Leaning Into Veganism: Kathy Freston on Why Eating More Plant-Based Foods Can Save Your Life and the Planet

Personal Health

You don't have to have to quit cold turkey. In Kathy Freston's new book, Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, she is careful to stress that moving toward a plant-based diet is key.

"It's not about making a radical conversion. It's not about strict discipline," she writes. "It's more about empowering you to take your health into your own hands in a practical and easy way." Freston believes that by gradually working toward a plant-based diet you can dramatically alter your health for the better and figure out how to deal with those tricky social situations, while at the same time contributing to a greater good -- a healthier environment, a more compassionate way of life, a defense of animals.

Through her own research and interviews with experts and vegan converts, the book makes 10 bold promises about ditching dairy and meat products:

  • Your body will find and maintain its ideal weight--effortlessly
  • You will lower your risks for cancer, heart disease and diabetes--and even reverse diseases already in process
  • You will live longer--and better
  • You will take yourself out of harm's way
  • You will save money
  • You will radically reduce your carbon footprint and do the single best thing you can for the environment
  • You will be helping to provide food to the global poor
  • You will reduce animal suffering
  • You will be following the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions
  • You will evolve--and take the world with you

I recently had a chance to talk to Freston about her own transition to veganism, her favorite veggie meats and the need for big changes in food policy and medicine.

Tara Lohan: Tell me how this book came about.

Kathy Freston: I had written about body/mind and spirit approaches to health and wellness and I realized that the thing that packed the most punch all around was eating a plant-based diet. The more I read about how it prevented and reversed the most serious diseases, affects the environment, really helps you to live your values, I realized that this is the thing I'm most excited about. So, I wanted to write a whole book just on the effects of eating a plant-based diet.

TL: The book talks about all these wonderful things a vegan diet can do -- including helping to prevent cancer and heart disease, helping the environment and the treatment of animals, but the first chapter talks about losing weight. Do you think most people are attracted to a vegan diet because they want to slim down?

KF: Absolutely. Let's be honest, we care most about how we feel and how we look, and that comes first. So that is a great way to grab attention and a truthful way to start talking about a vegan diet. I think that most of us want to improve our health, starting with our weight, so it seemed a good place to start.

TL: Better than with the horrific conditions in factory farms?!

KF: Yes. Exactly, that is way back in Chapter 8. No one wants to go into the bad news, the sad news. I wanted to make this a book full of promises, that you get all these great things from just leaning toward a plant-based diet. You get to lose weight, you get to prevent and reverse disease, you get to avoid all kinds of germs and infections, so I thought that was very exciting.

TL: What's most attractive about it -- what drew you into it?

KF: What led me into it was avoiding the process of how animals get to our plate, because I was pretty horrified to see the reality of that. I had avoided it for a long time and finally I thought, I'm being a hypocrite if I'm someone who talks about evolving and talks about being conscious and aware and alert, and I have not even looked into where my food comes from. So, I saw the process of animals being processed, it just made me realize that I have to start doing something different in my life.

Truthfully, when I started out I thought I'm not going to be healthy for it, but I'll stick to my values, because I was a believer in Atkins and I thought you needed a high-animal protein diet to be healthy and slim. But then, the more research I did, the science is so solid about how your health and your weight improves by eating a plant-based diet, so it led me into the next iteration of why I was celebrating a vegan diet.

TL: You write that it's not about eating less food when you cut out animal products, just different foods. What are some of the favorite foods you've discovered since becoming vegan?

KF: I am a big lover of meat alternatives like Gardein, which is like chicken. I love Field Roast sausage, I love Smart Ground meat crumbles, those are the things that I can entertain with -- that I can feed my husband with, my friends and their kids, it is a great introduction to vegan food. Ultimately, I have moved more toward eating whole foods like lentil soup and black bean burritos and BBQ tofu and things like that, but my favorite things are the high-protein meat alternatives because of the profound effect it has on people's opinion of vegan food -- it's tasty and familiar, so there's no loss.

TL: I've been a vegetarian for over 20 years, since I was 12. At first I was the only one among my friends, then lots of my friends became vegetarians, and now, it seems so many have gone back to eating meat. They're way more conscious about how they do it -- I live in San Francisco, which is a kind of foodie bubble, so people are able to get meat from picturesque farms in Marin. Do you see that happening -- that it's becoming hip to be a conscientious meat eater?

KF: No, I see the opposite. I don't see how eating meat can really be hip if one looks into the health implications of it. I don't know how that could be something that someone would be proud of.

TL: For many people the idea of giving up all animal products is really hard or maybe not entirely want they want for their bodies -- but you think it's still helpful to go part of the way -- to cut back on eating animal products a bit even if you don't give them up entirely?

KF: Yes, even if Americans cut out one meal of meat per week, within a year it would be like taking a million cars off the road. If they did meatless for a whole day, once a week, it would be like taking 8 million cars off the road, this is according to the Environmental Defense Fund. I think leaning in has a huge impact. Plus, you feel good from that day, then you want to learn more menu items, you get comfortable. Jumping into it full force, you don't know how to shop, order at restaurants, handle social situations where meat is being served. When you do it one day at a time, occasionally substituting plant-based for meat-based it becomes natural and comfortable. That's the way I did it. It worked for me.

TL: How much is meat to blame for our current problems with diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer?

KF: Percentage wise, you can reduce your chances of getting cancer by 40 percent, heart disease by 50 percent and diabetes by 60 percent by eating a vegetarian diet. So if you went the whole way toward being a vegan, the numbers would be even better. The effects of eating a plant-based diet are pretty profound. All the obesity-related diseases, which those are, are going to be affected by meat versus vegan.

TL: There is an incredible story in the book about a woman suffering from diabetes who becomes, in her own words, "morbidly obese," taking nine drugs, suffering nerve damage and yet her doctors think that asking her to change her diet would be "not practical." It seems that the medical establishment is a big problem. Is it still true that you can go through four years of medical school and never have to take a nutrition class?

KF: That is still the case as far as I know and it is pretty maddening. I have a friend, my yoga teacher, who was in severe pain for years and had canceled a bunch of yoga classes, and finally I asked her what's wrong and she said had these horrible pains and she had driven herself to the emergency room the day before, this was a few months ago, and the doctor couldn't figure out what it was. They were planning to take out her appendix, they put her on all kinds of drugs and nothing had helped.

When she told me about it, I asked if she ate dairy and she said "yes, but I eat good dairy -- Greek yogurt, cottage cheese" and all that stuff. And I said "you might want to try giving that up because a lot of people have a hard time with dairy." She gave it up and within a week she never had another pain again and it's been about four months. She mistakenly ate something with butter the other day and the pain came back, so it was a blind test, which was a good thing -- she saw very clearly that it was what she was eating. But the doctors had never asked her about her diet, had never even thought to assume that she might have an issue with lactose intolerance or some sort of allergy. We really have to be our own advocates because the medical profession is not that concerned about diet.

TL: Many people are starting to connect diet with heart disease, diabetes and cancers, but you also talk about the link to dementia, Alzheimers and erectile dysfunction.

KF: The same problems that have to do with your arteries being clogged and circulation to your heart affect circulation throughout your whole body, which affects your genitals and affects your brain. Again, that's very exciting because we have so much power to change our health to prevent these really devastating diseases and I think that more and more information is becoming clear on that. That's why I'm surprised to hear that some people are going to eating meat -- that's disturbing. From an environmental standpoint you still have the issue of methane, so that doesn't go away. The idea that quaint family farms can put out the output of meat is a fiction because there is simply not enough land to support those kind of grazing cattle.

TL: What about the idea of a truly holistic farm that incorporates animals and plants and both are helpful for the sustainability of the farm?

KF: Well, first of all, humanely raised meat still has fat and cholesterol and it can increase the risk of heart attacks, colon cancer, diabetes. There are a lot of studies that say that modest amounts of chicken, fish or other meat just doesn't have the health power of a plant-based diet. You are still going to have the problems with your health, you are still going to have the issue with the contribution of animals to global climate change through the methane production of cows.

TL: Are you concerned at all about many of the meat alternatives? I know there are tons of great things to eat if you're a vegan that are whole foods, but so many others are highly processed foods that may contain GMO soy.

KF: I think they are infinitely better than the animal food they replace. There is also highly processed meat and cheese foods and the vast majority of processed foods do have meat and cheese in them, so I think if you're moving toward getting healthy, certainly giving up animal foods in favor of convenience foods like meat alternatives is the way to go and then to move even further toward whole foods.

TL: It seems like food safety is starting to become a big issue, especially now that we're seeing even vegetables being contaminated because of pathogens coming from factory farms. There is one line in the book that says it might be safer to lick a toilet seat than your countertop if you're cooking chicken. And you write that, "In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported finding fecal contamination in 90 percent of poultry, 75 percent of beef, and 43 percent of pork."

KF: Can you believe that? It's crazy. The amount of antibiotics that are fed to cattle has now been increased from 70 percent, which is in my book, to 80 percent. So of all the antibiotics produced in this country, 80 percent of them go to livestock, most of it prophylactically so they don't get sick before slaughter. That means that we are getting antibiotic resistance infections. And antibiotic resistant infections in 2009 killed more people than breast and prostate cancer combined. So that is an incredible number -- you look at this stuff and the killers going on behind the scene is just amazing.

TL: This is something of an institutionalized problem. You mention the huge subsides going to Big Ag, especially for corn and soy, which helps make meat seem so artificially cheap. How do we approach this at a policy level?

KF: I think the subsidies, rather than being wiped out, could be better used on crops other than soy and wheat and rice. They could go instead to support farmers growing different kinds of vegetables and fruit -- help those farmers so we can have healthier food at a reasonable price. It just doesn't make sense that we should subsidize food that is fed to livestock so the cost of meat can be kept low so that not only is it costing the taxpayers, but it is costing us individually for our health care, because meat eaters are getting the diseases of obesity like heart disease, diabetes and certain kinds of cancers.

TL: It's hard to do justice to what you wrote about the treatment of animals in the book. It's really something people need to read about and look at to truly understand the horror, which is difficult for many people to do, but you repeat a phrase a couple times in the book from Jonathan Safran Foer: "Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use." Can you talk about that?

KF: Well, that is my favorite reason to be vegan, because there are so many problems going on in the world at global levels that we really can't do much about as individuals and yet we can approach the food we eat differently, with compassion, with awareness and if we get these little things right, like what we choose to put on our plate -- that sort of awareness and taking action on awareness will ripple out into the bigger choices and have bigger effect in the world. I do think when we eat compassionately we become more compassionate people, we become more aware people, and those choices ripple out in different ways throughout our day, throughout our lives.

TL: Anything else you'd like our readers to know?

KF: I just think that the main thrust that I try to keep coming back to is that eating a plant-based diet is a process that if we focus on the progress rather than perfection we can gradually get there comfortably, easily and that the health benefits and environmental benefits builds the momentum with our commitment. Leaning into it is to me, the way to go.

Support AlterNet by purchasing your copy of Veganist: Lost Weight, Get Healthy, Change the Worldthrough our partner, Powell's, an independent bookstore.

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