Dr. Milton Mills is one of my favorite people in the world, a very smart and engaged individual with a holistic perspective and a warm, approachable, curious demeanor that belies his impressive résumé. A graduate of Stanford University School of Medicine and a practicing urgent care physician in the Washington, DC-area, Dr. Mills’ compassionate and encompassing worldview has led him to apply his knowledge about preventative healthcare toward the unique challenges of those who are under-served by the mainstream medical model: minority and less affluent populations. As Associate Director of Preventative Medicine for Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-author of published articles on the racial bias in U.S. nutrition guidelines, a powerful public speaker and, most important, a empathetic healthcare ally, Dr. Mills is a fantastic ambassador for the vegan message. (Side note: tired of all the people who insist that our “canine teeth” means that we should be eating meat? He has a thoughtful and informative lecture on if the human body is designed to eat flesh that should be required viewing for everyone.) Dr. Mills is a truly compassionate, pioneering and original soul and I am fortunate to call him my friend. I am honored that he is this week’s Vegan Rock Star.
1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
My journey to a plant based lifestyle started with God. In my early teens I joined the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church because after much study I found it was the denomination that most closely adhered to what the Bible had to say and taught. One of the fundamental tenets of the church is that God’s original diet for humans (Genesis 1:29) was an exclusively plant-based vegan/vegetarian diet. In fact, in the Garden of Eden all creatures were vegan (Genesis 1:30). The SDA church teaches that it was God’s original desire and it is still His will that we eat a plant-based diet for our health, mental well-being, and for the sake of the planet and its other creatures.
Knowing this, I still found it difficult initially to give up meat because I thought I couldn’t live without it. But as I progressed in my relationship with God, I found myself struggling with problems I was having difficulty dealing with. I was talking with God one evening in September 1974 about my struggles and the fact that I did not feel as close to Him as I wanted to be. And He said to me “if you want a closer relationship with Me, you need a better diet so you will have a clearer mind. You need to give up meat.” So I said to Him, “If you want me to stop eating meat, You have to take away the desire for it from me.” That night I became a vegetarian. I was mainly lacto-ovo vegetarian until the late 90’s when I was invited to Vegetarian Summerfest to present the paper I had co-authored with Dr. Neal Bernard and Dr. Patricia Bertrand on Racial Bias in the US Dietary Guidelines. At Summerfest of course everything is vegan and I became more fully aware of the many reasons it is important to eliminate eggs and dairy from my diet. That is when I began to transition to a more vegan lifestyle.
2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?
If I were pre- “plant-based,” for me still the most important and compelling point that someone could make to persuade me to change my diet would be to show me that this is what God wants me to do. I want to make it clear, however, that in saying this I don’t mean to imply that this would be an exclusively “religious” impulse. This is because God never asks us to do things that don’t make sense or that aren’t for personal or general good. So bound up in God’s desire and reasons for us to be plant-based are the fact that it is best for our personal health, it does not cause or perpetuate cruelty to or the killing of God’s other creatures, and that it is best for the planet. And in highlighting God’s instructions to humans to be vegan, it is vitally important to emphasize ALL these points.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?
As a physician, I have found focusing on the health aspects of being plant-based to be very compelling. I have spent a lot of time and effort in designing lectures to illustrate how the human body is deigned to be exclusively plant-based and that it functions best when we adhere to that diet. So using science and research to show people the health benefits of veganism can be very persuasive. Of course, it is important to use humor when doing so and to show that you are passionate about the lifestyle. And because humans suffer from what I call “a failure of imagination,” that is, it is difficult for people to imagine what they’ve never experienced, I find it very helpful to share vegan food with those who haven’t tried it to show them that it is delicious and satisfying.
4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
The biggest strengths of the vegan movement are its benefits to human health, the Earth’s ecology and the decrease in/elimination of animal cruelty that being vegan allows.
5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
The hindrances to spreading the message are many and often subtle and sometimes not readily apparent. One of the reasons is that because the movement has emanated from more Caucasian, affluent, educated communities, it can be misperceived as elitist. Oftentimes the message and didactic hasn’t been translated into forms/terms that are accessible to minority communities, low-literacy/low-income environments, and ESL communities. Because a large portion of the driving force in the movement stems from the animal rights movement, that fierce passion does not allow some proponents to either see or understand that people struggling every day just to make ends meet and find any kind of food may not be immediately moved or impressed by the animal rights aspect. This does not mean these people are immoral or uncaring, it is simply that they have competing exigencies. We have to make a more concerted effort to reach out to ethnic and minority communities and THEN be ready to make room for these individuals when they begin to show up. Some people may find it somewhat uncomfortable to suddenly find themselves in a multicultural/multiethnic environment when they are used to one that is more primarily “Caucasian.”
6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
“If you think you’re concerned about the environment and you drive a Prius, but still eat meat; you need a lot more fiber in your diet!”
7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?
Vegetarian Summerfest is probably the greatest influence on my continuing evolution. I find it is the most informative conference in the country; and it is a great place to network, meet and learn from prominent individuals in the movement and it’s a wonderful sanctuary where we get to relax and “recharge.” I started to “name names” of people who are awesome positive influences, but decided not to because I honestly can’t name everyone who inspires me. As far as films that had a big influence on me, it’s “the usual suspects”: Forks Over Knives, Food, Inc., Cowspiracy, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, among others.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?
Not a good question for me because I work too much. But “burn-out” hasn’t been a problem for me because I realize that I have been blessed to have the “Truth.” I know what I’m doing is what’s right and best. I also know that God has appointed me an “ambassador of truth” to help spread the message to others. I’m not just in this for myself, I have a job to do to help change the world.
9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?
The issue that is most important to me is the health benefit of being vegan/plant-based. When you’ve seen as many individuals and families crying and devastated from the untimely and unnecessary loss of a loved one to a preventable disease, it moves you to want to do something to change things. I want people to know that they don’t have to live in fear that their bodies will one day attack them or suddenly fall apart. A lot of what we go through heath-wise in this country can be prevented.
10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”
To me being vegan is about caring about yourself, your family, the planet and the planet’s other creatures; and it’s about doing God’s will.