Kathy Freston on Veganist and Oprah vegan episode

By on February 17, 2011

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 very 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 13! 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!

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  1. Beth Hardesty
    February 17, 2011

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    Y’know, I understand where Freston’s coming from for sure, and at least she was the ONLY one on Oprah’s show on veganism to even MENTION animals’ suffering. I was super disappointed with Oprah’s show, esp. given all of Oprah’s influence with people. She (Oprah) certainly did seem to condone using animal products at the same time that I’m sure she was most’s introduction to veganism at all. I’m glad for Kathy Freston’s work to help the world become vegan, which I think is key to world peace.

  2. justvegan
    February 17, 2011

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    I didn’t like her after Oprah, but now I do! Maybe I’ll buy her book for my meat-eating mom & aunts. Thanks Gary for interviewing her! For #11 I wish she said on Oprah and this interview that when it comes to consuming eggs from a human health standpoint there’s way more more harm than benefits. Just like you have the freedom to smoke tobacco, you should never do it even if it came from an organic fair-trade local farm “where they play music all day long” to the tobacco leaves. But since there is only so much that can be covered in an hour hopefully in the future Oprah or her successors will give more hours to veganism.

  3. Michele M
    February 17, 2011

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    I think she approached things diplomatically for the most part. I was especially impressed by how she handled one of Oprah’s staffers regarding her fast food addiction. Calling it what it is – an addiction – really nailed it. I think that alone opened up lot of people’s eyes. However, I disagree with her comment in question 11: “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.” Sorry, but if she’s going to be “ambassador” then she needs to speak about the horrors with regard to every aspect of factory farming, dairy, eggs, etc!!

  4. Christy
    February 18, 2011

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    I had no idea she was so spiritual. I like her even more! Great interview Gary! Even though people will not approve of everything on the show it opened the door and allowed conversations to begin on the topic of eating healthier. Everyone watches Oprah, so Mr. Joe Shmoe might think he should start reducing his meat consumption and so on. I’m happy we have so many wonderful ambassadors for veganism and I like to look at all the good they are doing rather than nitpicking.

  5. Julie
    February 18, 2011

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    I have to admit that I was very disappointed in Oprah’s show. When she said that Steadman wants to stick with it, I was hoping it might have influenced her to also. She’s so unhealthy looking. I thought the vegan thing would really resonate with her and maybe provide that “ah ha” moment previous diet plans haven’t for her.

    She’s so crazy about her dogs. I thought for sure her love for them would translate over to all animals, once she saw the slaughterhouse. For the life of me, I don’t understand Lisa Ling’s response to it. It seemed as though she was smiling while watching the most gruesome scenes and then Oprah announced, rather defiantly, that Lisa still eats meat even after being there.

    But, I’m glad to read Kathy’s take on the show. I wish I could be like this, to always see the good in things even after watching and being witness to so much horror in my line of animal rescue “work.” You’re right about getting more people to accept if you’re kind rather than shoving statistics. That’s something the animal welfare people are so prone to, myself included.

    After reading this, I promise, I’ll try to be better.

  6. Bea Ⓥ Elliott
    February 18, 2011

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    Everything that opens the discussion… That furthers thinking on this subject is valuable. The conversation has to begin somewhere – I think this was a great first step in that direction. Now let’s all continue forward, as we still have a very long way to go till our message is known as indisputable fact: Plants can, and should, sustain us! 😉

  7. Mary Gabriel
    February 18, 2011

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    This is a great interview and I appreciate your direct and passionate questions. I think Kathy takes a safe non-threatening response when asked about the segment on Cargill. Although she makes a valid point about the real graphic realities not airing on national TV, I don’t subscribe that this airing was satisfying. A stand must be made. After all, how long will these atrocities go on? I for one am continuously disheartened by the lack of progress I have witnessed for 23 years in the AR movement. I know it is a process and I try to practice patience, but I get discouraged when people’s selfishness wins out over compassion and regard for other beings. Nevertheless, thank you for this interview!

  8. Carol Gilden
    February 18, 2011

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    I did not get to see the Oprah show that day because of the snow storm here in Tx. I really wanted to see it because I have been dealing with that issue myself. I have been on the fence and try to limit on meat intake. I love animals and respect them very much. I do buy free roaming eggs.
    I like what you said that it is a gradual process and to take it at your own pace. I have tried soy meatballs and they are very good.
    Thanks for putting more information out there….I want to learn more.

  9. Janet
    February 19, 2011

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    Carol, I think you can find the Oprah episode on her website, and a number of other places on the internet, if you haven’t already seen it. 🙂

  10. Sarah Kiser
    February 19, 2011

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    You can watch the entire episode of Oprah by following this link and downloading it to your computer. I did it and it worked fine. It’s the whole show, about 42 minutes long and no commercials.

  11. Sarah Kiser
    February 19, 2011

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    nevermind, sorry. it’s already been removed from the site. 🙁

  12. Johanna
    February 20, 2011

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    I have watched and re-watched the show, and was very disappointed in the message and the fact that Kathy was used as a representative or “ambassador” for veganism (or in her own words “veganist” – leaning into veganism). There would have been so many people more representative of a real vegan lifestyle that Oprah could have interviewed. (Of course their husbands aren’t business partners of Oprah.) When Michael Polan, said meat is not evil – Kathy said she completely agreed, she may not have needed to call it “evil” but to completely agree and not at least try to void the comment was extremely disappointing. When Oprah said the animals do not suffer, Kathy did not contradict her, she went into a thing on chickens being different, leaving people with the impression that beef is OK. I think she did the movement a disservice and do not support buying or promoting her book, there are better books and representatives out there.

  13. Bridge
    February 21, 2011

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    it floors me that, finally, someone actually showed some portion of what goes in a slaughterhouse and people are complaining!!! It is a mainstream step forward… makes me wonder what “real vegans” are actually eating, given how our food completely effects our experiences in life. I understand the love and respect of animals motivating the passion to effect change; yet change never happens all at once. Many of us who wouldn’t dream of eating animals now, did at some point in our lives and never thought about it! Trust the process. Not the one out there, but the one inside each person. Live your truth fully. Be the example without shoving it down someone’s else’s throat. No one responds well to that and hey, if there is a vegan out there who isn’t selfish in some area of life, then point some fingers at others’ selfishness. Everyone has a lovely little (or big) ego that helps them not see what is right in front of their eyes. Love will take us much farther than war…

  14. Ron Roberts
    February 21, 2011

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    While I respect Kathy Freston, she is not an effective spokesperson for veganism. She never mentioned that being vegan is about more than just diet. It is about not exploiting sentient beings in any way and challenging their status as property. She seemed overwhelmed by the aggressively ignorant Michael Pollan. She did not challenge the ridiculous assertion that farm animals lead a good life with “one bad day.” Everyone laughed as if that was a cute, witty comment, while in actuality it was a gross perversion of the truth. I wish she had said on the show what she said in her answer to question 10 about everyone googling Factory, Farm and Video. For those people who might otherwise consider ending their complicity in the mass murder of our non-human animal cousins, this show provided an unwarranted justification for continued participation in unconscionable behavior.

  15. Elaine
    April 6, 2011

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    Wonderful interview! Veganist gives me hope that Veganism will go mainstream in our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls! I personally have struggled with how best to deal with many unconscious humans who are having great difficulty overcoming societal norms and biases within their own minds and surroundings. I have had many moments where I was too combative…WHOOPS 🙂 and ultimately ineffective, so I greatly appreciate such a gracious role model as the Veganist is for me!
    Thank you Kathy Freston and Gary Smith for this wonderful tutorial!

  16. Wendi
    April 7, 2011

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    I saw the episode for a supporting vegan lifestyle and I have to say it was an eye-opener for me because I love animals and always feel so guilty for eating any kind of meat. I have learned to adapt my recipes (that are out of this world delicious), but have a question regarding Kathy. Since she also feels guilty about the slaughtering of the animals when she eats the meat does she feel as guilty when she wears leaver belts and shoes? They looked like leather, but they might me man made. I would like to know how vegans feel about wearing animal products instead of eating them. Thank You W

  17. Gary Smith
    April 7, 2011

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    Hi Wendi,

    Ethical vegans abstain from using animals for food, clothing, entertainment, pets (purchasing companion animals) and products that have been tested on animals (cosmetics, household cleaners). I know that Kathy does not wear leather, but unfortunately wears wool. There is a difference between someone who eats a vegan diet and a vegan. One is purely for self interest and the latter is for ethical reasons. Does that make sense?

  18. lisa
    May 11, 2011

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    I have to say as a non-vegan I found the show very insightful. It’s obviously not the gruesome hard statistic hitting version a lot of vegans out there seem to be asking for but what it did was light a curiosity in many meat eaters out there, including myself to look further into what it actually means to pursue a vegan lifestyle.

    No offense but a lot of you just come across bitter and un-united in what you are trying to achieve when criticizing both Oprah and Kathy for the lack of in your face scare tactics. Sorry guys but that really isn’t the best way to approach a non vegan.

    Think of it like this..If you aren’t a Christian or of Catholic belief do you really think someone standing on a street corner yelling that you will go to hell is going to convert you? I think the approach though subtle was a great step forward for mainstream culture and was done in a very clever way.

    Hat’s off to Oprah and Kathy for raising awareness on a sensitive issue. I am going to do some more rounded reading on veganism from multiple sources and I have both Kathy and Oprah to thank for it. What more could you really ask from a midday tv show?

    Stop griping about what wasn’t shown or thinking you are a better vegan than someone else is because you would rather be obnoxious about your beliefs and see the positives that came from the on air discussion.

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