Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oprah Staffers Tackle the Harpo Vegan Challenge - A Recap and Review

I just finished watching the replay of Oprah and 378 Staffers Go Vegan: The One-Week Challenge. The show featured Veganist author Kathy Freston and author Michael Pollan.  I am a big fan of Michael Pollan.  His books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food were two of the most fascinating I have ever read.

The episode began with a discussion with Mr. Pollan.  He talked about the crisis of the American diet.  Currently, 75% of our health care spending is on chronic disease linked to diet.  These are problems caused by too many calories, too much processed food and too many refined carbohydrates.  Our diet has changed more in the last 100 years than it has in the last 100,000 years, and not necessarily for the better.  We need to be more mindful about where our food comes from and the food choices that we make.

Next up was Lisa Ling visiting a cattle feedlot and a slaughterhouse to see how our meat is made. We eat 10 billion animals a year including 33 million cows. Cargill, the biggest producer of ground beef in the world, allowed the Oprah cameras inside one of their processing plants. (By the way, Oprah noted that 20 other companies turned them down.) I have to admit that I had to fast forward through part of the processing plant segment. I have read enough about processing plants to know that I would have a very hard time watching it. Yes, I do eat meat, but at times it is a struggle for me and I do go through vegetarian periods, just not long-lasting. Pollan did state “You shouldn’t eat meat if you’re not willing to look at how it’s produced,” which made me feel guilty for not it looks like another stint of vegetarianism for me.

Oprah then spoke with Kathy Freston, who led the Harpo Vegan Challenge. The tag line of her book is "Lose weight, get healthy, change the world" and that was the goal of the challenge as well.  A big question for Ms. Freston was, where do you get your protein? The answer: beans, whole grains, legumes, tofu, seitan, tempeh, etc. An idea discussed for those considering a vegan diet is to "lean into" a vegan diet by trying it for just one day a week. That way you can discover that you can have a satisfying meal without meat. One concern that Pollan expressed with going completely vegan is the harm to farmers who raise meat responsibly. He is also concerned that many who go "off meat" completely rely heavily on processed foods to substitute for the meat. So, it is important to not become a vegan junk food addict. They also suggested the idea of being "veganish", which is to adopt the principals of veganism to your diet even if you aren't going to be completely vegan. You will still see health benefits.

In the next segment, Kathy helped an Oprah staffer go shopping for some meat-free staples at Whole Foods.  They took the family's go-to meals and looked for vegan variations of them.  Kathy said there are vegan alternatives for everything and highlighted many "fake meat" products.  She also offered substitutes for cow's milk such as rice, almond and soy milk.  The thing that bothered me about this segment is that the resulting shopping card looked like a cart full of processed foods, which is exactly what Michael Pollan warned against earlier in the show.  The staffer's first meal prepared at home was pasta with meat alternative sauce and vegan pizza, which her family HATED!  However, she admitted that she prepared the sauce incorrectly and made a later version that was much better.

Oprah then checked in with other staffers who had participated in the challenge.   I was shocked that one woman said that she only pooped once per week before the challenge!  I didn't even realize that was possible.  But, now that she has started the vegan diet, it's a daily occurrence.   As a recap of challenge results, there was a total of  444 pounds lost, 84 pounds gained, and 78 quitters, and a record amount of toilet paper used.  One staffer even lost 11 pounds in one week and said that by the third day he felt better than the had in 10 years.  However, he did say that before the challenge he ate horribly.

After hearing all the staffers talk about their experience and their future plans with the diet, Michael Pollan said "I hate to cast any kind of shadow over this dietary revival meeting" and said there is nothing evil about meat and having some meat in your diet is fine.  Kathy Preston, however, said that after watching the meat-processing video it doesn't sit right with her soul and questioned whether she can she look into the eyes of an animal and say "your pain and suffering isn't as important as my appetite".  There was further discussion about the humane and inhumane raising of animals for food.  Pollan only lightly touched on the devastation meat has on our environment.  I think that's a very important aspect of veganism and wish that it has been highlighted a bit more. 

Overall I am happy that Oprah aired this show.  It's a fascinating and important topic and really just too much for one hour.  Although I may not completely abandon animal products, I will be more conscientious in my choices and further incorporate vegan choices into my diet.

If you want to learn more and try a vegan diet yourself, check out the Vegan Starter Kit on Oprah's web site with recipes, meal plans and advice.

All photos courtesy of

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