitely should! Low-oxalate greens are best, for the most part, and they include kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens, bok choy, watercress, and broccoli. Quinoa is easily the most nutritious grain and so if you like it, eat a lot!
12. Please feel free to share anything else you’d like to add.
There are a number of nutrients that vegans should at least be aware of. Many vegans, if not most, will meet many of the recommendations without trying, but you should know about all of them just to make sure. You can read a concise list and how to get them at the top “Quick Link” at VeganHealth.org.