INTERVIEW: Talking Health, Oprah and Veganism with Author Kathy Freston

Days before BlogHer '11, I had the honor and pleasure to interview author Kathy Freston, whose most recent book, Veganist, took her "quantum wellness" approach to the next level.

Kathy Freston

With veganism seeming to become at once more lauded (Bill! Clinton! Is a vegan!) and vilified (Ginnifer Goodwin! Quit! Being a vegan!) by the mainstream, it was great to get Kathy's perspective on the changing face of veganism in America. As it happens, I'm heading out to VidaVeganCon, the first-ever vegan blogger conference (as an attendee) this weekend, so the timing to publish this could not be better.

Thank you very much for talking to me, and to the BlogHer community! The intersection of health and food and sustainability is one of the strong areas of interest our community has. Now that you're such a well-known healthy living advocate and best-selling author, people may not really know how you got started on this path. Can you share a little bit about how you personally got focused on healthy living ... and when you realized you had something valuable to share with others?

I got started because I was searching for answers myself. I evolved into a writer, because I was always looking for the deeper meaning in relationships or understand my own spiritual evolution better, how to become a deeper, more expanded person. I was a writer on all of these subjects, but I realized that one thing I didn't have much consciousness about at all was the food I was eating. Here I was thinking about how to be conscious about relationships, how to meditate and how to visualize, and how to bring forth abundance in my life, but I wasn't thinking about food and its effect on my body and the world around me. I thought I would be hypocritical if I didn't look more deeply into where my food came from, and what it did to my body and to the sustainability of the planet, and of course the animals whose lives were sacrificed to become my food.

I started looking around for spiritual teachers who wrote about it, and I really didn't find that much. I was surprised, because it seemed so elemental, such a vital component of wellness. Body, mind and spirit, and how they all intersect. Food seems to answer all of those vectors. I was not finding the guidance I was looking for.

I started doing a research and came to very strong conclusions about what I should be eating. I evolved into somewhat of an expert on it, just from being personally interested in it. I started writing about it and blogging for the Huffington Post and got an unbelievable response, pretty evenly divided. That blog turned into a book, which turned into television appearances, and now I'm kind of obsessed with the subject.

Appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show seems like it would be a major turning point in anyone's career. How did that come about? And do you feel that was the catalyst I'm assuming it would be?

It was definitely a turning point -- both for me and my career, but also for the conversation about conscious eating in this country. She has 9 million viewers. They are very interested in what she's interested in. Suddenly she was talking about thinking about where her food came from, and if she was comfortable with the process of how meat, chicken and dairy came to her. So a lot of other people started thinking about it. And it was certainly a huge turning point for me, to have Oprah be interested in your book!

It vaults it into the national conversation. I had been on her show before about relationships. The food show was entirely different. And I think her producers were shocked she wanted to talk about it, given her experience with the meat industry. I was prepared not to talk about eating consciously or veganism. But Oprah's curiosity is what it is, and she went there, so we talked. And everything changed right then.

Do you ever get impatient with the pace of change?

I'm realistic that people aren't going to turn overnight. I don't really get impatient because I look at my own process. I didn't know what I didn't know until I knew it. Who am I to look at someone else's pace and tell them it's not good enough. It's not my place. I'm sharing my experience and perspective. Would I love to see the culture lean towards a plant-based diet more quickly, absolutely. Social change happens at a crawl, and then it reaches a tipping point, and things shift in a big way. I think the more we lean into it, the more we talk about it, it's going to lean more and more heavily towards that direction.

Let's talk about the "leaning" concept. And why you think it's easier for most people to achieve. It reminds me of Alicia Silverstone and her concept of "flirting" with being a vegan, or Mark Bittman saying "Be a vegan until 6PM." Tell me a little more about that philosophy. [Note: I shared with Kathy my own story, which is a little more "Go vegetarian cold turkey," so to speak. And I did much the same when I shifted from vegetarian to vegan.]

Just lean. In your own story, you set your intention and nudged yourself forward and kept leaning. If someone told me I could never have bacon again, I would be devastated, and I think I'd be angry. But if I say to myself "Today I'm going to see if there's any veggie substitutes. And If I like it, then I can do that. Maybe it won't be exactly as delicious or rich, but if it's a good match, it's worth it. My values are worth it."

Because food is so emotional. It ties into our traditions, our family, our history.

A lot of people think it's going to be about eating a pile of veggies or salads. I so could not do that. I was raised in the South. I was raised on every kind of meat, and didn't think twice about it. I didn't want to give up turkey at Thanksgiving. So, I just leaned towards it. I said: "I want to be a person who is not eating animals. I want to be that person. I don't know how I'm gonna get there, and I don't want to suffer or feel deprived, and I want to enjoy my life and traditions. So I'll push myself by trying new things." I tried meat alternatives. And vegan mashed potatoes. I started trying spaghetti with meatless meatballs. I did tempeh bacon.

I found ways to have vegan versions of the favorite things I grew up loving, so I didn't feel deprived. I thought: I can do this. I went the whole day without eating anything from an animal. I feel lighter; I feel good about my choices. I spared an animal today, and I did something good for the environment. Because animal agriculture is one of the top two or three causes of every environmental problem, local to global.

I felt like I was going in the right direction.

I remember the day that it happened. Cheese was the last thing to go. I thought I could not give up cheese, because I love it so much. My parents had cheese and crackers and a cocktail every night before dinner. I loved that ritual. So I started having guacamole and chips or pita and hummus every night. So I could have my ritual.

[Note: Kathy and I then had a discussion about Daiya cheese, which is the only vegan cheese I've ever found that's worth eating. In fact, it's so good, I think it's kind of dangerous ... I don't want to go back to my bad habit of throwing some cheese on some carb, melting it in the microwave, and calling it dinner every night! That comment brought up a very interesting subject, as you'll see.]

When you're digesting cheese, there's something called caseo-morphine that your body produces during the process. The word "morphine" is in there for a reason, because it's addictive. If you're having non-dairy cheese, your body is not producing that, so you're not going to have the same addictive process going on. It's also not the same saturated fat.

[Another note: After this conversation I realized that I could indeed have a packet of Daiya cheese sit in my fridge for days without me thinking about it or touching it, despite liking it very much -- and I really don't think a bag of real cheese would ever survive in the same way. Interesting, huh?]

All dairy also has casein in it. Casein is the principal protein in dairy. Casein has been found to be one of the most relevant cancer promoter ever. That means that if a scientist is trying to grow cancer cells in the lab, they'll add casein to help grow cancer cells.

I come from a lot of cancer in my family. To be able to have "dairy," but not have to worry about the casein, or about the addiction that goes with it, or the saturated fat, it's a pretty good bargain.

You can read "The China Study," and it talks a lot about casein.

I've noticed something, and I wonder if you have too. I have a Google alert for "vegan," and I get two kinds of alerts every day. Blog posts from vegan bloggers, sharing great recipes and information, ideas and camaraderie, and mainstream media stories that are pretty hurtful and negative. The mainstream media is full of a lot of pretty negative messages about vegans and veganism...everything from charging us with self-righteousness and hypocrisy to charging vegan parents with child abuse! Portia de Rossi was recently quoted saying it was harder to be vegan than gay in today's society (as far as acceptance and how people react to you). I wonder if you've seen this. I feel like people take it personally that I've decided to go vegan. Why do you think people take it so personally?

Yes, what Portia was saying in that article is that if she's sitting at a dinner table, and she's gay, that doesn't make anyone feel they need to be gay also. But if she's eating vegan, than there's a defensiveness that comes up. That's harder to deal with.

I think that if you look at mainstream media news, there's not that much negative because the science is so strong. Even the ADA, which is so mainstream, says that a vegan or veggie diet is healthier than the standard American diet. It's safe and healthy for every stage of development, from lactating mother to toddler to old person, no matter what. The science is pretty clear on that, but the commentary on those articles? I agree with you. Some of it can be really volatile and hostile. I've had my share of comments that are like tomatoes being thrown through the airwaves.

I think that a lot of that stuff comes from industry people trying to sway the conversation. Because the conversation is definitely going more and more in the direction of giving up eating animals more and more. You have mainstream chefs. You have every one of the 22 chefs at the Wynn resorts. You've got celebrities going vegan. Athletes. Bill Clinton. Google founder Larry Page. Twitter founder Biz Stone. It's going so much in that direction, that with every change there's going to be a lot of hanging on and defiance and holding on to old ways. I feel like it means I've struck a chord, so I don't mind it.

To your point about celebrities. Sometimes I think they help enormously, but we have to take the good with the bad, like when a Ginnifer Goodwin suddenly quits being vegan. They become symbols of the concept being impossible and hypocritical. Are the very public declarations necessary? Do they help? Or when they cause controversy with vegan pregnancies or babies a la Alicia Silverstone or Emily Deschanel. Luckily, no one is ever going to be looking that hard at whether I eat a piece of cheese or not!

I know what you mean. It was really disappointing when Ginnifer went back to eating meat, because she did so in a way that was callous and devil-may-care. I was particularly confused about that because she came at it from an ethical viewpoint. If that was the drive, then why so casually go back. I think that is a bit Irresponsible, and I agree with you that it's frustrating.

The vast majority of people and celebrities who go in that direction, and who do it in an educated and thoughtful way, stick with it. They may not be perfect. Nobody's perfect.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) created the Power Plate with four sectors: vegetarian proteins; vegetables; fruits; and complex carbohydrates. So if you're eating four those four sectors, you're going to get everything you need. But if you're a junk food vegan, and eat nothing but vegan pizza or vegan cookies -- or if you have issues starving then bingeing -- that's not going to produce good results, whether you're eating vegan or not. Very few people keep weight off with lots of diets -- like Atkins, too -- because the body can't sustain that.

Yes, frustrating, and the nature of celebrity. But you look at someone like Ellen DeGeneres. She features cooking segments and talks to people all the time about going vegan.

[Note: Ellen has launched a new Going Vegan site, too! We then talked about Ellen and what an ambassador she's been for both vegans and the lesbian community -- bringing both to the mainstream in a really approachable way.]

Ellen is a deeply thoughtful person. When she makes a decision to talk about something, she does so in a way that's so honest and disarming, so personal and intimate, but funny, because that's who she is. It registers.

I want to be her when I grow up; it's so impressive.

Humor does that. I love the way she's always showing cute animal videos. I think that's so illuminating. It shows animals as they are, and their personalities -- how they're like us, more than not like us. Without her even saying anything. It endears you to animals and makes you not want to not eat them. It's her take on things. It makes a big difference.

Is there anything I didn't ask you, or anything you want to share with our community, that I missed?

I would love to share some of the effects and nutritional information. I'm always learning. Here's a few little interesting facts:

Cholesterol, a sign of heart disease and potential stroke, is only produced by animals. None in any plant foods. Our body produces all we need, so when we're eating animal products, it's just extra. One egg has as much cholesterol as an 8 ounce steak and more than a double quarter pounder with cheese.

And we can talk about veganism and weight loss: A vegan diet helps you lose weight in several ways. Animal flesh has a lot of fat in it, even in lean meat. Something foundational in the vegan diet is that it's full of fiber, which increase metabolic burn. Vegans increase metabolism by 16% because all of the fiber. You're getting more burned by doing nothing by being vegan.

The health effects are huge.

The environmental effects are huge. The single biggest thing we can to impact climate change as individuals is reduce our intake of meat. That's exciting, if you really want to be a game changer and have an effect on the world.

Plus, you're saving the animals.

People are divided about half and half on their motivations, animals vs. health. My husband wasn't interested in ethics, just in health. But it opened his eyes to other aspects, and now he is veganish. He eats some fish, dairy or eggs, but never in the house. Only when he's out, and usually not with me. But that's a big change for someone who probably ate meat and dairy three times a day.

Well, my S.O. also is not vegetarian or vegan, but I always say: I'm the only one who cooks in the house. So when I cook, I cook vegan, and he eats it, and he likes it!

So he's veganish.

He's veganish! Thank you so much, Kathy, I've been following your work for a long time. One of these days we'll have to get you to a BlogHer conference!

Elisa Camahort Page
My BlogHer profile truly shows you everything I do online...Check it out!!

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