Thoughts on “Oprah: The Vegan Challenge”

2 Feb

I had a different post planned for today, but I feel compelled to share my thoughts on Oprah’s February 1st show. I know that for most people Oprah can do no wrong and criticizing her is sort of like criticizing God- not acceptable. I am about to criticize the talk show “god”, so bear with me Oprah fans.

If you didn’t happen to catch the show, here’s a brief summary.

The premise of the show (or so I thought) was to shed light on how distant Americans are from our food supply (especially our meat supply), recap the One Week Vegan Challenge that the Harpo staffers participated in, and discuss how we can start making conscious and responsible decisions about the food we eat. The show’s guests included Micheal Pollan (a respected food journalist who advocates “eating real food”), Kathy Freston (a vegan book author who helped Oprah with the Vegan Challenge), and a representative from Cargill’s meat processing plant. During the show Lisa Ling took a tour of a Cargill slaughterhouse, the Vegan Challenge was recapped, and Oprah interviewed Pollan and Freston about their food philosophies.

As a student of nutrition, a fan of Pollan, and a proponent for a more responsible food supply, I was thrilled to see the previews for this show. Let’s face it, Oprah has a lot of power. She can put people/places/things/ideas on the radar in an instant. I thought, “How great is it that Oprah is bringing national attention to this very important issue?!” I couldn’t wait to watch.

I was left extremely disappointed- and pretty darn furious. Oprah had a perfect opportunity to shed light on this issue, and she failed miserably (yeah, I said it.).

Before I delve in to the dirty, opinionated details, I should put a little disclaimer on this post. I do not know anything about Kathy Freston other than what I saw on Oprah’s show yesterday. Oprah referred to her as the “vegan pioneer”. Am I totally out of the vegan loop? I’ve never heard of her, so it surprised me that she was getting so much credit for a diet lifestyle that I have heavily researched. Anyway, I just felt I should tell you that the following info pertaining to Freston is strictly based on the one-hour segment.

The Good

I think it is only fair for me to first point out the parts of the show that I liked.

  • The premise. The idea of the show was awesome. This is a very important issue that receives way too little attention, and Oprah could’ve really planted a seed for change.
  • Oprah herself kept reiterating that choosing to eat meat or to not eat meat was a personal decision. This is true. We should do what feels right for our bodies as long as we are making educated, responsible decisions about our food.
  • Meatless Mondays was introduced as a permanent part of the Harpo cafeteria. I think we can all agree that “eat less meat” is definitely an important part of turning around the American diet. Check out the Meatless Mondays site for more info.
  • The tour of the meat processing plant. I thought it was great of Oprah to show such a graphic (for television) look inside a meat processing plant. She mentioned that about 20 plants turned her down before Cargill accepted. Scary. I agreed with Michael Pollan’s statement that we shouldn’t eat food from places that won’t allow us to look inside (this goes for factories, farms, and kitchens). I’m sure Oprah had to tip-toe around this part of the show for legal reasons, but it should be known that the plant shown is NOT typical. Watch Food Inc. or visit Meet Your Meat to see undercover footage of other factories.
  • She made an effort to represent all viewpoints. Oprah had representatives from all sides- a vegan, a Cargill representative, and a sustainable farming/whole food advocate. Did she give them equal face-time? I didn’t think so.

Why She Missed the Mark

  • Veganism was portrayed in a horrifying way. I consumed a 100% vegan diet for about 4 years and still consume a primarily vegan/vegetarian diet. My vegan and vegetarian meals consist of fruits, oats, vegetables, brown rice, lentils, nuts, etc.– foods that are recognizable and usually do not require an ingredient list (or a specialty food store). It infuriated me how a vegan diet was portrayed on this segment. I watched in complete horror as Freston piled a grocery cart with meat substitutes, vegan cheese, vegan mayo, and other processed vegan foods. Oprah’s staff turned their noses up at the processed vegan fare in the Harpo cafeteria during the Vegan Challenge. These are not real foods. I thought the show was supposed to be about getting back in touch with our food and knowing/caring where it comes from. Freston sent the message that as long as a food is free of animal products, it’s healthy and acceptable to eat. This is NOT true. She also sent the message that vegan food is exclusive and expensive,  which is DEFINITELY NOT true and brings me to my next complaint.
  • The Whole Foods issue. I cringed as Freston took one of Oprah’s employees into Whole Foods to shop for the Vegan Challenge. At that moment I could almost feel half of America tuning out. Yes, I love Whole Foods. Yes, I shop there from time to time. No, it is not a requirement for healthy eating. Most people don’t have access to or can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. As soon as viewers saw the words “Whole Foods”, they confirmed that the myth about healthy eating is true- it’s expensive and out-of-reach. IT’S NOT! You do not need a Whole Foods or specialty grocery store to eat healthy or to eat vegan for that matter. Whole foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains) can be found at any grocery store, backyard garden, or farm stand near you.
  • Veganism is not the only solution. The message of the show should’ve been that our food should not come from packages, boxes, and factories. It should come from trees, plants, the Earth, and sustainable farms. Kathy Freston completely ruined that message with her processed vegan foods. Some of those foods have longer ingredient lists than a bag of Cheetos. The point is, we need to be consuming things we recognize that are made/raised in a way that is acceptable, not just replacing animal products with processed substitutes.
  • Michael Pollan was not given the spotlight he deserves. This point might be a little biased because I am a Pollan fan and I do realize that Pollan was already featured on Oprah’s show this season, but Kathy Freston really did overshadow Pollan during this show. She very often interrupted him and spoke over him. As a future dietitian hoping to have a hand in overturning the Western diet, I see a lot of promise in Pollan’s food philosophy. He mentioned on the show that he eats meat a few times per week, but he makes sure he knows where and how it was raised. Maybe it would be ideal for everyone to completely give up animal products, but it is not realistic and stubborn, one-sided attitudes like Freston’s often turn people off. If we want real change in our disastrous food supply, we have to meet people where they are at. Pollan has a “back to the basics” idea that makes incredible sense. Eat real food. Eat food you recognize. Eat food that was made by the Earth, not a scientist. I think a lot of people would’ve really connected with him and understood his idea. We know what gardens and family farms look like. This is where our food should come from. It shouldn’t come from corporate factory farms and it doesn’t need to come from a place like Whole Foods. Unfortunately, this was not the message that Oprah sent on her February 1st show.

So there you have it. I think it’s great that Oprah wanted to share the idea of veganism, but I think she did more harm than good by allowing Kathy Freston to run wild with her vegan processed foods. It was embarrassing to watch Oprah trying to get Pollan and Freston to agree with each other when their viewpoints are quite different. The contrast seemed to be completely lost on Oprah- like she didn’t really understand the underlying issue. I’m afraid she took the “vegan” buzzword of the moment and ran with it instead of talking about the real issue of the American diet disaster. I am open to meat-eating as part of the solution, but I also think Oprah really did a disservice to veganism by representing it in that way.

Want to hear the Pollan food philosophy I was talking about? Watch this 4 minute video clip of his previous appearance on Oprah.

I’ve already mentioned this book several times on Running on Sunshine, but it deserves another mention. Michael Pollan’s Food Rules is a must-read for ALL people. It’s a very easy read full of witty rules to keep in mind when choosing the food you eat. Read it, people!!

Did you watch the Oprah episode? What did you think?

Thanks for reading 🙂


7 Responses to “Thoughts on “Oprah: The Vegan Challenge””

  1. Natalie February 3, 2011 at 12:32 am #

    I was also disappointed with this show. I expected a conversation more about eating with intention and more information about local farmers. And a few recipes would’ve been nice.

  2. emily February 3, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I didn’t see this Oprah show, but it sounds so disappointing; no wonder people have a skewed perception of what eating a vegan diet looks like! From what you said, it seems that Oprah would have done well to just invite Pollan alone (who is incredibly brilliant) and leave Feston out of it. How disappointing that real food wasn’t the focus. I must say I’m not super surprised (not an Oprah fan by any means)..but that’s just sad!

  3. laura February 3, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    I hate Oprah, hence that I did not watch the show. I think she has way too much control over people, and if that woman said let’s all fast for 90 days…people would be right on board. But, girl, your post is fabulous! From what I am reading about the show, you hit the nail on the head. You’re going to be the best RD!

  4. grandpa February 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Oprah cant offend too many sponsors-thus the slant. I have read several articles on Jack Lalanne since his recent death-he was way ahead of the curve on nutrition and exercise. luv ya

  5. Linda February 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    Tuesday I was watching Oprah while hold up in my room at the Marriot in Oak Brook. It was so cold I could not even walk across the street to my favorite mall. I wrote down all the vegan items they were buying with the intention of checking with you as to whether you ate these packaged foods. I’m glad you cleared that up in your article, so I will throw my notes away from the show. I sure wanted to hear more from Michael Pollan too.

  6. a.b. February 18, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts they were well composed. I personally have boycotted Oprah for almost 3 years now. I can not stand the “Oprah Agenda”. She is extremely self absorbed and she has misrepresented several important moral, health, and political issues. She is so afraid to tell the TRUTH that she says whatever the country wants to hear to keep her popularity and ratings up. And she has a strange following of women that bow down and do whatever she tells them. Can’t stand her and I refuse to ever subscribe to something she endorses.

  7. MelissaDG February 23, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    I agree knowing where your food comes from and what is in it is VERY important. The fresher the better!
    My favorite “rule” Mr. Pollan has is food is alive and it should die! (he has a great way of stating is views)

    Great Blog btw! Good for you on daring to go against the “O!” People who voice their opposition are the ones that keep the established – grounded in reality!

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