Mad Cowboy Interview 04: Dr. Suzanna Havala Hobbs
(Part 01 of 02)

MS:  “How long have you been a vegetarian and why?”

SH:   “I've been a vegetarian for 32 years.  I went vegetarian when I was 16, and I'll turn 48 tomorrow.  But my diet has certainly evolved in that time.  I started out as a lacto-ovo vegetarian who was stuck in the cheese'n'eggs rut for a long time.  What prompted me to get interested in vegetarian diets was a confluence of events of several factors, but one of them was my interest in competitive sports.  I was a competitive swimmer and was particularly good at the endurance events, and I read a book that a relative brought over to the house one day.  It was called "Faith, Love, and Seaweed," by Ian Rose (father of the Olympic Gold Medal Award-winning swimmer, Murray Rose).  Murray attributed his athletic endurance to his vegetarian diet.  I grabbed that book and read it, and somehow it resonated with me, and I was keenly interested.  So that registered in about the same time that my mother went vegetarian, and that probably had the most profound effect on me.  I was probably younger than sixteen at that point.  We always ate our family dinners together, and at six o'clock sharp, she sat down and said "I have an announcement to make...”

MS: (laughing)

SH:  "...it was just like that.  I can tell you where I was sitting and I can even see her standing there talking.  We were having chili that night, and she used to make it with ground beef and kidney beans.  She sat down and she had a toasted whole wheat cheddar cheese sandwich with vegetables, and that became her dinner for years.  Either that or a cheese omelette.  She said:  "Everybody, from now on I'm a vegetarian."  She gave absolutely no explanation at all as to why."

MS:  “Did she ever tell you "why?"

SH:  "Yes, years later.  She admitted that it was for ethical reasons."

MS:  “That's fascinating, as you came at it from a physical standpoint.”

SH:  "This was early to mid-70's..."

MS:  "I remember... going veg was radical."

SH:  "She was a hospital nurse, and I can remember for years she wouldn't talk about it at work, and she just sort of surreptitiously ate vegetarian in the hospital cafeteria.  She told us a few times that the people who worked in the hospital perceived her as being a little odd.  There were friends of hers who knew her for years and who never even noticed that she didn't eat meat."

MS:  "What part of the country was this?"

SH:  "Michigan. Detroit area."

MS:  "Wow..."

SH:  "...so she sort of kept it under wraps for years.  So that the whole time I was living at home and she was working as a nurse, and later as a nurse for the Oakland Public Health Department, but she kept it under wraps.  It was definitely in the 70s perceived as being a little "out there."  But she was silent about it at home, too.  She never said a word about why she went vegetarian, and for some reason, we kids weren't curious enough to ask. And I think if we had, she probably wouldn't have talked about it very much; she was just very private."

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MS:  "What about your father?"

SH:  "There was a little bit of conflict with my Dad.  I mean, he was a 1950s meat'n'potatoes midwestern man, and I can remember the tension building over the years... eventually, each kid in the family went vegetarian.  My younger sister went first, then I went, and then my younger brother.  My older sister was out of the house at the point, she was 10 years older then me, so she was already in college, but she eventually went vegetarian, too.

Over the years, while we were eating meals at home, I can remember, one by one, each kid saying "you don't have to cook meat for me, anymore.  I'm a vegetarian now," we just kind of fell, one by one, and she started making more and more of her food, and less and less of the cooked meats that she used to make for our dinners to the point where, eventually, we'd be sitting down to dinner and we'd be having these heaping salads and cooked vegetables, and breads and vegetarian food, and she'd heat up a couple of hot dogs for my Dad!  It was like, y'know, here's a little token I can make for you, and he would register his displeasure at the end of the meal by getting up from the table and going to the refrigerator and grabbing a couple of frozen waffles to pop into the toaster. That was sort of a signal that this meal wasn't adequate."

MS:  "How funny..."

SH:  "There was definitely some tension there for a couple of years, and then eventually, my Dad caved... he's always been a person who ate what my mother fixed, and he doesn't cook on his own, and so today, they've been married for 60 years, he's a vegetarian, too."

MS:  "Great story."

SH:  "I remember as a kid, too, very early,  I had a button that I picked up at the Ann Arbor Art Fair that said "real people wear fake furs."  I wore that around and I was just definitely very sensitive to animal issues at an early age, as well, so I was definitely primed to be a vegetarian."

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MS:  "Was it your diet that led you to your academic career, and can you summarize it as well?  You bring some great qualifications and credentials to the game."

SH:  "I'm a registered dietician and I have a Master's Degree in Human Nutrition and a Doctorate in Health Policy and Administration.  My personal interest in food and nutrition led me to a career in dietetics, because I wanted to know everything I could possibly know about nutrition.  My career has developed and evolved over the years, but that was certainly the initial impetus for my choice."

MS:  "What's fascinating to me in talking to you right now, is that you've managed to hit the mainstream press all over the place.  You've written for major magazines, major newspapers, interviews all the time... I mean, you're all over the map and you keep it relatively mainstream.  I would guess that your own views are probably a bit more "hard care."  Has this been difficult for you in academia, that is, finding a middle ground that people can handle?"

SH:  "No, not at all.  I love the academic environment because, generally, people here are very tolerant of new divergent views, and I have found my colleagues to be totally supportive and very much interested.  Everybody accepts the varying viewpoints and in fact, this kind of academic environment thrives on different points of view."

MS:  "Do you think that the nutritional establishment, in general, is catching on then?"

SH:  "I think for certain,  the ideas about plant-based diets are becoming more accepted.  I think twenty years ago, most university nutrition departments would have not been quite so accepting of vegetarianism --- more skeptical about the nutritional adequacy of a vegetarian diet then they are now."

MS:  "I was thinking that your column in the newspaper reaches some 400,000 people a week.  That's fantastic."

SH:  "Y'know, there are a lot of folks here at the school who read the column and I get lots of positive feedback.  We joke about the column a lot..."

MS:  (laughing)

SH:  "...people stop by the office and make little remarks about what they read this morning.  We have a lot of fun with it."

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MS:  "Now, you've written 9 books, which is amazing in itself, I don't know how you find time to do so much.  And now, you've just published your tenth book:  "Get the Trans Fat Out:  601 simple Ways to Cut the Trans Fat Out of Any Diet."  This begs the big question:  what are trans fats and why should we be worried about them?"

SH:  "Trans fats are primarily a man-made fat, created when vegetable oil is bombarded with hydrogen, and the chemical nature of the liquid oil is changed.  Trans fats stimulate the body to produce more cholesterol, and they are associated with greater rates of coronary artery disease.  A recent report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that there's no safe level of intake of trans fat, and that people should minimize their exposure to trans fats."

MS:  "In your new book, you wrote that even an increase of just 1 teaspoon a day in the diet of women can cause a 62% increase in heart attack risk?"

SH:  "It's a substantial increase in heart attack risk."

MS:  "That was stunning to me, because I remember as a kid, Crisco... you write about Crisco being the first of the really big trans fat products... what, a hundred years ago?"

SH:  "Right."

MS:  "...and I remember that Crisco was used extensively in my grandparent's kitchen.  My grandfather died of a stroke at an early age, and I remember the Crisco being used all the time... I mean, to fry everything."

SH:  "It was cheaper than butter or lard, and it kept for long time in the cupboard.  It was very convenient."

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MS:  "What also surprised me from your book about trans fats is that, what, they're like a triple-whammy.  They lower LDL and HDL, as well as effect the liver."

SH:  "Yes, and until recently, the big problem was, that we couldn't easily see how much trans fat was in the food that we're eating.  Now that trans fat is required to be listed on the Nutrition Fact Labels and food product packages, now it's exposed.  Now everyone can see how much trans fat they could be eating."

MS:  "...and your book also points out that, at last count, there are some 40,000 products in the average grocery store that contain trans fats, and here's the medical establishment saying that even 1 teaspoon a day is unhealthy."

SH:  "That number is probably far-reduced by now, because food companies have been removing trans fat from products willy-nilly.  I don't know that anybody has an estimate of how many foods contain trans fat now.  If it is changing radically, it's because of the exposure that trans fat has gotten on food labels."

MS:  "Can you contrast trans fats with saturated and unsaturated fats?"

SH:  "Saturated fats are a form of fat that's generally hard at room temperature, and most saturated fats come from animal sources.  So, examples would be the fat you find in dairy products, butterfat, lard, and bacon grease.  Saturated fat, like trans fat, stimulates the body to produce more cholesterol.  Just as the IOM report concluded that there's no safe level of trans fat in the diet, likewise, they also concluded that there's no safe level of saturated fat in the diet.  When people evaluate foods, they should look at the both the trans fat and saturated fat content of food --- combine those figures, and aim for getting as little in your diet as possible."

MS:  "So then trans fat is significantly worse than saturated fat in the diet?"

SH:  "Oh no, I'm not sure that's the case."

MS:  "Really?"

SH:  "I think it's almost splitting hairs to differentiate between the two.  I would lump them together, and for the sake of simplicity, call them the "bad fats," and people should just avoid both."

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 "In New York recently, the New York H
ealth Board voted for banning trans fat from all restaurants.  What do you think of this decision?"

SH:  "I think it's a great idea, and I hope it spurs similar actions across the country.  People often scoff..."

MS:  "...raising the issue of "food police."

SH:  "Here's the issue:  when you have a substance that is known to harm health, it's ubiquitous in the food supply, you don't have a real choice.  In situations like this, I think it's appropriate for a government to intervene, and exercise the power to regulate that ingredient and remove it from the food supply.  I heard somebody make an analogy to lead or arsenic... if we had arsenic being added to foods, wouldn't people call for government intervention to have that removed?  There's always this tension between individual rights and freedoms, and what's best for the community as a whole.  Our society has generally made decisions to protect the masses at the expense of some freedom for individuals, and individuals also meaning corporations."

MS:  "It's a difficult issue..."

SH:  "Oh, it is a difficult issue... but in this case, I think that it's in the interest of the public's health for government to step in and regulate in the area of trans fat."

MS:  "Well, let me be somewhat of a devil's advocate, as recently I couldn't by my favorite vegan cheese at a store because they said it had trans fat in them, and so they dropped the line.  My point when writing management of the corporation was that if trans fat is listed on the label, shouldn't it should be my option."

SH:  "I've talked to managers in various Health Food stores, and I know most set a standard that they sort of follow.  Most stores don't sell products containing partially-hydrogenated fat to serve a standard of identify that they've adopted for buying products to sell in that store.

MS:  "A tough call, as some of the other products they might carry, fried foods or whey as examples aren't healthy.  BUT, on the positive side, because I couldn't get that product any more, I began to explore making my own mock cheeses which, admittedly, are much cheaper, healthier, and satisfying to me."

SH:  "Good."

MS:  "Now, to play Devil's Advocate a bit more, and I'm not going to get extreme here, but:  should saturated fats be banned? Where do we draw the line?"

SH:  "Well, saturated fat is naturally occurring in foods, and there are a lot more questions to be answered about saturated fats.  If you look at the government recommendations on the Nutrition Fact Label there's no daily value given for trans fats, because there is no safe level. But there is a daily value given for saturated fat.  Years ago, a decision was made that a target level could be given.  In fact, there really is no safe target level for saturated fat intake, and they really ought to be treated the same way."

MS:  "It may be also that since saturated fats occur naturally in a food product, the consumer should and can be aware of the consequences."

SH:  "I think that's one way to look at it, but you're right in that these decisions are not clean, but in the case of saturated fat it's not something that's being added to food, so I think that for certain that labeling the saturated fat content of some foods is important, and we already do that."

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