My Story — From Vegetarian Veterinarian to Plant-Based Spokesperson

We are here at the fourth and final installment of the One Health Series.

From describing the One Health movement to discussing why what we eat really matters to talking about cows, I would now love to complete our series by telling you a story.

My story.

A journey which connects traditional medicine, veterinary studies and nutritional research.

A One Health Story.

What My Story Illustrates

As you will see, my journey (like many others in the plant-based field) is not a traditional one.

And it begs an interesting question…who really has the ‘right’ to discuss diet and nutritional topics? 

You can type ‘nutrition’ and ‘diet’ on Google and you will find literally hundreds of websites.vegetarian

Many which are very good. Based on solid nutritional science.

Others are less good.

What I like to call ‘fad’ sites.

And while I do not agree with everything being said, I nonetheless welcome what they have to say.

I like to see people and professionals of all backgrounds contributing to the discussion of health and diet and how good nutrition can help with disease prevention and reversal.

In fact, we need a broad range of perspectives to deepen our nutritional understanding and enrich the dialogue.

If we only listen to people who are classically educated in nutrition, we miss out on the input of so many professionals, including most doctors who are rarely formally trained in nutrition, or nutritional heroes like Dr. T. Colin Campbell who wrote the seminal The China Study despite the fact his formal education was in animal nutrition.

And so too, my path—while somewhat unorthodox—has given birth to rich ideas and connections that would not have been possible otherwise.

So let’s begin at the beginning…

Mom, Can I Have a Pet Cow?

When I was 12, my family moved from Rio de Janeiro to a small town near São Paulo. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen farm animals.

I remember vividly the day I saw my first cow – I even asked my mom if I could have one!

Alas. I did not get my pet cow but my love for animals continues to shine brightly to this day.

vegetarianOne of the great parts of living in that small town was that we also started growing our own vegetables and raising chickens for eggs.

My sister and I wanted to see the chicks being born. I remember one poor chick who was born with a crooked leg. The adult chickens used to pick on him constantly. So my sister and I took him out of the coop and raised him outside. By ourselves.

At that time, we had a woman working with us who had grown up raising her own food. She talked a lot about how she would not eat chicken feet unless she killed the bird herself because she needed to know the chicken was ‘clean’. And as our little crooked-legged friend grew, this woman kept telling us that our now pet rooster was getting ready to become food.

My sister and I did not like it when she talked that way. Not one little bit.

One day we came home from school and saw chicken feet on the kitchen table. I went flying outside to find our pet, but, of course, he was gone. Well, not exactly gone – he was on the table inside. I cried my eyes out through the meal that day and I refused to eat anything but rice.

That was the day when I made the connection between the animal we love and the animal we eat – they were one and the same.

Going Vegetarian

Despite this realization, it took another 3 years before I became an official vegetarian.

Vegetarian, veggie or vegan eating salad with forkMy mom simply came home one day  and – out of the blue – announced that we should not be eating animals anymore.

My sister and I jumped on board immediately. I still remember eating my last piece of steak and telling myself ‘this is the last time I’ll eat a cow’.

And it was.

That was in May 1988.

I have never, ever looked back.

The Veggie Vet Student

While my decision to becoming vegetarian was a one-way express train, my decision about ‘what to do with my life’ was less of a straight line.

The problem was there were so many things I wanted to do!

I loved storytelling and art and fashion. Chemistry and biology. And animals.

I was like a kid in a candy shop.

And while my twin sister made an unwavering beeline towards the law, I dithered a bit.

But in the end, my love for animals won out.

And I eventually decided to become a veterinarian.

Saving the Dogs

Soft Toy Cow and Tangerine OrnamentTo be completely honest, my ‘hat’ as future veterinarian did not always blend perfectly with both my vegetarianism and my love of animals.

For example, as a veterinarian student, we learned how slaughterhouses work including how to inspect the animals going in to be killed as well as how to handle them afterward. As painful as it was, I came to understand how we humans can become desensitized to that kind of pain after multiple experiences with it.

I was not able to save any cows while I was in vet school, but I did save a few abandoned dogs. It was common practice to use shelter dogs for surgical ‘practice’ because they were slated to be euthanized by the shelters anyway. It was typical that the dogs would never wake up. After the procedure, they would simply be given more anesthesia and ‘put to sleep’.

Lucky for me, one of my best friends was studying to be an anesthesiologist and he was the one in charge of anesthetizing the dogs on our surgical table.

So we made a pact: no matter what our animals would come back.

And so it was. As co-conspirators, we brought our dogs back. Then we took care of them while they healed. Then we found them forever homes.

I took some comfort in conspiring to save the dogs that came our way. In finding them loving homes. It is one of the finest achievements of my early college years.

Discovering My Real Passion

I loved my veterinarian studies. I was dedicated and worked hard.

I got some teaching assistant’s positions in biochemistry, clinical pathology and anatomy.

By my fourth year, I thought I wanted to be a clinician working with large animals – either horses or cows.DNA - Stock image_iStock_000082342661_Large

With this in mind, I got my heart set on spending a semester at the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, Germany. So when I was offered a 3-month paid ‘practicum’ position at a bacteriology and immunology laboratory at the University of Giessen, I figured this was a good step towards my dream. I could spend three months in Giessen to save enough money to live in Hanover for the next three months – doing the clinical work I thought I would love.

Much to my surprise, the complete opposite happened.

After one short week working at the lab, I at long last discovered my true calling in life–research.

In the lab, I dove into my molecular epidemiology studies like a fish to water. My passion for research took me on an unexpected and riveting path. Using my molecular biology tools, I started to focus on how pathogen-driven diseases spread among animals and between humans and animals (zoonosis).

Over a period of seven years, I studied a variety of fascinating issues. From how bacterial pathogens cause pneumonia in foals and HIV patients to why parasites cause tropical disease in humans to the study of how bacterial pathogens cause mastitis in cows (and hospital-acquired infections in humans).

I reveled in these research projects.

Projects that really placed me at the intersection and cutting edge of both human and veterinary medicine.

In fact, from day one as a researcher, I was embracing the One Health concept.

I just did not know it yet.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle…

I eventually ended up in the United States to do more research.

Jigsaw puzzleAt postdoctoral training at the University of Illinois, I used new ‘functional genomics’ tools to study how retroviral-driven leukemia is developed in cows as a model for a type of leukemia in humans.

But this time, I was not focusing my work on the genetics of the pathogens as I had done before but on the genetics of the host—i.e. the infected animal.

In other words, we wanted to understand how the cow’s own genes ‘helped’ the retrovirus, causing leukemia to develop. Animals with specific genotypes or who express specific genes will develop the disease, while others will not.

Put simply, it was the study of gene-environment interaction – diseases developing when animals (or cell lines) with a specific genotype (gene) are infected by a specific pathogen (environment).

Fascinating stuff.

But the real revelation came when, in another of these studies, the ‘environment’ contribution was diet.

The study looked at how genes were differentially expressed when cows were fed a high fat diet compared to a control diet. We found out that cows with a specific genotype, when eating a high-fat diet, had a higher risk of developing metabolic diseases when compared to animals that ate the high-fat diet, but did not have the specific gene or those who ate the control diet.

Those results confirmed the interplay between diet and genes – showing that both are important determinants of disease.

And the lightbulb went on…as I realized the great and important connection between diet and disease.

The Campbell Connection

Around the time I was conducting my studies and the ‘lightbulb’ went on, I coincidentally read The China Study in New Jersey over Thanksgiving week.

A fascinating read, The China Study specifically links casein (found in milk and other dairy products) with the onset and progression of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Cow Coin BoxReading that book—which corroborated my own research work–was really an electric moment.

A turning point.

Everything fell into place and ‘made sense’ as I started to understand the deep connections between diet and disease.

But the clarity ironically also shattered my own personal world.

I had just spent an entire decade working on research to improve the health of dairy cows and milk production for human consumption (making ice cream and cheese for the world!)

… And yet now I was discovering that the same food I used to believe was so good for you could actually be linked to the development of diseases in humans.

Caught at the crossroads, I started to wonder what I should do next.

At a very personal level, I was crystal clear about one thing–I had to immediately stop eating dairy and commit myself fully to a whole food plant-based diet.

On November 30th, I turned the last page on The China Study.

On December 1st, I ‘let go’ of all dairy forever.

That took care of my diet, but what about my career?

Fortunately for me, I had a great source of inspiration.

Dr. Campbell himself.

After all he and I had similar careers, both working with dairy cows for many years. (Dr. Campbell received his advanced degrees based on his work in ruminant nutrition). And he, like me, had to face a grim reality–what we originally had believed was ‘nature’s perfect food’ could actually be the cause of debilitating chronic disease in humans.

But I realized that it would make sense for me to follow in Dr. Campbell’s giant footsteps.

Not only in terms of embracing a plant-based lifestyle.

But by choosing a career path that could educate people about the importance of diet to our health and the well-being of animals and the planet.

Heart of a Kiwi / Super Macro / back litThe Circle Was Complete

The circle was complete.

From an anguished 12-year old girl who found her pet chicken on her dinner table to the vegetarian veterinarian to a researcher to a full-fledged proponent of a healthful, whole food, plant-based diet as the Director of the UC Davis Integrative Medicine program.

My journey is quintessential One Health.

Because through my research and personal discoveries, I have witnessed time and time again how the well-being of us all–humans, animals and our precious planet—is inextricably linked.

And what we do—and the choices we make at every level—really do count.