A few weeks ago I offered some observations on the blog about "Quantum Wellness," the newest book by best-selling author Kathy Freston. The book has already had a major impact on the diet choices of Americans, and I wanted to do some follow up with her and share some of her thinking with blog readers.
Wayne Pacelle: You appeared on "Oprah" and talked about your book earlier this year. Oprah decided to experiment with vegetarianism and veganism. Do you think she’s going to stick with it?
Kathy Freston: As per her blog on Oprah.com, I think Oprah will be forever a "conscious eater", which means that she is thoughtful about where her food comes from and the process by which it got to her plate. She says, "This has been exactly what we intended: enlightening. I will forever be a more cautious and conscious eater. That’s my commitment for now. To stay awakened. We’re not quantum quality yet, but ‘leaning in.’" And this really is the goal, I think, in approaching how to change up the way we eat. If we don’t impose too many radical changes on ourselves or our families, and instead "lean into" the shift, it becomes a do-able goal to eat a plant-based diet. Progress, not perfection!
WP: Change is hard for people, even when it’s in their self interest. We have witnessed the difficulty that so many people have had with quitting smoking, even with an abundance of scientific information that it’s lethal. Do you think there are parallels with smoking and meat-eating, accepting that nicotine is an addictive drug?
KF: I absolutely think there are parallels. In fact, I used to be a heavy smoker myself. I would go through at least a pack a day even though I knew it was detrimental to my health. I could feel the nicotine in my blood slowing me down and constricting my circulation. I also knew that it aged my skin and made me smell bad, but even that wasn’t enough to make me stop. It’s not that I didn’t try; it’s just that my cravings overwhelmed my better judgment. I think it’s the same with eating animal protein.
Most of the gold standard peer-reviewed research says that eating meat is bad for our health (it may age us and sets us up for cancer and heart disease), but those cravings can be overwhelming. The way I quit smoking AND gave up eating animals and their by-products was by setting my intention to be a healthy person—in body, mind, and spirit. And then I moved in small incremental ways in the direction of wellness. As I approached being a non-smoker, I read as much as I could on the effects of cigarettes on the lungs, muscles, and immune system. I joined a fellowship group of people who were also quitting. I exercised more so that I didn’t have as much time or inclination to smoke. And I stayed away from trigger situations like bars or particularly tempting friends. In moving away from eating meat, I read books and watched films that detailed what exactly happened in slaughterhouses. I became very well informed on all the cutting edge research about how animal protein can wreak havoc on the body. And I visited animal sanctuaries and rescue shelters so that I would wake up from the "sleep" of denial that animals were sentient (feeling, conscious) beings. I gave up eating one animal at a time until everyone was out of my diet. I leaned into both changes until the tipping points happened, and I became the person I wanted to be.
On another note, recent studies have shown that smokers quit in clusters. People seem to have a great effect on their peers, whether by simple osmosis or friendly indoctrination; I think that vegetarianism spreads in a similar fashion. If the alphas (the celebs, bosses, charismatic friends) aren’t eating meat, it will become ever less desirable to lag behind in the movement.
WP: For your average American, what are the two or three most compelling arguments for eating lower on the food chain?
KF: I think the average American wants to do the right thing, whether you call it ethics or spirituality. So if one wants to adhere to the principles of kindness, mercy, compassion, and alleviating of suffering when possible (as outlined in all of the great wisdom traditions), it makes sense to not participate in the process of commodifying animals for food. All you have to do is read an account or watch an undercover video at a processing plant and ask yourself if the screams of terrified and hurting animals sit well with your sense of what is "ok." If you disagree with what is happening and remove yourself from the market by ceasing to purchase meat, dairy, or eggs, you cease giving your approval (and cash!) to a business of pain and cruelty. You are then more likely to feel an inner alignment with your values and "right living."
Secondly, if you are concerned for your health, it doesn’t behoove you to eat animal protein. Whether or not the meat is organic or free-range, it has a naturally occurring fatty acid called arachidonic acid (or AA) which is involved in the inflammatory process in our bodies. What is now becoming very clear is that heart disease and many degenerative illnesses begin as inflammatory processes, so you want to avoid inflaming your body as much as possible. Which means not ingesting animal flesh! And obviously, the hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides may also be extremely damaging to our health, as everything an animal ingests, we ingest when we eat them.
And lastly, if you are at all alarmed at the perilous conditions caused by climate change (drought, flooding, increasingly deadly tornadoes), you won’t want to support animal agriculture which causes 18 percent of greenhouse gases. It’s more harmful to the environment than all the cars, planes, and transportation vehicles combined. Check out my blog called "Vegetarian is the New Prius."
With all of this to consider, eating in a vegan manner seems to be a home run.
WP: I believe that people need options. If going vegetarian, or even reducing meat consumption, is as a practical matter very difficult, I think you’ll only get the super-committed who will change.
KF: I agree with you. But those who are super-committed will be the pioneers, the alphas in the movement. They will be the ones informing their peer groups, inventing new foods, and opening chic vegan restaurants. The more those people request vegan options at events or ask for soy creamer on planes or in hotels, the more the market will see that there is a desire for these sorts of options. The change will, I think, happen synergistically in that more products will be made available as it becomes more popular to eat a plant-based diet. Just look at your local grocery store now as opposed to 10 years ago: there are great non-dairy ice creams, faux meats, and frozen meals-to-go. It’s just a matter of taking the time to familiarize ourselves with what’s out there, and then sort of making a sport of finding delicious substitutes for old comfort foods.
WP: In your book, you embrace the incremental approach—that you don’t have to change everything overnight. What’s a good way for people to start down the path of healthier living and eating?
KF: Inform yourself first. Read the books on health, watch the undercover videos, and familiarize yourself with "alternative" foods like tempeh, seitan, and tofu. Then point yourself in the direction of becoming vegan by giving up one animal from your diet, starting with the smaller ones first (a chicken only feeds two or three people, while a cow can feed many more so from a cruelty standpoint, you are causing less suffering). Mix in a minute or so of meditation so that you feel grounded and centered throughout the day. And do a little bit of service or volunteer work so that it jump-starts your self-esteem and helps you to tap into your inner "healer". By doing a few things at once, rather than just focusing on eating better, you broaden your ability for a more stunning and substantial breakthrough.