Jack Norris, R.D., is the Executive Director of Vegan Outreach. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How does one get into a vegan world?
Jack Norris: There are many reasons why someone becomes interested in being vegan. Research indicates that most often people try a vegan diet for health reasons. Research also shows that people who are vegan in order to avoid killing animals are more likely to stick with being vegan. And many people list the negative impact that animal agriculture has on the environment as a reason for becoming vegan.
Research shows that the best way to enter the “vegan world” is to do it gradually, and I encourage anyone who’s interested to sign up for our free 10 Weeks to Vegan program to learn more about vegan food and receive tips to make exploring a vegan lifestyle convenient and delicious!
Jacobsen: How did you become involved in Vegan Outreach? What is the story there?
Norris: After trying many forms of animal advocacy in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I settled on the idea that I could make the most difference by widely promoting a vegan lifestyle to the general public. I co-founded Vegan Outreach in 1993 with that purpose. We focused on doing outreach to college students who seemed to be the most interested in our message of compassion to animals and our college outreach program continues to be our largest campaign, reaching millions of students with our booklets at over 1,000 colleges a year.
Jacobsen: With reference to reliable sources, robust, and large, hopefully international, studies, what are the health outcomes of a plant-based diet compared to the more modern emphasis by some online YouTube commentators or unqualified people arguing for an all-meat/all-beef/ketogenic diet?
Norris: A lot of scientific research supports the benefits of vegan diets, including two large observational studies that have followed populations that contained a large number of vegetarians and vegans:
The Adventist Health Study-2 of Seventh-day Adventist Church members. This United States-based study has followed over 75,000 people, including about 5,500 vegans. The Oxford branch of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford) has followed 65,000 people, including about 2,600 vegans. Among the findings:
- Diabetes—Adventist-Health Study-2 found vegans to have the lowest risk of having or developing type-2 diabetes than other diet groups with only 1/3 the risk of meat-eaters (a).
- High blood pressure—Adventist-Health Study-2 also found that vegans had only about 1/3 the rate of high blood pressure (b). In the EPIC-Oxford study, 6% of male vegans reported having high blood pressure compared to 15% of male meat-eaters. For women, the numbers were 8% for vegans and 12% for meat-eaters (c).
- Cancer—Both studies found a consistent 15–20% reduced risk of cancer in vegans compared to meat-eaters (d, e).
- Cholesterol—EPIC-Oxford found that vegan men to have an average cholesterol level of 170 mg/dl compared to 204 mg/dl for meat-eaters, while vegan women had an average cholesterol level of 172 mg/dl compared to 195 mg/dl for meat-eaters (f).
Here are references if you would like them:
a. Tonstad S, Stewart K, Oda K, Batech M, Herring RP, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Apr;23(4):292-9.
b. Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1607S-1612S. Epub 2009 Mar 25. Review. Erratum in: Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):248.
c.Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Hypertension and blood pressure among meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans in EPIC-Oxford. Public Health Nutr. 2002 Oct;5(5):645-54.
d. Key TJ, Appleby PN, Crowe FL, Bradbury KE, Schmidt JA, Travis RC. Cancer in British vegetarians: updated analyses of 4998 incident cancers in a cohort of 32,491 meat eaters, 8612 fish eaters, 18,298 vegetarians, and 2246 vegans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 4.
e. Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2012 Nov 20.
f. Bradbury KE, Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Schmidt JA, Travis RC, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Feb;68(2):178-83.
Regarding the ketogenic diet, it can aid in weight loss, at least for a short period—and note that there are vegan versions of a ketogenic diet. Most research has shown that long-term, high-meat diets lead to more chronic disease.
Jacobsen: As the Executive Director what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Norris: My job is to make sure Vegan Outreach follows our mission, of working to end violence towards animals, as effectively as possible. I work with our board of directors and executive committee to implement and assess our programs and to raise the funds necessary to keep them going.
Our two current goals are to maximize the number of signups for our 10 Weeks to Vegan program and to educate a generation of college students about the concept of speciesism. Speciesism is the idea that individual animals should be treated with regard to their characteristics, such as the capacity to suffer or feel fear, rather than according to what species they belong to. We accomplish this through our team of about 35 outreach staff in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, India, and Australia who are out every day doing in-person outreach to college students and other audiences.
Jacobsen: What is the impact of non-human animal agriculture on anthropogenic climate change or human-induced global warming?
Norris: Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and air pollution.
A 2018 report from Science found that worldwide, meat and dairy production uses 83% of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions while providing just 18% of calories and 37% of protein.
The study’s author, Joseph Poore, said, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Poore J, Nemecek T. Science. 2018 Jun 1;360(6392):987-92.
Jacobsen: How could a vegan diet or a more but not entirely plant-based diet lead to better health outcomes and outcomes for the reduction of carbon emissions?
Norris: A 2019 report from The Lancet compared models of changes in food production and estimated reduction in greenhouse gases and found that a shift to plant-based diets could reduce food-related emissions by up to 80% by 2050.
Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, Garnett T, Tilman D, DeClerck F, Wood A, Jonell M. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. 2019 Jan 16.
Jacobsen: Who tends to be opposed to a more plant-based diet? Why?
Norris: Eating animals is the norm, and it can be difficult to stray from what your peers are doing. Certain people are better suited than others to recognize and stand up against harmful cultural norms like speciesism. At Vegan Outreach, we focus on reaching the people who are motivated enough to make changes—of which there are always many in our target audience who just need some additional encouragement. The changes they make by becoming vegan often ripple out to their peer groups, families, and communities.
There are now plant-based meats widely available—such as the Beyond Burger, Beyond Sausage, Tofurky, and the Impossible Burger—that are as delicious as their animal-based counterparts without the cruelty to animals. We think it’s only a matter of time before we reach a tipping point and society moves away from killing animals for food.
Jacobsen: How can ordinary people become involved in Vegan Outreach or other organizations?
Norris: If you’re interested in exploring vegan eating, please sign up for our free 10 Weeks to Vegan program or go to VeganOutreach.org and click on the Try Vegan tile. There’s also a tile there for donating and volunteering, depending on how you’d like to become involved—you’ll find everything you need!
Jacobsen: Any recommended authors or speakers?
Norris: Liberation by Peter Singer does a great job of explaining why we should care about animals.
Vegan for Life, co-authored by myself and Ginny Messina, RD, MPH, will tell you all you need to know about getting the proper nutrition on a vegan diet.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jack.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Jack Norris.