Going Veganish – 9 Questions for Kathy Freston
Kathy Freston embodies the ideal Blue Zones life. She lives in a walkable neighborhood, has her own “moai” (a group of lifelong friends) she calls TTGs (more on that below) and lives by an especially pure version of the Blue Zones Diet. She’s written four New York Times bestsellers and famously convinced Oprah and her entire production company to go vegan for a month. Kathy’s newest offering, The Book of Veganish, out this week, is the latest in a growing body of literature chronicling the benefits of a plant-based diet. Kathy’s gentle approach shows readers how to “lean in” (hence “Veganish”) to a more plant-based diet. No fad diets, no guilt and no pain! The book is an excellent beginner’s tool kit detailing 70 terrific and very simple recipes, complete with colorful photos.
Tell us a little bit about you. When did you go “Veganish” and how has it changed your life?
I went Veganish about 13 years ago because I realized I wasn’t eating the healthiest – or most conscious – diet, and I needed to move away from eating animal protein. (My reasons were ethical, environmental, and health …) But because I pretty much only ate animal foods – chicken, eggs, cheese, etc. – I was at a loss as to how to do it, so I decided that this would (and should) be a gradual, comfortable process. I wanted my new way of eating to come easily, and I wanted it to stick. Which meant NO PRESSURE. I leaned into the shift. Veganish means that you eat mostly plant-based foods, but you don’t hold yourself or anyone else a hostage to perfection.
Can you tell us some more about the health benefits of going Veganish?
If you need to lose weight, it starts happening really quickly, because when you eat plant-based fare and avoid animal foods, you amp up your metabolism by 16 percent for three hours after a meal. Plant-based food has a high thermic effect, which means your body burns a lot of heat while digesting. Also, all the fiber you’re eating straightens out your cravings and hunger, because it fills you up and evens out your blood sugar levels by slowing down the release of glucose into your body. If you’re an athlete, you tend to recover faster and have more endurance because you’re eating really clean food chock full of vitamins and phytonutrients without the heavy fat that can slow you down.
Within only a few weeks of eating plant-based, not only does your weight drop, but your blood pressure and cholesterol also go down significantly, and with that, a lot of health risks also go away.
More than anything, though, your energy soars. Veganish food is full of life and color and the all of that nutrition just jacks up your stamina.
For someone curious about trying to cut back or cut out meat, what do you advise?
“Curious” is the perfect word, actually! Make it a fun and interesting project: Try some new recipes and check out menu items that feature hearty, plant-based fare (don’t just eat salads and french fries!). Engage your social circle and host a potluck dinner, so that it’s a fun, communal adventure. My favorite thing to do is to follow people on Instagram so I get ideas of what to eat and how to make it. There’s a whole world of amazing food out there, and it’s so much more interesting than just the basics we grew up with. I regularly post meal photos, recipes and inspirational quotes about how to be Veganish, so feel free to follow me @kathyfreston :).
How do baby boomers differ from millennials in their attitudes towards diets?
Hugely. Only 1 percent of baby boomers call themselves vegetarian, while 4 percent of Gen Xers and 12 percent of millennials are committed vegetarians or vegans. See the trend? But the big news is how many people – especially young ones – are interested in going that way: a 32 percent spike in Google searches along the lines of “what do vegans eat” in 2015 alone; market share for meat alternatives projected to reach $5.7 billion by 2020; and 48 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds agreeing that a meat-free diet is best.
So we’re not talking absolutes; we’re looking at a major trend away from animal foods. Which is so ironic that we, as a culture, are heading back toward the way people in the blue zones ate when they didn’t have access to our kind of modern food!
We’ve seen a slew of articles trumpeting, “Butter is back.” Is it? If not, what’s a better alternative.
I hope butter isn’t back, because there’s so much excellent research that favors good ol’ olive oil in terms of health and longevity. There’s nothing like it in salads or pastas or soups. I love coconut oil spread on toasted raisin bread, too. And if I really need that buttery taste, Earth Balance is an awesome non-dairy alternative.
How about dairy? We’ve been taught that milk builds muscles and strong bones. Is there a better milk for our bodies?
Cow’s milk is designed by nature to make a little calf put on a thousand pounds really quickly; it’s not ideal for humans who want to be svelte. It’s full of growth hormones (even when totally organic, and with nothing added artificially), which aren’t good for you. One of the main things you get from dairy is IGF-1, insulin-like growth factor, which fuels food cravings, mood swings, and inflammation in the body, which has been associated with serious health problems.
The great news is that there are so many amazing alternatives: cashew, rice, almond, soy, hemp, etc. And not just for milks, but for cheeses, ice creams, and yogurts, too. One of my favorite things to make is cashew cream; you can use it as a base for creamy soups, desserts, pasta sauces or whatever else you fancy. It’s ridiculously easy: Soak a handful of cashews overnight, switch out the water for fresh in the morning, blend on high, and voila – cashew cream! (Adjust how much water you put in according to the thickness you want.)
Breakfasts are hard in America. It’s either sugary cereal or eggs. What is a “Veganish” breakfast?
I have a few go-to meals: brown rice with chopped dates and almonds with warm almond milk; toasted brown bread with peanut butter; steel-cut oatmeal with berries and macadamia nuts; or a nice big smoothie with frozen fruits, veggies and coconut water!
Blue Zones is all about longevity. Can you talk about how a Veganish lifestyle can add years to life, or life to years?
When your diet is mostly plant-based – Veganish – you are far less likely to have heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, (certain types of) cancer, or to struggle with weight. The research is pretty clear on that. Those diseases and conditions rob you of the good years your body could have taken you through.
The world’s longest-lived women tend to choose a tightly knit circle of friends and support each other for decades. In Japan, they call this a moai. You and your friends have created an American version of this called TTG. Can you tell us what that is and offer any advice for how to form our own version?
When I was getting divorced, I lost about 90 percent of my social circle. (OK, I may be exaggerating, but that’s how it felt.) So my girlfriend – who I’d been friends with for 30 years – and I organized a dinner with a few other women who were either divorced or widowed. It’s not like we looked for people who were dealing with loss at all; it’s just that we related to each other and it seemed natural to get together. We laughed at the same stuff and we connected through our stories of frustration and sadness and triumphs.
We call ourselves TTGs because what we say at those dinners is, “Take it to the grave!” We hold each other’s secrets. This group of women was (and is) such a gift because I realized that I wasn’t alone, and that my friends cared about me. Truly cared. I didn’t have to be “on” with them, and we could all just relax and work through the issues of life over a glass (or two or three) of wine. It’s not like we hang out together all the time, but we gather – either all of us or a few of us – at least once a month, and to me that is one of the sweetest things of life.
My advice on how to start your own moai: Find a few people who you really relate to, for whatever reason – it could be that the common thread is sobriety or being expats or parents or artists. There doesn’t even have to be a uniting factor, per se, but rather a feeling of connection.
My test on who I resonate with is how energized I feel being around someone, how much I come alive and can be myself. Do I feel creative and smart and loving around them? Is there an interesting exchange of thoughts and opinions and trust? Obviously, if you’re tuning out and not really engaged in the conversation, it’s not your tribe. There’s no judgment, nowhere you “should” be; you just want to be around people that fan the flames of your personal growth and happiness.
Kathy shared her favorite recipe from the book with us and you can make it here.