If you caught the Oprah show today, you may have been surprised to see that Oprah and her staff- some 378 men and women- participated in Oprah’s Vegan Challenge. For 1 week, they left behind their usual fare of dairy, eggs, butter, meat, fish, and all other animal products and even the HARPO cafeteria started serving some vegan options. I thought I was dreaming when I saw the preview for this show because I did not expect this, but I was so proud of Oprah and her staff for bringing attention to this topic. I took some notes to share with you because I know many of you were not able to watch the episode.
Journalist and food expert Michael Pollan, vegan author Kathy Freston, and journalist Lisa Ling were invited onto the show to talk about veganism and being conscious of where our food comes from. Oprah was clear in stating that everyone needs to make the choice for themselves and the show was neither pro-vegetarian nor pro-vegan, but pro-education, much like her show with Pollan several months ago.
Oprah claims that many of us are ‘disconnected’ from the animals, meat industry, and the food we eat each day. As reported by the USDA, 10 billion animals are killed in the US each year for consumption. With such a staggering number, it is important to question how our food gets to our plates.
Michael Pollan thought the Vegan Challenge was fun because it makes people conscious of what they eat. I had to agree with this because when I became a vegan, for the first time in my life, I started reading the ingredients that were in my food. I was shocked to find out that I didn’t know what half of the ingredients were and I still find myself looking up mystery ingredients on a weekly basis.
Oprah’s staff member, Jill, emptied out every item in her fridge that had an animal product in it. By the time Jill went through her fridge, it was virtually empty. She was shocked how much food contains animal products.
Pollan admits to eating meat 1-2 times per week, but states that he doesn’t eat industrial or feed-lot meat and he supports small-scale, local farmers that do not feed the animals grain (i.e. corn or corn by products). Michael’s goal is to REFORM the meat industry, not eliminate it. While I would love to see a meat-free society some day, I do realize that Michael’s approach is probably the most realistic.
As a rare look inside a meat farm, Lisa Ling travelled to Cargill Meat Solutions– one of the largest meat companies in the US. This part of the episode was the most emotional for me to watch. They described the process that each cow goes through from the feed lot to the slaughtering to the processing. Each cow at Cargill spends 200 days at the feed lot where they are fed corn and corn by products. This is to fatten up the cattle where they gain about 3 pounds per day. Each day, 4,500 cattle are sent to the slaughterhouse where they will be guided through maze-like pathways for 2 hours to calm down prior to slaughter. I could almost feel the chill in the air as I watched this somber part of the clip.
It was extremely hard for me to watch the animals looking into the camera, just moments before death. Kathy Freston described how I was feeling when she said, ‘watching the animals in the slaughterhouse didn’t sit right with my soul.’ I could not have described my own emotions any better. It is one thing to read something from a book, but to actually see it happening is very real.
Not surprisingly, the episode did not show the 4 inch bolt that is shot through every cow’s head during slaughter. They did, however, show the pain on Lisa Ling’s face as she watched the slaughtering. The carcasses then go through the process of skin removal, sawing, and chopping/grinding the parts. This part was very graphic, but I was happy that they did show this behind the scenes look because I think it is important to connect ourselves to what we eat. The most shocking thing about this slaughterhouse was that it was supposed to be one of the ‘better ones’ and that many, unfortunately are much, much worse than was portrayed.
The show ended with vegan author, Kathy Freston who served as the vegan guide for Oprah and her staff members during the vegan challenge. Kathy took staff member Jill to Whole Foods to show her examples of vegan foods she could cook for her family. I expected Kathy to show her beans, legumes, lentils, vegetables, fruits, nuts, or seeds, but sadly, Kathy showed her a plethora of packaged fake meats, fake mayonnaise, fake cheese, and fake ice cream sandwiches. I strongly believe that a vegan diet does not need to rely on processed, imitation products, so I was disappointed to see this focus. When I first went vegan, I tried all the fake meat products because that is what I thought I was supposed to eat, but my real satisfaction with veganism only came when I experimented with non-processed foods like grains, beans, lentils, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. That is when it all clicked for me and I knew that I could do it long term.
Oprah and her staff member’s reactions to The Vegan Challenge were very interesting to watch. One of Oprah’s staff members, Joe, said he felt so amazing that he was going to convert to a vegan diet. Oprah, said it was definitely ‘doable’ to eat a vegan diet, but she would be ‘veganish’ from now on, meaning that she will think more about the food she eats and try to eat more animal-free foods. Her partner, Stedman, wants to continue the vegan challenge because he enjoyed it so much. Other staff members admitted that they wouldn’t be converting any time soon, but they did admit that it made them think about what they eat each day. Out of 379 participants, they lost a total of 444 pounds and gained a total of 84 pounds. Some participants said they gained weight because they relied on ‘vegan junk food’ too much. I thought it was great that they showed both sides of the story because it is just as easy to eat unhealthy on a vegan diet as it is a non-vegan diet! I don’t like the portrayal that veganism is some kind of weight-loss diet though.
To end the show, Oprah and staff members at HARPO announced that they will be holding a Meatless Monday each week in honour of this challenge. I think this is a great idea and it shows that no matter what kind of diet you do chose eat, you can always make changes, big or small, to impact the system.
If you are interested, there are a bunch of video clips from today’s show on the Oprah website.
Did you see Oprah’s Vegan Challenge show? What did you think? Do you ever go meat/animal-product free or participate in Meatless Monday?