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.

THE GOOD:

~ 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)

THE BAD:

~ “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.”

THE TRUTH:

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

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