A Conversation with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau: author of The 30-Day Vegan Challenge
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler, editor of Edible East Bay
I came of age as a cook in the early 1970s. It was a time when prevailing ideas and values circulating through the counterculture had many of us turning toward plant-based diets. Interest in Eastern spiritual practice was part of what prompted that rethinking of the standard American diet, but it could also be said that Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971, had a strong influence. Lappé’s book is considered to be a seminal work in exposing the negative effects of industrial, grain-fed meat production on the world ecosystem. Lappé’s primary concern was over the inefficiency of giving grain to cattle when it could go directly toward addressing world hunger, but the book provoked a conversation that has continued into the present day with current concerns reaching into both the debate over climate change and the obesity epidemic.
In my work as editor of this magazine, I have many opportunities to join in discussion with passionate advocates of vegetarian, vegan, and raw vegan diets, as well as with the growing ranks of urban homesteaders taking up animal husbandry as a way to regain a direct connection to their animal-based food resources. Various articles in this issue of Edible East Bay show how the conversation is escalating into impassioned debate, and so it seems most appropriate to bring in the voice of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, an Oakland resident, vegan dietitian, vocal spokesperson for animal rights, and the founder and director of Compassionate Cooks. Her new book, The 30-Day Vegan Challenge, is due out August 23 from Ballantine Books.
In The 30-Day Vegan Challenge, Colleen boldly states her ethical position against killing animals for human consumption, but she doesn’t especially dwell on this reason for pursuing a plant-based diet. The book is a beautifully impressive guidebook for those who might want to embark on a vegan diet, for whatever reason. With the book’s series of 30 essays (plus epilogue, some recipes, and various resource lists), Colleen offers expert coaching in how to navigate through what might seem like drastic changes in lifestyle. She points the way with information and advice on such subjects as ingredients, shopping, balancing one’s nutrient intake, combating cravings, and how to be a gracious vegan guest at a private home or restaurant.
Over the course of our email communications, it was a pleasure to interact with this deeply articulate member of the local vegan community. I posed questions I have carried since my early diet explorations and learned a lot through Colleen’s candid responses, which are representative of the kind of information she includes in The 30-Day Vegan Challenge.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler (CAK): I’ve always wondered why vegan and vegetarian diets embrace “fake meats” rather than simply standing proud for the deliciousness of plant-based foods prepared well. It seems to be a kind of play-acting to cover for living in a carnivorous culture. Why do you think these foods persist?
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (CPG): Let’s back up for a second. The word “meat” originally meant “that which was eaten (solid food) to distinguish it from that which was drunk (beverages),” and we still use the word when we refer to such things as “nut meat” or “coconut meat.” I absolutely abhor such words as “fake” and “faux” and “alternative” and “substitute” to talk about plant-based foods. I don’t eat “fake” meat, but I do eat “grain-based” meat and “wheat-based” meat and “nut-based” meat, for instance. I just don’t eat “animal-based” meat. And let’s be clear here. When people stop eating animals, they don’t necessarily do so because they stop liking the taste. They stop doing so because they don’t want to contribute to violence against animals or because they want to be healthy. When you stop eating animals, you don’t stop having the desire to chew. And that’s what that’s all about. We don’t crave the flesh of animals (we’re not obligate carnivores), but we do crave texture. We crave fat, salt, flavor, and familiarity, and all of those things are found in plant foods.
CAK: Why is getting enough protein not a problem for vegans?
CPG: It’s a little ridiculous how obsessed we are with protein, and yet the diseases Americans are suffering and dying from are not diseases of deficiency: heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Most likely, we don’t know of any friends with Kwashiorkor. Kwashiorkor is the scientific name for protein deficiency, and we see it in countries where the people are starving. They’re not getting protein because they’re not getting food. We don’t have any Kwashiorkor hospital wards or Kwashiorkor specialists, but we all know people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. The problem isn’t that vegans aren’t getting enough protein; the problem is that most people are taking in way too much animal protein, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol.
Protein is just made up of amino acids, and amino acids are in all foods, including all plant foods. When you eat a variety of plant-based foods, you have no problem taking in enough protein.
CAK: Your “skipping the middle fish” and “skipping the middle cow” lines are catchy. What’s the basic idea of that?
CPG: We’ve all been taught that the nutrients we need are animal-based, when in fact, the nutrients we need are plant-based—or in the case of vitamin B12: bacteria-based. The problem is that we’re going through animals to get to the nutrients we need. For instance, we’re going through cows to get to the calcium that they get from the grass. Calcium is a mineral that’s found in the ground and abundant in green leafy vegetables (as well as in many other plant foods, such as figs, white beans, and almonds). Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the flesh of fatty fish, such as salmon, because they get them from the algae and algae-eating animals they consume. When we skip the middle fish and skip the middle cow (or any other animal) and go straight to the source (green leafies in the case of calcium, and ground flaxseeds in the case of omega-3s), we not only take in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and folate, we also skip the unnecessary saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, animal protein (which people get way too much of), and lactose (in the case of dairy). Our bodies also absorb the nutrients better when we go straight to the source. For instance, the bioavailability of cow’s milk is only 30 percent, but in kale, it’s 50 percent and broccoli 60 percent.
CAK: When I was a young chef at a vegetarian restaurant, one of my co-workers explained that supplements are needed because our industrially produced foods are lacking in essential nutrients. You seem to believe that supplements shouldn’t be necessary. How can someone best assure themselves of getting all the nutrients they need as a vegan or other?
CPG: We have been conditioned to believe that all the healthful properties of food can be whittled down into a single magic pill to act as a panacea to counter our poor lifestyle habits, forgetting that nature is a complex machine. The nutrients found in plants come perfectly packaged: the phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins, and minerals all work together to create the benefits we receive. Having said that, we live in an industrialized world and eat less nutrient-dense food than ever, but we are fortunate to have at our fingertips everything we need to ensure optimum health—with no nutritional deficiencies. Though the best place to get your vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants is from whole foods, many experts advocate taking a daily multivitamin—if only for insurance. However, there is much evidence that single antioxidant supplements (such as vitamin E, vitamin A, and vitamin C) are potentially harmful at their worst and ineffective at their best, and experts absolutely recommend that we take in these antioxidants through food—not supplements.
CAK: Your “shop by color” advice is both simple and fun. Can you describe this in a nutshell?
CPG: The pigments that give fruits, vegetables, and flowers their distinctive hues are called phytochemicals. Because these substances perform so many different beneficial functions, experts recommend eating a wide variety of colorful plant foods. The more variety you consume, the more color you consume, and different body parts are affected depending on the color. For instance, lycopene, a phytochemical prevalent in tomatoes, concentrates itself in the prostate gland of men. Lutein and zeaxanthin, found in spinach and corn, concentrate themselves in the retina and lens, contributing to reduced risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. And keep in mind that these phytochemicals originate in plants—not animals (“phyto” means “plant”). Salmon’s flesh turns pink from the plant-eating animals they eat, and egg yolks turn yellow from the lutein-rich plants the chickens eat (and from the synthetic lutein added to their feed). So when we eat by color, we’re eating the most healthful, whole foods on the planet.
CAK: I found your line about why we do not need to be perfect when we set out to make positive changes in our lives to be one of the most moving in the book. How did you come to that thought and how has it helped you in your life and your work?
CPG: So much of my philosophy was shaped over the years by the responses I (and every other vegan) received from people who would try and “catch” you at not being perfect. When you re-awaken to your deep sense of compassion (i.e. “become vegan”), you feel so good about living in such a way that causes as little harm as possible, and then you’re thrown off guard by people who use it against you—who accuse you of being a hypocrite for not being perfect. When I responded to these accusations by admitting that I was indeed imperfect but that I was doing the best I could to not create suffering, people softened. And this perspective, this truth forms the basis of my work—guiding people to understand that being vegan is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end, and for me that end is compassion. Too many people do nothing because they think they can’t do everything. My philosophy is “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. Do something. Anything.” And people really respond to that.
ALSO BY COLLEEN PATRICK-GOUDREAU
The Joy of Vegan Baking: The Compassionate Cooks’ Traditional Treats and Sinful Sweets (Fair Winds Press 2007)
The Vegan Table: 200 Unforgettable Recipes for Entertaining Every Guest at Every Occasion (Fair Winds Press 2009)
Color Me Vegan: Maximize Your Nutrient Intake and Optimize Your Health by Eating Antioxidant-Rich, Fiber-Packed, Color-Intense Meals That Taste Great (Fair Winds Press 2010)
Vegan’s Daily Companion: 365 Days of Inspiration for Cooking, Eating, and Living Compassionately (Quarry Books 2011)