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The Long Goodbye: (Sung in the tune of Peter Tosh) Veganize it!

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Earlier this month, Oprah created a challenge for Harpo staffers: go vegan for one week. 378 staffers signed up for the challenge, the Harpo cafeteria introduced choices that were animal-free, and Kashi provided bags of groceries to jump-start participants' efforts. The results are in: 444 pounds lost, 84 pounds gained, 78 quitters…. and because Oprah thinks it fun to talk about bowel movements, a record amount of toilet paper used.

I want to give Oprah her due. She has made clear throughout this season that because it's the last, she only wants to cover topics and guests of real significance to her—I applaud her for using her platform to raise awareness about the benefits of a vegan diet.

That being said, this episode was a real mixed bag.

Michael Pollan, the ubiquitous conscious eating expert, was on hand to relay the merits of eating meat in small amounts and supporting local, humane farmers. He summarized his endorsement by saying that animals from these farms lead happy lives, save for "one bad day."

Lisa Ling took us behind the scenes at a Colorado-based facility of Cargill, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world. It was gruesome, and some parts could not be filmed, but Ling (a meat eater) did a nice job of meeting her objective: to understand exactly how the food she eats gets on her plate (she is still eating meat post-episode).  

The issue I have with these segments is that they took time away from a discussion of veganism. I understand that in order to commit to a vegan lifestyle there are adjustments to be made, namely giving up meat. But the Cargill piece and the resulting conversation Oprah and Pollan had with the facility head erred on the side of appreciation for letting cameras capture the process. Yes, I can see that this type of information is input into a person's decision-making process about what they eat, but for me, it muddied the waters. It took away from important and oft-cited barriers to going full vegan, namely:

How can people of little means make these dietary changes? Because–NEWS FLASH!–produce and non-processed foods are expensive.

Pollan threw out an interesting statistic related to this: 75% of our health care spending is on chronic diseases linked to diet. Way too many calories, tons of refined carbs (white flour, sugar, soda). "Cheap food is a great blessing," he said, "but also a curse." Great…so how about a movement to subsidize healthy dietary intake for low-income families? There is talk at the Federal level, but being an armchair cynic, I'm sure it will get wiped out in the forthcoming budget cuts (I'd love to hear about programs that are doing this effectively from readers).

Where do I get my protein?

For the latter, Oprah brought in Kathy Freston, a.k.a, the Vegainist. She has a winning way about her that is equal parts consciousness and pragmatist.  She helped several Harpo staffers throughout the week and sang the virtues of beans, legumes, seitan, and tempeh as solid protein sources. She also gave some shout outs to several brands, including Gardein (a substitute meat product). Now I haven't tried any Gardein products, but I usually have a hard time tolerating these substitutes. Many meatless products contain tons of chemicals, sodium, and an overabundance of soy (which comes with its own warnings).  Freston also put her money where her mouth is, so to speak. "It doesn't sit right in my soul [to eat meat]...I'm trying to incorporate my values like compassion and empathy and kindness and mercy. When I see that [video of Cargill], I have to ask myself, 'Can I look into the eyes of an animal, and say that your suffering, or your pain, or your fear is not as important as my appetite?'"

Oprah replies, "But, they don't suffer." Nope, just that 'one bad day," right?

Michael Pollan interjected, "I hate to cast any kind of shadow over this dietary revival meeting..." to which Freston responded, "Then don't."

These criticisms aside, I believe that because of Oprah's reach, the episode did convey the necessity with which consciousness should be integrated into our diet.  Taking a moment to really contemplate where your food comes from before it's purchased and whether those choices mirror your values (and your budget) is a message worth repeating.

For what it's worth, I also took part in the challenge. This wasn't hard for me, as I'm a rare meat eater, and though I didn't lose weight, I did gain energy. Also, for a comprehensive guide to ecofeminism and veganism/vegeterianism's significant role in achieving it—you know, if you want to take it further than Oprah— check out Brittany Shoot's fine series

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Comments

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Great post, but a random note

Great post, but a random note -- Gardein is freaking delicious. Those are some of the best meat substitutes out there and they don't cause me the occasional indigestion that Tofurkey or Daiya, my best worst friend, can.

I think it's interesting that they reported the weight gain. Most people either totally ignore that it's possible to be an unhealthy vegan (because weight loss us such an important strut to the moral movement) or totally overhype the health risks from protein losses and unbalanced meals (because if it's potentially unhealthy, that's a great reason not to do it... unlike fake sugars, which are totally super different).

I'm gonna get me some Gardein then!

Charlotte, thanks for your comments! I'll try the Gardein products, too - I looked up the nutritional data and I was pleasantly surprised...

Thanks for this write-up. I'm

Thanks for this write-up. I'm a four-year vegan (and eight-year vegetarian), and I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly. I sure wish she would have snagged some folks like Lindsay Nixon (of the Happy Herbivore) or a celeb vegan like Mike Tyson or Brian Greene or Emily Deschanel to talk about their personal narratives and experience rather than naysayers like Pollan (and come on...is anyone in Oprah's audience still unaware of Pollan's ideas?).

Anyhow, big kudos to both Oprah and Ellen Degeneres for using their bully pulpits to open minds to something that has enriched my life in many, many ways.

Completely agree

Completely agree with the Pollan remarks. His points are worthy and yes - everywhere - but I ultimately felt it took away from the focal point...

Ooh

I'm apparently a "bad vegan" because I hardly pay attention when this stuff happens (but in my defense, that's also b/c I don't like Oprah, don't have a TV, and don't live in the States; I also don't read many vegan bloggers b/c it's two parts depressing, one part irritatingly myopic so...)

So! I'm very glad you wrote about it here! (And thanks for the nod to old series!) I think the problem in trying to talk about veganism is that it's about two very distinct issues: the health aspect, and the environmental (sometimes empathy-related) aspect. I'm a vegan for the latter reasons, which complicates my own advocacy because talking about dinner and compassion at the same time is very hard for people, sometimes myself included. Health, on the other hand, is an excellent motive for considering veg*n options, and my own partner is proof. A full on omnivore when he met me, he basically went vegetarian overnight because, as he said, "I feel so much better!" He had no idea veg*n food could be so tasty and loves how he feels after eating. I never said a word b/c I don't tell other folks what to eat or get stressed about what's on their plates, so imagine my delight that he just dug my steeze so much he was on board immediately. (When he has meat today, usually only when we're traveling, it tends to make him a bit ill, if not lethargic and crampy.) As you say, veg*n food can help your energy go through the roof if you eat more plants, beans, and so on. (I'm also quite sure you know this, but don't expect "fake" meat to be anything like real meat and it may be easier to tangle with. I'm personally a fan of Quorn products, esp. their meat crumbles for stews and chili, but again, the whole "not in a U.S. grocery for three years now" thing might make me waaay out of touch with what's available right now.)

The only thing I'd disagree about is the cost of being vegan. Availability of certain items and accessibility of quality (let alone organic) produce is an enormous issue for many people, and *that* can be a cost issue in some instances. But there is nothing expensive about beans, legumes, and rice (especially dry beans, or any of that stuff in bulk), and canned tomatoes and potatoes won't set you back far either—staples in my kitchen. The other reason my partner was so into eating vegan at home? His grocery bill, even with an added person in the mix (me), went down. When you don't buy perishable dairy products or meat, you save so much more than you can imagine. In some cases, there's your extra cash for produce. He couldn't believe we were buying a whole bag full of green stuff and still not even coming close to what he used to spend. Example: Compare the amount of eggs you'd need to use to bake for a year versus the cost of a box of corn or potato starch (what I use for vegan egg substitute; it lasts many months, depending on how much you bake). I not only cut cholesterol (which got my mama-in-law hooked on that trick); I spend a tiny fraction of what I'd otherwise drop on eggs, many of which would spoil and get tossed anyway. Nobody likes to throw out food, esp. if you can't afford it, so in my experience, this sort of thing is exactly the way you start shifting thinking. It's too bad that products like Gardein were touted as useful alternatives instead of, you know, a few good thrifty vegan cookbooks. Processed food is still processed food, and it's still gonna be expensive—vegan or not.

This whole "veganism is

This whole "veganism is expensive" thing drives me crazy. Yes, if all you ever eat are those highly processed meat/dairy substitutes, of course it's going to be expensive! You can't expect to replace every single meat and dairy item with a vegan alternative, and doesn't that seem a little counter-intuitive to the whole "not seeing animals as meat" thing, since all of those products are based upon some kind of meat? (Plus most of those alternative meat companies are owned by Cargill and other Big Ag companies, so you're still supporting that industry.) My partner and I eat mostly vegan *in order to* save money; we buy bulk for things like beans, rice, and oatmeal, and supplement those staples (which comprise most of any given meal) with produce that's in season, which keeps our grocery bill pretty low. And please don't tell me that cooking beans is time-consuming/expensive, a crock pot costs about $5 at Goodwill and you leave it on all day while you're at work. My partner used to eat a lot of meat, but tells me all the time how he doesn't miss it at all (we both cook a lot) and loves how much money we're saving on groceries. Neither of us would choose to go back to eating or buying meat on a regular basis, it just makes no sense.

Guh, sorry for the ranting, but when I heard that Oprah was doing a show about being vegan - and presenting it as a "challenge" no less - I rolled my eyes. It was pretty much what I expected, i.e. completely missing the point.

I completely agree. As a

I completely agree. As a vegetarian who is mostly vegan, I've never understood the "vegan is expensive" thing. As you've said, vegan staples really aren't all that expensive, especially if you buy in bulk -- I've found that even grocery stores in more conservative areas usually have at least something of a bulk section with basic foods like quinoa, rice, whole-grain pasta, etc.

This is not to mention eating out. While I know some vegan restaurants can tend to be pricey due to their specialization, think about a menu at your standard Indian or Thai restaurant. The vegan/vegetarian dishes will be around $9 or $10, with the meat dishes consistently escalating in price.

Furthermore, I've found that veganism encourages people to limit their snacking, which often cuts out the unnecessary purchasing of unhealthy, expensive impulse foods. Go vegan!

FYI Quorn is not vegan.

FYI Quorn is not vegan.

Kudos

As a veganish vegetarian of 23 years, I found the very idea of a mainstream media maven such as Oprah dedicating an entire episode to veganism to be downright radical. While Pollan's "one bad day" comment is uh, *hogwash,* I applaud the fact that this episode did not flinch from discussing the actual ethical issue of killing beings, which is what is required in having meat in one's diet.

As for the economic issue, processed fake-meat products are outrageously expensive, and not necessarily healthy. To me, overpriced eating is antithetical to my philosophy. Legumes and rice have long been staples in developing countries for good reason, and *finally* many farmer's markets now accept food stamps.

Kudos to Oprah (a meat-eater who suffered a nasty battle with the beef industry) for giving animal rights this kind of airtime, to Ling for her investigation, and to Jennifer Tress for her keen analysis of the show.

Great Points!

Excellent points, Shawna and Brittany, about the inexpensive staples that can yield healthy vegan meals. Thanks for sharing. I wish the two of YOU would have been on Oprah; though Brittany I know you'd rather (fill in the blank?)...

Ha!

You're funny Jen! I'd rather be on a game show (I know, you were expecting me to say "puke on Oprah's shoes" or something, but humor is better than hate in this case...)

I appreciated that Oprah's

I appreciated that Oprah's conversation on Veganism did not make it seem fringe or radical. I'm from the midwest and I know how people react with horror hen I say I'm vegetarian (for over 10 years). I think Pollan's inclusion, as well as the Cargill rep., gave the wider viewing audience a way into the conversation. People need to take small steps to change and by showing many angles on the issue of where food comes and making informed decisions, the show did give some balance. I'm not a fan of meat-like products but I will occasionally have some. I think they are expensive and I'm not looking for a substitute to meat. I live in a low-income food-desert area with few to no produce markets but it's a lot cheaper to buy unprocessed & non-meat/dairy foods if you have access to some of the farmers markets.

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