Oprah’s Vegan Challenge: The Good, The Bad, & The Truth.

It’s the day after the Oprah “vegan” show and reactions are all over the map. Online, the vegan viewers have expressed everything from intense anger, to mild disappointment, to joy and elation. Expectations were definitely soaring high in the vegan community prior to the show, which perhaps contributed to many people feeling quite let down. Some online agribusiness-related publications and blogs were pleased with how the show turned out. That should say a lot for those who did not see it.

In looking back at the episode and the 7-day vegan challenge itself, here are some thoughts on how it all went down. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.


~ Mainstream Exposure: More exposure for veganism is generally great, especially the type of mainstream exposure that Oprah’s show can offer. (Note that this is also listed in the Bad things list below.)

~ Positive Impact on Staff: A few of Oprah’s staff were able to share the positive impact the change in diet had on their lives. One man announced he was making the switch permanent because the vegan diet really agreed with him. He had more energy and felt better than he had in years. Another man lost 11 pounds and was able to ditch the over-the-counter medicines he normally needs to get through a typical day.  Another staffer credited Kathy Freston for helping her to realize she was addicted to fast food and was following Freston’s advise to give the vegan challenge a full 21 days versus just 7. Even Oprah’s partner was continuing on with it after the official challenge was over.

~ Kathy Freston: She was basically a vegan island on the show, but did pretty well sparring with Michael Pollan.  She also got a chance to say how being vegan sits well with her soul and brought it back to the animals.

~ Exposure for vegan food products: In various food segments, some favorite vegan brands got a little camera time (i.e. So Delicious) and others even got a great a plug from Freston. (i.e. Earth Balance & Gardein)


~ “Happy Meat”: There was a LOT of reference (Michael Pollan) to happy meat. Pollan continually said how meat is not bad for us and how he gets his meat from organic “humane” farms (which he claimed there are plenty of). He talked about how the animals on these “humane” farms live happy, healthy lives except for that one day when they don’t.

~ Slaughterhouse Footage: Oprah’s cameras and Lisa Ling were permitted to film inside one of Cargill’s facilities. It was a planned filming, and they did not film the actual killing of the cattle, but assured everyone that the bolt to the head was full-proof and fast, and that they were committed to killing these animals with dignity. Oprah also made note (a few times) that even though Ling witnessed the actually killing, she has not stopped eating meat, but is now more conscious about where her food comes from. Online, some ag folks said they were unexpectedly pleased with how the show went and how it showed the “real” truth about the meat industry.

~ Michael Pollan: He deserves a second mention in this list since he was given the floor a lot during the episode. In fact, when people were sharing their success stories, he said he had to interrupt (despite Freston asking him to “let it be”) and reminded everyone that meat is not bad for us. And he shared how often he and his family eat meat. Perhaps he was there to make sure Oprah didn’t get sued again?

~ The Food: Although Freston was leading this challenge and Whole Foods supported it, people seemed less than enamored with the food. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve had a lot of delicious vegan food and very few things have made me scrunch up my face. Freston is only one person and could not cook for all of these people’s families, but she did do that for one family and it made a difference. So support is a big key to a successful challenge. If you are trying your own challenge, please check out our Meatout Mondays newsletter which includes recipes with photos, product suggestions, health articles, and inspirational stories!

~ Exposure: This belongs on the “Bad” list too since not all mainstream exposure is good for a cause. Unless you believe all publicity is good. Some might argue that all the less than exciting food reviews and the talk of how people were in the bathroom all the time did not do much to encourage Oprah viewers to try a vegan diet. Plus – this exposure ended up lending a lot of airtime to advocates of “happy meat.”


Was essentially missing. So many important facts were missing from this “vegan” episode.  Not sure they will all get covered here, but here’s the short list:

~ Health Information: Since this was essentially a diet-related challenge, where was the vast amount of health information that is available about the benefits of a vegan diet for your health. There was literally no real mention of these important facts. ????  How about having a physician like Dr. Neal Barnard or Dr. Michael Gregor, or Dr. T. Colin Campbell on the show to give people the TRUTH about animal products and cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, etc. etc.? If you need more health information and articles, visit www.pcrm.org.

~ Real Video Coverage: of factory farming and slaughterhouses. Not planned visits to one facility. Where were the images of the billions of chickens and how they live out each day of their lives, not to mention the slaughter process.  And how about the life of a sow or a dairy cow? And the list goes on. At least Freston did get a moment to mention the fact that the billions of birds are killed in far worse conditions than what the audience saw in the video. Read more about the animals and about animal farming.  Plus check out some of the dirty secrets of animal agriculture at www.animalagribusiness.com.  And visit sites such as PETA & Mercy For Animals for investigative videos.

~ Other Vegans: It was a show about veganism. How about having some other vegans on the show?  Maybe a vegan athlete?

~ Animal Experts: How about having someone like Jonathan Balcombe or Dr. Marc Beckoff on to talk about the fact that animals have emotions and personalities and are not just items on an assembly line?

~ Environment: Yes, it was a show focused on diet, but how about just a little something regarding our planet and how eating animal products is depleting resources and having a serious impact on the Earth?

~ Vegan mentors for each participant: Freston could not help every single person who was trying to do this challenge with their families, etc.  Support is critical and could have made all the difference for some of the folks, especially the 78 who quit the challenge. Need help getting started? Check out our resources on www.livevegan.org and sign up for Meatout Mondays for weekly recipes and tips.

~ Audience Participation: Oprah is always giving stuff away. If there were samples of vegan foods for the audience, I am not aware of it.  Let the audience decide how some of these alternatives taste for themselves. I bet there are many food manufacturers who would have jumped right in.  We have several generous food manufacturers who support our campaigns and programs each year.  Check out the list of food donors for Meatout 2011 which takes place this March. Host your own event in your community and take advantage of these generous donations.

So what do you think? Was the Oprah vegan experiment a total disaster or did it have some positive, lasting effects? Let us know.

~ Cindi Saadi, FARM Blog


Cindi Saadi ~ I am a vegan, and a passionate lover of animals & the Earth. I believe animals are sentient, extraordinary beings who have lives that matter. They deserve our respect, compassion, and protection. I am also a writer, photographer, artist, and life coach who was thankfully rescued by the best shelter dog ever! :-)

20 thoughts on “Oprah’s Vegan Challenge: The Good, The Bad, & The Truth.

  1. From my perspective as one of the few who is NOT an Oprah fan it doesn’t surprise me in the least that it wasn’t a balanced or truthful “challenge”. Yes, it’s good to have publicity and get people to consider a vegan lifestyle. I suppose people who wouldn’t even think about it, let alone “hear” about it, get exposure to it because Oprah had it on her show but I don’t know that it was truly helpful or convincing. Why not have a show that concentrates on what it’s about and what’s involved. Show how EASY it is to eliminate animal products from our daily life, no play meat against no meat. THAT would be a true challenge, this was just lip service, in my opinion. Classic Oprah.

  2. I do NOT believe in eating anything that comes from any living creature. I agree with Kathy Freston that to eat anything from an animal just does NOT sit right with my conscience . I just don’t believe in killing any animal.

  3. Hi Elaine ~ thank you so much for commenting! For me, the show felt like an ambush. All that excitement & buzz before the show aired. Expectations were so high. And then I found myself yelling at the TV each time Pollan opened his mouth. Kathy Freston was the bright spot, but she definitely needed some back-up. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Hi Patricia ~ Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I am not an Oprah fan either and so I had expressed my skepticism upon hearing all the hype. But people kept saying that the exposure was so great. As you say – perhaps people who never would think or hear about being vegan learned at least something from the show. And I was glad to hear the few positive stories we did hear. But my feeling is it did more harm than good. I think people may have been too quick in thinking the exposure would be great until we actually saw what the episode would include.

    The slaughterhouse coverage did not surprise me (or lack of true coverage.) But I really couldn’t believe that virtually nothing was said about the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle. Even Oprah’s friend Dr. Oz would have likely attested to them. Yes, classic Oprah. I remember one time she did a special about animal welfare and then almost the next day did a coupon giveaway for KFC or some other chicken fast food. Very frustrating. At least if you watch Ellen, you’ll only ever see vegan food prepared by her vegan chef.

  5. Definitely a farce. For an episode focused on veganism, it sure did sound like a commercial for meat. Pollan shouldn’t have been on there (though we know why he was), and Freston was both outnumbered and outgunned (she just doesn’t have a grasp on an ethical argument for veganism that stands up to silver-tongued ‘humane’ meat defenders like Pollan; *and* she played right into his right-on anti-processed foods manifesto by recommended a dozen processed foods!). Also, it was irresponsible not to have a vegan health professional take part in the show.

  6. Thank you for this post. I felt the show was heartbreaking and nothing more than a hogwashing and “happy meat” promo! I do hope many see past this hour long infomercial for the animal abuse industry, and follow Kathy Freston, who was the only bright spot in this very sad hour of misinformation.
    Thank you again and greatly appreciate your observations!

  7. Hi-

    You’ve brought up some very interesting points. I didn’t see the show, and I’m disappointed to hear about the happy meat guy. Why couldn’t she dedicate the whole show to veganism?

    I would be very interested to know if you supplement with vitamin b12. I know that many vegans who are not able to incorporate vitamin b12 into their diet naturally have to supplement with shots, tablets or b12 patch in order to avoid getting a vitamin b12 deficiency.


  8. I don’t watch tv, so I didn’t see the show, but based on this review it didn’t seem like a win for the vegans.

    I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, during which I was vegan one year 19 years ago. I did not feel nourished as a vegan, and avoiding dairy was a great stress. I never went back to having eggs though.

    I disagree with the assumption popular with vegans that says a cow’s milk is meant only for the calf. Between cows and humans is a symbiotic relationship that has become exploitative from one side, but it does not have to be.

    Vegetarians do not kill cows for milk. I have three cows; one of them is 18 years old. We have 3 sheep, one who is 14 years old. We go out and help her stand up 3 times a day, because she’s too old to get up herself. Her wool doesn’t grow anymore, but we get vegetarian, “ahimsa” wool from the other two. It is very nice, and perhaps we could sell a fleece or two to help support our little farm sanctuary, but the vegan manta is that wool is bad so there is no market for ahimsa wool.

    We can maintain and protect these animals, and have a relationship with them, because we use their excess products. I could not afford to support them otherwise. Vegans tend to miss this, actual relationships with animals on the farm.

    Perhaps more importantly, the vegan diet is so extreme that very few people can be expected to adopt it. A lacto-vegetarian diet does not have the nutritional challenges faced by vegans, and it is very satisfying. A meat eater who finishes a panir “steak” fried in ghee and stewed in a chunky tomato sauce will feel much more satisfied than if it were tofu, etc. That’s what matters to the mainstream, “oprah” crowd.

    I don’t see the vegetarian diet as a compromise with meat eaters because being vegan is to hard. A vegetarian diet supports nice relationships with farm animals, but the vegans seem to see them as useless. The vegan movement, in my view, is off balance in pushing dietary restrictions far more severe than what is ideal, so it’s no wonder people aren’t taking it. Unfortunately, in doing so, they are hurting the chances of the the more sensible vegetarian option gaining popularity, which a lot more people would naturally find suitable.

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the episode. Farce is a great word! I also agree it was so unfortunate that Freston had filled the woman’s shopping cart with so many processed foods. Though, I’m sure she was trying to give them transition foods that are like things they currently enjoy. In her last book, she definitely does not push for processed foods. But a lot more could have been done to promote whole, live foods. And Amen to not having a vegan health professional there. That one item really befuddled me.

  10. Hi Linda ~ Since it was a show about being vegan, I think there definitely should have been more vegans on the show. And especially health professionals to answer questions like yours. That information was sorely needed. Yes, B12 is recommended for vegans. And there is a lot of info out there about how different forms of it are absorbed better and differently by various people. I have used a B12 liquid that you put under your tongue. My blood work actually shows that my B12 is above normal and so I don’t take B12 daily. I know other people who are vegan and don’t need any B12 supplements – their blood work shows a normal level. ? So I am definitely no expert and am just offering what I know. I’d recommend asking for your B12 to be included in your blood work so that you know where you stand. Then you can look into the various forms available. If you have other questions, feel free to e-mail me too at cindi@farmusa.org

  11. Hi Paul ~ I appreciate you sharing your thoughts here on the blog. I have many responses to various things you have said. I’d like to start by saying I fully respect your choices and am answering based on my own experiences and feelings.

    First, I am sorry that you did not feel nourished as a vegan and wonder if you had the support you needed in terms of getting meals that included all the nutrients you need, etc. Another person here commented about needing a vegan mentor – check out that thread too. Obviously everyone’s body is different. I know of people who have found a vegan diet to have some challenges and it has taken time and effort for them to get it right for their body. But I know far more people who have told me that they do not find it “hard” at all. I recently interviewed a dancer/instructor for the FARM blog (to be published soon) and she said that very statement. She and her entire family are vegan and don’t find it to be hard at all. Another person I interviewed had cancer and became vegan. She said the hardest thing about being vegan was finding good mascara! So obviously some find the transition easier than others.

    As far as dairy is concerned. You may have already read PCRM’s data about dairy. There is no longer any dispute that too much animal protein contributes to osteoporosis. It causes calcium to be leached from our body. I appreciate your perspective, but definitely disagree. How could milk meant to have a calf grow at a wildly different rate than humans be good for us? There are lots of disputes about casein, etc. Overall, I can’t fathom how the additional hormones that are naturally present in cow’s milk, could be good for humans.

    You said, “Vegetarians don’t kill cows for milk.” I appreciate that you seem to have a very peaceful farm where you live. But this is not how we are providing the huge amounts of dairy to Americans. Your one cow is 18. Dairy cows around this country are NOT living that long. Their shorter lives are plagued with mastitis and they produce WAY more milk than nature intended, before they end up as ground beef. Many spend their lives standing on concrete. Supporting the dairy industry is also supporting the veal industry. Any doubt that is cruel? And for me – not even being a mother – I can’t fathom what would ever make it okay to continually take calves from their mothers. These are living beings that want to nurture and love their children, just like people do. What gives us that right?

    For me, I happen to love So Delicious coconut milk. No cholesterol. No pus. No hormones. And Lots and lots of good stuff. And most importantly, no cruelty, no suffering, no sadness, no pain. And I eat a lot of dark green leafy veggies, plus other plants and foods that have tons of calcium that is actually easier for your body to absorb than from dairy. (PCRM)

    You mentioned you think the vegan diet is “extreme” and is “pushing dietary restrictions.” I do not agree, and again, I really encourage you to check out PCRM’s articles. These are physicians who explain it all very clearly. The vegan diet has been endorsed and recommended by highly revered top physicians. They can tell you how much you increase your chance of various diseases and chronic conditions as a result of consuming dairy and other animal products. Many, many people have lived long healthy lives as vegans. Pregnant women and their babies do just fine. Athletes excel on vegan diets. John Salley is even a raw vegan. I previously thought raw diets were too extreme, but that was due to my lack of knowledge on the topic. The more I have learned (while doing a mostly raw diet recently) I see the amazing benefits in live foods.

    I do not think that all vegans face nutritional challenges, especially when going about it with support and lots of information. I agree that the “oprah” crowd is likely looking for hearty meals that are very similar to what they are eating now. And that is easy to do on a vegan diet. Even though processed foods are not what I would recommend people eating tons of – I’d rather eat a hearty meal with Field Roast or Gimme Lean than animal flesh.

    Also – I know very little about wool, but have seen footage of sheep sheared down to the skin who are then subject to other issues as a result.

    I’m so glad you love and care for your animals. I’m so appreciate that you have a relationship with them. I have a special affinity for cows and goats. I don’t want any of them to have to suffer to produce products that just simply aren’t necessary for us to live. For me, that is so not worth it. I will stick with my coconut milk smoothies! 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing your comments and creating discussion. It helps if we all talk to each other!

    IT is NOT about individual “CHOICE” it LIKE SEGREGATION-IS WRONG!!!!!!!!!!

  13. I think the people that have been picking apart the Oprah show and focusing on the negative were likely lacking realistic expectations to begin with. The show was not promoted as an expose on animal cruelty. It was an introduction to a vegan diet for Oprah’s audience, not for long-time vegan activists.

    Oprah likes to have experts on her show and she likes to spin those experts off onto their own shows. Since Food Inc. came out she’s been positioning Pollan as her food expert, that’s why he was there. Cargill was there, with their best-as-it-gets-looking footage, to ensure Oprah didn’t get sued by meat producers again. Kathy’s husband is a partner in Oprah’s new network. She was probably there because Oprah has an interest in veganism, but also because of the husband/business partner, and possibly to see if she’ll be right for a show of her own on OWN.

    People who think this exposure to billions of people wasn’t good for the animals are really not looking at the big picture and are clearly not reading/hearing the same stories I am from folks saying omni family and friends have declared their desire to adopt Meatless Mondays and/or a more veg diet because of the Oprah show. My friend Jesse owns Eat Pastry cookie dough. She told me that she usually gets lots of questions about what vegan means. But, at her last demo, after the Oprah show everyone knew what vegan meant and they were excited about it! Kathy Freston’s book went to #1 on Amazon after the show. Clearly, a lot of people are interested in what they saw on the show!

    As far as the processed foods go, people are totally forgetting that the reason for the trip to the market was to replace all the animal-ingredient-laden items the producer had dumped from her fridge. Presumably she still had veggies in her fridge and freezer since there are no animal ingredients in veggies. The other thing they were doing at the store was duplicating the meals she said her kids already eat. This show was not about going vegan AND giving up all processed foods AND learning to cook only with whole foods all at the same time. I switched to veg meats, then as I learned to cook better, I went for whole foods and more nourishing items. This was the first step in introducing the idea of eating meatless. Plus, the Earth Balance and non-dairy milks shown ARE staples in many vegan homes. The other items highlighted were Gardein and Tofurky. Tal Ronnen is a personal friend and chef for for Kathy Freston, so she obviously wanted to plug his Gardein line. Tofurky may be a processed food, but at least it’s organic soy, non-GMO ingredients, and a pretty minimal list of ingredients at that. Really, the stuff they showed was not that bad!

    The proof is already in the (vegan) pudding! People have taken away positive messages from the show and are looking to their friends, family, the internet, and Kathy’s book for more info about eating with compassion. Vegans should still be celebrating this victory!

  14. I did not watch it because I knew it was nothing to anticipate. When she went on her vegan cleanse back in 2008, she followed it by partnering with Kentucky Fried Chicken.

  15. Hi Chris ~ I definitely appreciate your thoughts and your positive spin on the episode. And that is great news about your friend, Jesse’s recent demo and how people knew what vegan was. I also agree that they were trying to highlight many of the transition foods which are important initial steps. And I think many people agree with you (even those who were not crazy about the show) that certainly the exposure was important. I, however, stand firm in my opinion that not having more health-related information about veganism during the episode was disappointing. It would have been simple to have a vegan doctor on the show who could speak authoritatively on the many benefits of a plant-based diet. After all, since as you say – the show was about diet and not about animal cruelty; thus, there was a lot more information that could have been shared about the many diseases, conditions, etc. that can be reduced or even eliminated by taking animal products out of the diet. Plus, people always have questions about iron and protein, etc. I just personally felt that part of the information was too slim. A vegan athlete would also be great to feature on an episode like this since many people would think it impossible to be vegan and strong!
    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your comments and for reminding us to celebrate the good stuff! 🙂

  16. Just out of curiosity all the vegans that have pets…what do you feed your dogs and cats because a plant based diet isn’t any good for a carnivore and will shorten their lives drastically. Thanks

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