February 21, 2011

Interview: Kathy Freston on Veganist & Oprah vegan episode.

Kathy Freston is a New York Times bestselling author and advocate of a life of spiritual integrity and compassion.

From those values, Kathy adopted a vegan diet and lifestyle and is active in promoting veganism. Her latest book Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, is intended to offer readers a way to live a happier, more compassionate and healthier life by adopting a vegan diet.

Kathy challenged Oprah and 378 of her staff to go vegan for one week. The episode aired on February 1 and caused quite a stir in the vegan and animal rights communities. Oprah invited Michael Pollan as an expert on eating “humane” meat and Cargill allowed Oprah’s cameras inside one of their slaughterhouses.

Kathy answered a few questions about Veganist and shared some of her thoughts about the Oprah segment.

1. Please tell me about your new book Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World. What is a veganist?

Veganist is a friendly and empowering guide to a healthier, happier, and richer life – all attained by a shift in diet toward plant-based foods. The book is full of facts and studies and personal testimonials that point to how eating vegan can change your life on every level: you lose weight, heal your body from disease, increase your life expectancy and quality of life, save money, reduce global warming gases and live in synch with your spiritual or ethical values such as kindness and compassion.

A veganist is someone who looks closely at all the implications of their food choices and chooses to lean into a plant-based diet. Just like a violinist identifies himself with his passion for the instrument, a veganist is super interested in all the positive aspects of a vegan diet.

2. The book covers the topic of spiritual awakening. Can you talk a little about spiritual integrity?

For me, the purpose of my life is to become more open hearted and connected to life, to expand my awareness, care, and concern, and to reduce suffering wherever I can (and most of the wisdom philosophies encourage as much). I realized that I can apply those values and intentions to the thing I do regularly, every day: eating. Eating vegan, I found, was a way to help me to evolve on a spiritual level. As I began to understand what happens to animals as they become food, I had to ask myself: is my hankering for a piece of chicken or bacon worth the pain and fear that an animal goes through to become the meat at my table? I had this epiphany that in my soul, no, this doesn’t sit right with me. For me, it’s about finding my balance with delicious food while at the same time feeling spiritually true. I would rather opt for vegan food and know that my choices didn’t contribute to any fear, pain or suffering.

3. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in writing and researching Veganist?

The most surprising thing I discovered is that this way of eating is so absolutely unassailable. I couldn’t find any evidence, any science whatsoever, that would persuade me that a vegan diet isn’t superior in every way: it’s so good for personal health and weight maintenance, good for the environment, and good for the soul. It’s a win-win all around, and you don’t often find those grand-slam solutions.

4. How long have you been vegan and how do you come to this decision?

I’ve been vegan for about 7 years, but I got here very gradually. As with all things that I’m serious about sustaining, I leaned into it. I knew that I wanted to be someone who didn’t eat anything from an animal, but all of my historical and traditional food references were connected to animal foods, so it would have been overwhelming and difficult to get to vegan overnight.

I began by giving up eating one animal at a time and replacing those meals with vegan versions. I kept educating myself about what goes into turning animals into food by reading books and watching undercover videos; this kindled and engaged my commitment to keep leaning away from eating them. After the course of 2 or 3 years, I was vegan! Because I did it gradually, the shift was comfortable and easy to maintain.

5. I would like to know how you handle the willfully ignorant; the ones who “know” but refuse to care. I’m sure there’s a spiritual lesson in there somewhere about “tolerance.” But do you ever get down? Do people ever just totally depress the hell out of you? What’s your advice for maintaining hope and sanity in this cruel world? (Thanks to Jo Tyler of thisveganlife.org for this question)

Well, I think I was one of those “willfully ignorant” people, so I don’t judge anyone! I kind of knew what happened to animals from books (I had read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in grade school, for instance) or breaking stories of farmed animal abuse. I think it was too much for me to handle or grasp at the time, too horrible to let in to my psyche. So I blocked it out and defended my eating habits by saying things like, “My doctor said I need to eat meat” or “Humans are meant to eat meat.” (Of course science wouldn’t let me rest on those myths!)

Because I gave myself the time and space to educate myself, I didn’t feel pressure to make a drastic decision and then struggle to stick with it. Had someone pushed or shamed me about my eating habits, I would have dug in my heels even farther and continued to resist. I think attraction works better than promotion, so looking healthy and happy is key. By focusing on the game-changing promises you get by eating vegan, rather than the negative “shoulds,” I think you more easily appeal to someone.

6. You’re always very good at speaking to people at their level, at a place where they’re comfortable. For the rest of us who aren’t as intuitive, it’s important that we all have a very brief, well-scripted response to the inevitable questions about our lifestyle. What’s your vegan “elevator pitch?”

I think that anyone, no matter whom or where they are in their lives, wants to feel and look better. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to live their best life. So my elevator pitch is simply, “I’m vegan!” If a conversation or Q and A ensues, then great, I will share some of the good promises that flow from changing your diet from a meat based one to a plant based one. People (myself included) are influenced by kindness and openness, not necessarily a barrage of facts and statistics.

7. Many vegans were disgruntled by the Oprah episode and thought it came off as an advertisement for “humane meat” and for Cargill. How did you feel about it? What do you hope the show accomplished?

I thought the show was historic, and really a breakthrough for conscious eating. A whole show was devoted to the conversation of eating meat –or not. Do you know how many people never connected the dots between live animals and the meat on their plate? By seeing the slaughterhouse video, a connection was made, and it was profound. I think the show accomplished what its intention was: to help people think about where their food comes from and to open up a curiosity and conversation about conscious eating.

8. It was extremely frustrating to have Cargill come off as a “humane” slaughterhouse when we know that such a thing does not exist. How did you feel about this rather sanitized version of slaughter, and the choice not to show the cows being hit with a bolt gun or having their throats slit?

I think it’s great that the video was shown at all, sanitized or not. We saw cows that had been alive only minutes earlier having their hooves clipped off, skin peeled away, and guts pulled from their corpses. Those are powerful images that speak to the psyche on a very emotional level. You aren’t going to get a full-on graphic video of the worst of things on national TV; you just aren’t. Maybe for some people that is a disappointment, but I see it as progress that we got a glimpse into the truth about animals being turned into food. It opened up the conversation in a big way.

9. Do you think that giving people the impression that there is such a thing as “humane slaughter” helps open their eyes to veganism? Or is more likely to make them feel like its okay to eat dead animals? What do you think of the trend of raising your own animals or eating animals if you know where they come from in places like the Bay Area? (Thanks to Rose Aguilar of “Your Call” on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco for this question).

I think the very word “humane” makes people take pause and think about what happens to animals, and that’s a good thing. The more we are awake, aware, and curious the more we will move toward conscious eating. Maybe humanely raised meat is a first step for some, and then gradually more vegan foods are worked into the rotation. Humanely raised animals are indeed a step up from the horrors of factory farmed animals, so I think that’s progress. We just have to keep ourselves moving forward, starting from wherever we are right now.

10. The show never addressed dairy cows and veal calves. Would you speak to this?

There is only so much that can be covered in an hour!

My hope is that a curiosity is kindled, and people can begin to do their own research. I encourage anyone who is interested to google these three words: Factory. Farm. Video. Everything is there for the viewing, and there is no part of the food system that hasn’t been caught on tape and revealed.

11. I must admit that I was surprised to hear you say that it’s okay to eat the eggs from “cage free” chickens. As you know, male chicks are ground up alive or are suffocated, whether “cage free” or battery-caged eggs. United Poultry Concerns estimates around 250 million male chicks per year die in the egg industry. Can you clarify your position on this issue in case people misunderstood?

I didn’t say that. Oprah asked me if the chickens have a wonderful life at her neighbors’ house, and they are cared for and loved like pets, is it ok then to eat the eggs. And I said that it was a natural part of their menstrual cycle to drop eggs, so yes, it’s okay. I clarified that most Americans don’t have that sort of access to truly free-range and cruelty-free eggs. It wasn’t my intention to drill into every detail and horror of the food animal industry; it was my intention to be a friendly and accessible ambassador to a veganist lifestyle.

12. The producers chose to air the segment with the family complaining about how terrible the vegan meal was, even though the mother admitted she had prepared it incorrectly by running the “meat” through a blender. It seemed strange to include that, but were there any scenes cut from the show that might have provided more balance?

That scene was included because it reflects what really happens as people shift their diets; it is confusing and new, and mistakes happen! They did show the meal in all its deliciousness after I visited the family at home, by the way. It’s all just a matter of familiarizing people with new products and menus.

13. One of Oprah’s staffers gave you a hard time about the vegan challenge until you told her that she was an addict. Can you talk more about the addiction of meat, dairy and eggs?

Animal foods are fatty and rich-tasting, and when we habitually eat those things, nothing tastes quite as satisfying (even if we know how bad it is for our health, the taste and mouthfeel wins out). Veronica, the staffer who said she was addicted to fast foods, actually experienced much of what a drug addict or alcoholic might feel when threatened with the loss of the thing she was habituated to: anger and a sense of panic or dread. That’s why I encourage substituting favorite animal foods with vegan versions of the things we love and are used to. Vegan meats and products are ideal transitional foods because by crowding out the old meat and dairy menu items with delicious plant-based proteins, we don’t feel deprived. The upgrade comes gently and easily.

14. Why did the show focus so much on mock meats during the vegan challenge?
Same as answer 10! And additionally, the vast majority of people simply won’t go from their traditional diet of meat and potatoes to whole grains, beans, and vegetables. It simply won’t happen. The easiest way to make the transition – what worked for me – is to crowd out the old meat and dairy products with vegan versions of the things we grew up loving. That way, we don’t feel loss or so much confusion. We find our way easily and gradually, and then hopefully, we continue to lean into healthier, whole foods!

*Courtesy of The Thinking Vegan.

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