food for thought: some perspectives on the Oprah vegan show

by Jen on February 3, 2011

Anyone catch Oprah on Tuesday?

I do like Oprah and will always watch her if I happen to be home. Thankfully, I saw a preview for this particular show so I was able to set the DVR.  The show was about the one week vegan challenge that many Harpo staff had just completed. With my upcoming vegan lent, it was perfect timing! My pals, Meghan and Willa, who are also doing vegan lent, were over last night for dinner, so Oprah was our entertainment. It led to a lot of discussion and I just knew I had to blog about it. Anne saw the show as well and she and I were e-mailing about it today. Like us, she had lots to say about it.

So….I have for you ALL of our thoughts from a few different perspectives.You are so lucky!

First, more background on the show. (I’m going to be pretty brief in my overview. For a more detailed account, Angela over at Oh She Glows did a great recap of the entire show.)

378 Harpo staff members volunteered (it was not mandatory) to go vegan for 7 days. That meant no meat, no fish, no milk, no eggs—nothing that comes from an animal. The charge was led by author Kathy Freston, who has sworn by a vegan lifestyle for seven years and just happens to have a new book out (shocker!).  The O cafeteria offered vegan fare and Kathy was there to offer suggestions and help educate people on being vegan.  Kathy was on the show talking about how to “lean-in” to being a vegan and about the benefits it can have.

Michael Pollan (swoon) was also on the show talking about how the food system in general needs to be reformed, not just ignored. He advocates more for being picky about your meat and knowing where it comes from. He doesn’t believe in turning our backs on the farmers that are doing it right. He believes that reform needs to happen to change the overall food system and how we think about it.

The other main part of the show was a trip to a Cargill slaughterhouse. Lisa Ling went inside and they didn’t leave much to the imagination.They described the process that each cow goes through from the feed lot to the slaughtering to the processing.  The only thing they didn’t show was the 4 inch bolt that is shot into the cow’s head to make sure he/she is brain dead and can’t feel pain. I must say, I’m glad they showed this process. You should know how the meat gets to your table. Period.

They profiled many of the staff members and how it affected them. There was a lot of talk about withdrawal from fast food, bowel movements (fun topic!), and what kind of foods they were now eating.

The thing that we all noticed immediately was the lack of fruits and vegetables. There was so much talk and hype about fake meat products (tofurkey anyone?) and how to turn meat dishes you like vegan by using substitute products. They took one woman who was doing the challenge with her family of four to Whole Foods to help her learn how to shop as a vegan. The only aisles they showed were processed foods! Willa asked, “when are they going to talk about shopping the perimeter of the store – starting with produce?”. The answer? Never. It was a bit disheartening.

Overall, we all were glad the show was on. People are now talking (the twitter world was quite a buzz) about food like crazy and that’s a great thing. Anything that can start a conversation about food and where it comes from is fantastic in my book. I doubt there has been this much talk about a vegan lifestyle….ever. That Oprah. She’s got a serious reach.

I gathered the thoughts of my fellow Oprah watchers and thought I would share our different perspectives.

Anne (meat eater and mother of two):

-They made such a big deal about going vegan and eating all this different food, but everything they talked about was packaged/processed!! So you’re replacing animal products with…chemicals?! They didn’t shop for one fruit or vegetable on that little shopping trip to Whole Foods. (Also- um, imagine how much that cart of packaged vegan foods COST??)  You could have prepared your own vegan entrees with fresh ingredients for less, and much tastier I’m sure.

-What is Michael Pollan’s mantra? Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants?  I was just sitting there waiting WAITING for him to say this to Oprah and that vegan woman (with the facelift!! Seriously!) but he didn’t say anything!! That sort of shocked me.

-And I can’t not mention Cargill. I was impressed they let the crew in to their meat packing plant, given that most companies have denied access in the past. I thought the whole process was pretty yucky, but not so much that I’d give up beef:) Oh, and the bolt to the cow’s head? I’ll always think of No Country for Old Men.

Note: Anne was eating puppy chow while watching the show. Just thought you should know. :)

Meghan (a long-time vegetarian and future vegan lent participant):

Meet people where they are at. Period. Yes I find it sad and, dare I say, irresponsible that the show had ZERO mention of shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and focusing on incorporating veggies and fruits into your diet. But I get it. Many of the people who were watching that show can’t even begin to comprehend getting any form of fruit or vegetable in their lives aside from lettuce and tomato on a bun. So for the purpose of the general public I like that she highlighted meat alternatives for pretty much everything as well as a cheese alternative. While all of these processed foods freak me out-they certainly have their place in many people’s lives and a non-meat brat is better for your cholesterol than a real one-I suppose. After being vegetarian for nearly 20 years I look at fake meat products as my junk food and grains and veggies as my real food. Can you imagine if even 10% of Americans could say that. It would have a profound impact on the health of our nation.

Michael Pollan is my hero. In some ways at least. He keeps it real. He keeps it simple. We need to talk about reforming our emotions, beliefs, ideals etc. surrounding food not just ditch everything and turn vegan. That show sensationalized it a wee bit much to the point where it will be a fad for many of the viewers and well… we all know-fads fade. We just need to think about where it ALL comes from. ALL OF IT. Who cares if Cargill goes broke? But I care when we see farmers losing their livelihoods because Betty Crocker says just pour, mix and bake. There are safe, healthy, sustainable ways to eat all of the foods you love… so give it a shot.

Those of you reading this blog get it…. But for those who don’t, if we can make any difference in their lives… baby steps… baby steps…. Baby steps…. If we can just get people to think about what they are eating-it would be huge.

I can go on and on as a vegetarian and one who works for the American Heart Association but alas I will sush-good on ya to everyone who gives a healthier lifestyle a shot! At the end of the day I love my cheese, ice cream and eggs. And I make poor food choices knowingly and often. It’s just awesome to know what goes in your body. So the unhealthy things are choices. Yummy, yummy choices!

Willa (recovering vegetarian, current meat eater, future vegan lent participant):

I definitely differ with Meghan on the point of meat vs. processed vegetarian products. From a health standpoint I think you are better off eating a grass fed free range rib eye steak than a tofu pup, in my humble opinion.  But I understand where she is coming from.

The main points that stuck with me after watching the show were:

  • Know where your food comes from. Cows and chickens are not born in seran wrapped packages. If you can, check out your local farmer’s market or visit a farm. These people are the fabric of our society.
  • There was little to no talk about the importance of eating a balanced, plant based diet. The focus was overwhelmingly on processed, convenience foods. So, don’t replace bad with bad.
  • They seemed to avoid the discussion about the cost of food. Good food does cost more, but it is worth it. You pay now or you pay later. And, it is easier to pay more for food when you meet the people who grow it; to make that connection of how hard they work for this.
  • Take baby steps, like Meghan said – meatless Monday is a good idea. Or, maybe do something like Mark Bittman (He’s vegan until dinner). Or be a vegan at home. But, you don’t have to go vegan to make a change in the system,  the environment, or your health. We don’t want to put the good farmers out of business. We just need to revamp our relationship with food.
  • People don’t like to work at anything. If it takes thought/consideration, they generally want nothing to do with it. This really isn’t that hard but there is so much resistance. Like Meghan said, I suppose we have to meet people where they are at.

Jen (part-time vegetarian, future vegan lent participant, married to a hunter):

I agree with many of the points that my pals above noted. While I get Meghan’s point about meeting people where they are at, I struggle with suggesting processed fake meat and other processed products. Once in awhile? Sure. To try something different? Great. But vegan or not, can we talk about the importance of produce?!  On Monday, the USDA published the latest dietary guidelines. One thing I was super excited to see was their push on vegetables. In fact, they suggest making sure half of your plate is made up of vegetables. YES! That’s what I’m talking about. Vegetables are nutrient dense (lots of good stuff for not a lot of calories) and dare I say tasty?  (By the way, my pal Heather in CO did a great post on the guidelines. She’s a Registered Dietician so I trust her. :)) The fact that vegetables or fruit was not talked about AT ALL on Oprah drove me crazy. I think it’s one of the most appealing parts of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.  I was also bummed that Michael Pollan didn’t say anything (or if he did, it didn’t make the cut).  Sorry Michael, I love ya, but I wanted you to speak up more.

Not once did anyone talk about the cost of being a vegan. They way they shopped at Whole Foods (with all their processed fake stuff), the cost would have been enormous. I’m all for spending more on food. Our mindset of cheap food = good bothers me. However, I don’t think you need to break the bank. In fact, eating a vegan diet can be incredibly thrifty. No Meat Athlete recently did a great post on this. Great meals don’t have to be spendy and they can include vegetables and yummy sources of protein. And they include all things you’ve hear d of.

I’ve seen the meat processing plants before (in Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation) and it certainly changed the way I think about meat. I’m very picky about where mine comes from. Most of what we eat at home comes from things that Brette has brought home from hunting expeditions. I know everything there is to know about how it got to my plate. I can live with that. I also have gotten to know a few farmers at the Farmer’s Market and I love being able to support them and what they are doing. Many of those farmer’s have their meat available at the Seward co-op here in town, which is also a major bonus. However, I don’t eat a lot of meat, maybe a couple times a week. Just like Michael. (sorry, I love him, what can I say?)

The day after this show aired, Mark Bittman’s first op-ed piece in the New York Times was published. It offers more food for thought along with some suggestions on how to actually reform our system. It’s definitely worth a read.

So, I’m curious of other’s thoughts. If you saw the episode, what did you think? If you didn’t, what do you think about living vegan for a week? Would that be a challenge? Did you agree or disagree with any of our thoughts?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Heather C February 3, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Jen, I love this post! Sadly, I couldn’t watch the episode (no DVR, crazy I know ;) ) but have seen so much written about it the past few days. It was so interesting to read the different perspectives here, though! I was pleasantly surprised with the Dietary Guidelines’ mention of “alternative” milk/meat/protein sources, but sadly there’s little education on how much of those food groups add up for sufficient servings. Still work to do, but we’ve got a good start!

On the other note, it’s sad to me that they focused so much on the “fake” meat sources. That takes away from the appeal of a plant-based diet being focused on the VARIETY of delicious and healthy natural options like produce, nuts, etc! Again, it’s a start, but there’s still a lot to be learned. :)

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2 Alex February 3, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I think they approached vegan diets as something of a panacea, which is a mistake, and not supported by current data. The avoidance of animal products is not, in and of itself, healthy. If you think eating meat (or dairy, or eggs) is unethical, then that’s clearly your prerogative. But to suggest that textured vegetable protein is healthier than actual meat is, I think, false. Everyone ought to eat a plant based diet — that is, a diet composed mostly of largely unrefined plant foods. Basically, everyone should eat fruit, vegetables and whole grains. I think meat and animal products have a place in a diet that already includes sufficient amounts of those items, as dense sources of bio-available zinc, iron, B12, protein, and other nutrients.

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3 Henriet February 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Ok, not to be completely cynical but could it be, just maybe, that all those fake meat products they showed actually contain many ingredients produced by Cargill? After all, not only does Cargill own a huge part of the meat market, it’s also one of the biggest soy bean and soy protein producers. For instance, Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg and Kellogg is undoubtedly a big constumor of Cargill. So the more soy products vegans eat, the more money Cargill is going to make. Promoting honest fruits and vegetables from local farms doesn’t make much money and after all that’s the business that both Cargill AND Oprah are in.

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4 jen February 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Excellent point. Dang corporate America.

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5 Henriet February 5, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Yeah, I think it’s so hard to know where our food is coming from, especially when brands are owned by other corporations and those corporations provide little insight into where they get their ingredients from. I did a little internet searching to see if I could find out Cargill’s biggest customers or where Kellogg or Morningstar buy their ingredients but no such luck of course.

Still, I’m excited about your vegan challenge and look forward to reading about it! I’ll do my best to be Jon’s vegan buddy but might have to cave in once in a while and eat some cheese. I’m Dutch after all.

Oh, and will you eat honey or is that also off the table? Was just wondering about that.

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6 jen February 6, 2011 at 8:48 am

I realize going vegan would strike the souls of all the Dutch. :) I will not be eating honey. Maple Syrup and Agave to the rescue!

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7 anne February 7, 2011 at 10:30 am

I may be able to find out some more info about Cargill for you:)

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