Going Vegan Doesn't Mean Missing Out On Favorites

In the first of a two-part series on veganism, Renee Montagne talks to health and wellness expert Kathy Freston about the benefits and challenges of being vegan. Vegans enjoy a plant-based diet and don't eat meat, fish or dairy. Freston says as a vegan you can still have comfort food, it's just a healthier version of what you used to eat.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

All right, the holiday meat fest is nearly behind us: candied ham, pork tamales, roast beef, rivers of giblet gravy. How about a second helping?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, maybe a salad or some beans or something, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, actually this morning is the perfect moment to contemplate a plant-based diet, a plateful of greens maybe; a diet without meat, fish or dairy. Veganism has moved off the fringe with famous names like Bill Clinton and Venus Williams swearing off foods derived from animals.

Today and tomorrow, we'll explore what it means to go vegan, starting with advocate and author of "Veganist," Kathy Freston. She's quick to point out, though, that being vegan doesn't have to mean giving up the pleasures of a fine meal or even a martini.

KATHY FRESTON: Well, I am not a gal who likes anything strict or disciplined or, you know, anything. I grew up in Doraville, Georgia and I ate barbecued ribs and chicken fried steak, and all kinds of cheesy grits, you know, and I never even thought twice about it. I think that food ties us to our community and our traditions, and it's the thing that makes us feel good and connected. So I wouldn't want to eat in any way that made me feel like I was missing out on something.

So, vegan basically is some people go into it for health reasons. Some people, like me, went into it because they saw what was happening to animals as they became food. To me, it's about leaning into it. It's about gradually moving away from animal foods and towards plant-based.

MONTAGNE: It's certainly entered the mainstream. In a lot of places around the country, restaurant chains now - some of them offer vegan dishes. But they're still nutritionists and other experts who would say that a vegan diet just simply does not offer enough of the important nutrients that we get from animal products.

Just some examples of what are the best things that one can eat as a vegan that would substitute for what animal products have given us, in terms of nutrition.

FRESTON: You know, it's funny because I love the things that I grew up eating. And so, I'd stick with that stuff. For instance, at my house, once a week we have Mexican food. So instead of a chicken burrito, I will have a black bean burrito. And I still have it with guacamole and salsa and rice, and there's nondairy sour cream that I can have if I want that. I have chili, so I make it with non-meat crumbles, the kind that you can get in your grocer's freezer.

But just to move in the direction of whole grains and beans and vegetables and fruits. So basically: rice and quinoa, barley, rye; the new meat alternatives that are on the market that people who aren't necessarily into eating whole grains and beans, they're going to prefer those things.

MONTAGNE: You have written that you are among the many vegans who've given up animal products because getting meat and even, say, eggs to the table, can involve problems for the environment, animal cruelty. Why not just buy from an organic local farm?

FRESTON: Well, certainly an organic family-owned local farm is better. A lot of people don't have access to that. Besides, you bring up organic and I think that's a really good point. There's not enough acreage in the world to supply our kind of appetite. There just isn't. The only answer really is to decrease our consumption of meat.

MONTAGNE: For me, one of the statistics that jumps out is how much grain or food it takes to come up with just one pound of steak. It would be about, for one pound of steak, 20 or 30 pounds of feed.

FRESTON: Exactly. Well, it takes many more times the resources to grow the feed, to ship the feed to the farms, to operate the huge farms, to slaughter the animals, to refrigerate the carcasses, to shift the carcasses - all of that stuff. It takes exponentially less resource of intensive to eat the grains and soy directly. And on average, it takes more than 10 times as much fossil fuel also, to make one calorie of animal protein as it does to make one calorie of plant protein.

MONTAGNE: Your latest book is called "Lean." And you've been mentioning leaning into veganism.

FRESTON: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: So you are reasonably open about how people approach this. And I'm wondering if you think that a Meatless Monday, or even like a meat only on Sunday, sort of way of going at it, is that value in your opinion? Or does one really have to, at some point, get to being a vegan?

FRESTON: No, I think it's all about leaning in. That's the way I did it. I certainly didn't do anything overnight, I would never recommend that. I mean, I have a 2 percent rule myself. And that is if there's 2 percent of some animal products in a food, I'm not going to make myself insane. Like, I'm not going to grill the waiter and say are you sure there's no eggs in that pasta.

I'm going to do the best that I can. And check this out: If every American had one meat-free day per week, it would be the same as taking eight million cars off American roads in a year.

MONTAGNE: Could you offer a favorite dish or a favorite meat substitute that anyone, just about anywhere, can find, prepare and enjoy?

FRESTON: Well, you know, I'm going to stick with the basics here: beans and legumes. You can find them anywhere and it's pennies per meal. My favorite meal is I'll make like a three-bean soup and I freeze half of it. But I'm also a big fan of meat alternatives, so I can still have my chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans, but I just have the chicken from a plant-based thing. And I make my mashed potatoes with soy or almond milk.

All that stuff is, to me, really comforting. I want my comfort food. I just want a healthier version of it.

MONTAGNE: Kathy Freston's most recent book on eating a vegan diet is called "The Lean."

Thank you very much for joining us.

FRESTON: Thank you so much for having me.

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MONTAGNE: And tomorrow: recipes. We'll hear from the author of "Vegan Soul Kitchen," that's given the vegan treatment to black-eyed peas - just as tasty without the ham hocks - and chicken and dumplings minus the chicken.

BRYANT TERRY: It takes some creativity. It's accepting outside of the box for people who might not be adept at cooking or just learning about the different foods out there. But a vegan diet can provide a great opportunity to explore various foods.

MONTAGNE: Chef and activist Bryant Terry offers recipes and stories from his new cookbook, "The Inspired Vegan."

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.

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