December 5, 2001

Demas Ph.D. '95 adovocates vegetarian diet, states vegan regimen can improve mental capacities

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Nutritional scientist Antonia Demas Ph.D. ’95 advocated yesterday that a vegetarian diet can improve brain power in front of 75 students enrolled in Nutritional Science 200, vegetarian nutrition.

It was Demas’ second appearance in the class taught by Prof. Colin Campbell Ph.D. ’62, nutritional science, this semester.

Demas explained how she developed a culinary program to track the effects of a strictly vegan diet in a recent study she conducted at the vocational school of Bay Point Schools in Miami. The program was “not about grades or ability but about nourishing yourself,” Demas said.

Bay Point Schools, where Demas conducted the experiment early this year, is a semi-private juvenile detention facility. The high school students are full-time residents, either serving a sentence there as an alternative to jail or as regular students sent by their parents.

Luis Pinto, one the students involved in the study, accompanied Demas.

Demas said the school’s administration was looking to re-establish its cooking and nutrition classes and “invited me to have a culinary program as part of the curriculum.”

In addition to encouraging better nutrition, “they wanted students to have some sort of background so they could have a job skill when they left,” Demas said.

While Demas’ previous studies of nutrition and behavior modification involved young children, Demas said the prospect of working with the Bay Point students appealed to her.

“I thought it was an interesting population who I hadn’t yet worked with,” Demas said.

Demas’ dissertation while at Cornell involved educating elementary school student on improving their eating habits. Demas is currently filing a suit against a member of her dissertation committee, Prof. David A. Levitsky, and Cornell, claiming that the former took credit for her work and that the University did not step in to protect her.

Campbell, another member of Demas’ dissertation committee, said after the lecture that he does not bring up the issues surrounding the suit in class, even as he has been a firm believer in both Demas’ research and the merits of her case.

“I would have had her regardless. I was the one convincing her to continue her work,” Campbell said. “She really has done some remarkable work. … She has no peers [in the field].”

In her current study, Demas, who was invited to Bay Point in December 2000, trained the Bay Point cooks who, in turn, trained the students and taught general nutrition as well as how to run a kitchen and cook.

The program began with an intense, four month-long program, from January to April 2001, followed by the month-long “pilot diet.” The curriculum involved nutritional education for Bay Point staff and students in the program as well as field trips to local farms and businesses that grew and sold exclusively organic foods.

Pinto, now an aspiring vegetarian chef, said that he was initially skeptical of the vegan diet but agreed to go with it.

“The first thing that ran through my head was that eating vegetables didn’t sound too nasty [and] they said it would start to change the way you think, feel and act,” he said.

“The program introduced [participants] to foods they had never encountered. It was a positive introduction,” Demas said.

Pinto said that he and the other 18 students who were part of the culinary program were often mocked by their peers, even called “rabbit boys.” Despite initial ridicule, Pinto said that while on the vegan diet he “was full of energy. My mind would stay focused and I was looking better.”

“It was easier to wake up because meat takes a long time to process in the stomach compared to tofu products,” Pinto said.

On average, the grades of participants in the program increased when on the diet. Pinto said that his GPA rose from 2.9 to 3.7.

The program has been so successful according to Demas “that the state of Florida upgraded the culinary program from vocational to academic.”

Another accomplishment for the program, according to Demas, is that Johnson and Wales University has set aside 25 full scholarships for students who have completed the culinary program at Bay Point. Johnson and Wales is based in Rhode Island but with campuses throughout the country.

Ten of the initial 19 students, including Pinto, have already received scholarships pending completion of a GED program.

It is “remarkable that they developed a skill that was recognized by a four-year university,” Demas said.

Students responded positively to Demas’ lecture.

“This lecture was really, really amazing and it was cool to see [Demas’ research] put into action,” Karen Moravec ’02 said.

Some linked the lecture with Demas’ previous work on the relationship of behavior and nutrition.

“I thought it was very interesting how [Pinto] could change his life so dramatically through food. We don’t pay any attention to diet and children with problems in our society; while the underlying cause of problems could be disciplinary, it could be chemical,” Rebecca Burgess ’02 said.

Archived article by Laura Rowntree