Oprah and Staff Go Vegan

February 2, 2011

Yesterday Oprah did a show titled ‘Oprah & 378 Staffers Go Vegan: The One-Week Challenge’. Oprah challenged her Harpo staff to convert to a vegan diet for one week. She said some people felt better, some have been cranky, and the bathrooms have never been busier! NY Times best-selling author and vegan Kathy Freston led the challenge. Kathy has been eating a vegan diet for seven years, and says eating a plant-based, whole food, kind diet, can be a game changer in your life. To help Harpo ease into their new diet, Kashi and Whole Foods gave everyone a few bags of healthy vegan groceries. Must be nice! I sure didn’t get that when I switched to a vegan diet! haha  The Harpo Studio cafe added vegan entrees to the menu – tacos, Thai food, pizza, and burgers, that were all vegan. Now if these staffers can’t last one week, with free groceries from Kashi and Whole Foods, and a cafe full of vegan dishes, then I don’t know what to even say about that!

Michael Pollan was a guest on the show. He is a best-selling author (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and The Botany of Desire), and last year Time Magazine named him one of the their 100 Most Influential People in the world, because of the way he makes us think about food. Michael said he thought the challenge was a good idea, he thinks everybody should do this for at least one week. He said we are so unconscious when we eat, and a challenge like this forces you to think about how much animal material is in your diet. Oprah said it forces you to step out of denial about where your food is coming from. Michael said we need to think about our food, and that anything that helps us become more conscious eaters, is the first step.

Oprah asked Michael why he thinks eating meat is such a hot button in this culture. He said because we are big meat eaters in this country, and always have been. So to say that you shouldn’t eat meat, is a moral challenge, an ethical challenge, and a challenge to tradition. Oprah said the purpose of the challenge isn’t to get people to stop eating meat, but rather to get them to think more about where our food comes from, and to be more conscious about it. Pollan said we are not going to get right with our food, and that has to do with our health, it has to do with the environment, until we think about what’s going on. He said it’s all opaque – you go to the grocery store and the meat doesn’t even have bones anymore, it’s just shrink-wrapped protoplasm, and kids don’t even know that it comes from an animal, and that the animal had to be killed for that meat to be on their plate. Pollan does eat meat, but is picky about it. He said he doesn’t eat “feedlot meat”, or “industrial meat”.

Oprah said it is amazing that we have more access than ever before, and yet we are unhealthier than we have ever been. Pollan said we do have access to a lot of healthy food, but the American diet is a catastrophe. He said when you hear the phrase healthcare crisis, or healthcare cost crisis, that is a euphemism for the catastrophe that is the American diet. 75% of our healthcare spending is on chronic diseases linked to diet. He said that is really what is bankrupting us, and that has to do with what we are eating – way too many calories, too much processed food, and tons of refined carbohydrates (white flour, sugar, soda). Our diet has changed more in the last 100 years than the last 10,000, and the result is our health is declining. He did say that cheap food is a great blessing in many ways, but is also a curse. He thinks people do not necessarily need to stop eating meat, but they do need to reduce how much they eat, and change the meat they eat. He says he eats meat in a very limited way – from places where he feels good about how the animals are raised, and what they are fed.

Oprah then asked Kathy Freston, author of Veganist, the question I’ve had people ask me – if the chickens are treated well, and they live in Santa Barbara, and every morning they lay their eggs to music, is it okay to have that egg? Freston said it is okay to have that egg, because it is the product of a natural cycle for that chicken, but that realistically that is not what people are having. Not everybody has access to those kinds of eggs, or humanely raised meat from small farms, like Oprah does. It is harder to find, and more expensive.

Over the course of the challenge, one of the staffers complained to Freston that while surprisingly he does feel full on the vegan diet, he is also having a lot of gas. (My ears perked up at this part of the show, because I experienced the same thing when I made the switch to a vegan diet. In fact, at one point it was so bad I told my daughter if it didn’t stop soon, that was reason enough to give up the diet!) Kathy said it is because it takes the body time to get used to eating fiber, and you eat a lot more fiber on a vegan diet. But the body will adjust, and that will stop. (Thankfully, I can testify that the gas does stop.)

According to the USDA, we eat nearly 10 billion animals per year, including 33 million cows. The Cargill Company is the biggest producer of ground beef, in the world. They allowed Harpo’s cameras inside one of their processing plants, for a look at how the meat we eat gets to our table. Michael said he thinks it’s great Cargill did this, since it is very rare. Oprah said 20 other companies turned them down. Michael said when he did research for his books, it was very hard to get access. He said he doesn’t think you should eat anywhere, where you can’t see in the kitchen. He also thinks people shouldn’t eat meat, if they aren’t willing to look at how it’s produced. Oprah sent reporter Lisa Ling to the slaughterhouse to show us how the meat is made.

Lisa Ling went to Timmerman Feedlot, in La Salle, Colorado, where she was escorted around by Dan Timmerman. There are about 12,000 cattle there, for one purpose only – to get fattened up so they can go into the food supply. They will be about 1,200 pounds when they leave. They are there for 200 days. The cattle gain about 3 pounds each day. They are fed a high-concentrate diet with a lot of protein, mostly from corn and corn byproduct. Dan acknowledged that the cattle are very curious animals. From Timmerman Feedlot, the cattle go to Cargill, where they will be processed.

The next day Lisa went to Cargill, in Fort Morgan, Colorado, the biggest producer of ground beef on earth. Lisa admits that she eats meat, but never knew how it gets from the animal to the plate. They bring in 4,500 cattle per day. They come in about 140 different truckloads of cattle (how much gas does that take?!). The cattle are penned up for a couple hours to calm then down. Then they walk through dark, winding corridors designed to keep them calm. A rep for Cargill said she does not ridicule people who believe you shouldn’t eat animals, but that they are committed to doing it right. She said she believes when animals are handled with dignity, and harvested carefully, that it’s the natural order of things.

Lisa said there was one part of the process they were not allowed to film – the actual killing of the cattle. She was allowed to watch though. She said the cattle come up on a conveyor belt. Their heads pop up, and a guy called “the knocker” shoots a 4 inch bolt into their head, and renders it lifeless. The Cargill rep said it is a requirement that the cattle are rendered insensible to pain. After that happens, they are “stuck”, and that is when the blood comes out. They die from the blood-letting, which they do not feel. The bodies are immediately washed to prevent the spread of diseases like e-Coli. (Now they didn’t say, but I assume the carcasses are not washed with soap and water! Based on the reading I’ve been doing, I would guess it’s more of an ammonia bath.) Then the slicing, dicing, and peeling begins. Within minutes they remove the hoods, hide, and head. The stomach is sliced out. The carcass is moved to a giant cooler, for up to two days, where it is then inspected and graded. The Cargill rep said they save every piece of the animal that they can. They make beneficial use of every thing, letting nothing go to waste, because they respect the animals. Huh? That’s how they show their respect for the animals?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, General Manager of Cargill’s Fort Morgan processing plant, was also on the show. She acknowledged that Americans are more interested today in learning where their meat comes from. She said the bolt is used to render the animal insensible to pain. They are essentially brain-dead at that point, which is a critical element to respecting that animal’s dignity. She said it’s very important for people to understand they never forget these are living creatures, that are due a dignified life, and a dignified death. Now, forgive me, but I hardly think jamming animals in a feedlot, where they are packed together standing in their own feces, then over-stuffing them full of food that is not native to their natural diet, all before sneaking up behind them and blasting a bolt into their head, doesn’t exactly sound like a dignified existence. But that’s just me. Pollan added that the Cargill plant is as good as it gets, that their plant is a lot cleaner than plants he’s seen. He said their way of slaughtering animals is a relatively new technique, a Temple Grandin system. He said it is more humane than other methods. Pollan then said vegans deserve some credit for that. It was the animal rights activists like PETA, that push the pressure on McDonald’s, who in turn put the pressure on many of the meatpackers to clean up their act on how they slaughter animals.

Kathy then joined Oprah and Michael on the stage. She said she thinks knowing through experience, that the vegan diet can really affect you in so many ways, in your body and your spirit, made it more powerful for people. Oprah then asked her the second most popular question I am also asked, and suspect many vegans are – “Where do you get your protein?” Kathy said protein is almost in everything. You can get it in beans, whole grains, legumes, tofu, seitan – which is a wheat protein. She said there are also a lot of high protein meat alternatives. Kathy said, and Michael agreed, that the best way to try the vegan diet is to just lean into it, by eliminating meat one day a week. Michael said this will help people realize that you can have a perfectly satisfying meal without meat.

But he did acknowledge that one of his concerns with going all the way vegan, is it will hurt the farmers in our country that are doing really good work. He thinks we need to reform the meat system, and not get rid of it altogether. He said he also worries that if you get off meat altogether, then you end up on a lot of processed foods. One of the things he likes about Kathy’s book, Veganist, is that she really warns against that. I have talked about this as well. Simply switching your meat and dairy products to the faux franken versions, is not much better. He says if you do a vegan diet the wrong way, you can actually end up gaining weight, because you are now eating too many refined carbohydrates (like potato chips and soda). Kathy said that you can definitely be a junk-food vegan. Kathy said that her husband is “veganish”. Her home is a vegan home, but when they eat out, he is allowed to have whatever he wants. She said it is not her business to tell anybody what to eat. He lets her be her, and she lets him be him. He leans toward vegan, because he has seen too much of the research that links animal products to obesity, and diabetes and things like that, because of all the saturated fat. She advises people to do it at their own pace. Kathy said if you eat a vegan diet for just three weeks, you get a lot of bang for your buck. She said within one week your weight starts to drop, within two weeks your blood sugar and blood pressure drop, and within three weeks your cholesterol drops significantly.

Freston then went grocery shopping with one of Oprah’s staffers, to help her prepare some vegan dinners. The idea was to “veganize” some of their family favorites – pizza, tacos, etc. Following are some of the substitutes she suggested:

  • Non-dairy cheese – Daiya, Soya Kaas, Teese. She said Daiya is her favorite, it is made from tapioca. Daiya is the only one of these three brands that I have tried, and it. is. awesome! It is the best faux-cheese I’ve had so far. She recommended this for their pizza.
  • Meatless alternatives – Gardein, Boca, Field Roast, Tofurkey. Kathy said they are very high in protein. She recommended Gardein’s scallopini. She said it is like a chicken breast – anything you can do with chicken, you can do with this. She suggested using Tofurkey’s Italian Sausage for pastas. She said to put it in a food-processor, and pulse it, then add it to the sauce.
  • Non-dairy milks – Almond, Coconut, Hemp, Rice, Soy. (I have also recently seen hazelnut and oat milk). Kathy said she rotates between them all, but that young kids may like to try the chocolate “milk”.
  • Mayonnaise substitute – Vegenaise. Kathy said it is one of her favorite products. I must say, I tried Vegenaise recently, and thought it was SO good! I never even liked mayonnaise, but I love Vegenaise.
  • Butter substitute – Earth Balance. It tastes, looks, and acts exactly like butter. It is made from cold-pressed oils. They make both sticks, and a spreadable version in a tub. I have tried this as well, and you honestly cannot tell the difference. My non-vegan daughter loves Earth Balance.
  • Desserts – Kathy says there are vegan alternatives for everything. There is vegan ice cream, made from soy milk or coconut milk. There is even vegan whip-cream, made from rice milk. You truly can substitute almost anything you currently like to eat.

The reason the shopping trip even came about, is because the staffer said when she went home and pulled everything out of her fridge and freezer that contained animal products, her fridge was empty. There was nothing left. She said she never realized how much animal they were eating. She just never thought about it. She said she will forever eat differently – not saying she has switched to a vegan diet all the way, but it did cause her to pause, and she will be making different choices moving forward.

Michael said he still feels there is nothing evil about meat, and some meat in your diet is really fine. Kathy said she completely agrees, but for her, watching videos about how animals are slaughtered, doesn’t sit right in her soul. She said she is on a path that she is trying to live to her potential, she is trying to grow, she is trying to evolve as a human being, she is trying to incorporate her values – like compassion and empathy and kindness and mercy – and when she sees that, she has to ask herself “Can I look into the eyes of an animal, and say that your pain or your suffering or your fear, is not as important as my appetite?” Kathy also added that Temple Grandin, who designed the more humane slaughter houses, does not design bird slaughter houses, and chickens and turkeys make up over 9 of the 10 billion animals slaughtered each year.

Oprah asked Michael how much meat he thinks we should be eating. He said the important thing is “for me”. He said we have to put it in its place, that meat is overwhelming the American diet. It is having enormous, devastating effects on the environment, by the way we are growing meat, as well as on the animals and the workers in the factories. He said the whole system is really brutal, and we need to disconnect ourselves from it. He said it’s important to reform that system, not just turn our backs on it.

For me, I think this is what it is all about – and not just the vegan thing, but my whole journey to live more consciously in general. I think in life, it is all about figuring out what resonates with your spirit, and living that. If you are comfortable eating meat, then keep on eating meat. However, I do agree with Michael Pollan. I think if you are going to continue eating meat, because you do contribute to that industry whenever you buy it, you should at least be aware of how it gets to your plate. And you should purchase organic meat, as much as you are able. This is what I did with my daughter. I had her watch a few documentaries, and then let her make an informed decision. That’s what I’m trying to do – be more aware, and live more consciously.

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