Today’s interview is with black vegan Tracye McQuirter, a vegan trailblazer and public health nutrition expert, who was recently named a food hero by Vegetarian Times. Her national best-seller, By Any Greens Necessary, was the #1 vegan book on The Huffington Post. (Update: find out about her newest book, Ageless Vegan here.) Her website and blog is at byanygreensnecessary.com
Ama Opare: How long have you been vegetarian?
Tracye: I was introduced to vegetarianism in 7th grade at Sidwell Friends school in DC which is where the Obama girls go. So you know Quaker schools, kind of liberal progressive, that’s what they consider themselves. Two of my teachers were vegetarian and wanted our annual class camping trip to be vegetarian. I thought this was a horrible idea so I wrote a petition, got my classmates to sign it so that we would not have to have vegetarian food and we could have “regular” food like all the other classes.
I was overruled and we had vegetarian food. I thought it was horrible and I never gave vegetarianism a second thought until, fast forward 7 years and I am a sophomore at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and our black student union brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the State of Black America. He had a captive audience of students from the five college area, mainly students of color. He decided to flip the script on us and to talk about the plate of Black America and about how unhealthfully most black folks eat.
So I immediately thought back to my 7th grade teachers and their vegetarianism because I hadn’t thought about it since. I started to tune him out. But what got me to pay attention was when he traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, through the slaughter house process, to a fast food place, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack. He did this very graphically, he spoke for more than two hours. I had never heard anything like that before in my life. Never made the connection between diet and disease, between food and our health.
I was a sophomore at the time and this is also the time in my life when I was questioning a lot of things. So my paradigm was shifting. I was taking political science classes, classes about classism, sexism, racism, homophobia. Everything that you can imagine that a liberal arts college would teach I was taking classes in them. And this was a perspective that I had not been introduced to when I was at Sidwell. Or at least not in this depth. So this was all new to me and it was changing my world view and my paradigm. To such a degree that I was questioning everything. I stopped relaxing my hair, the whole nine. So I was open to questioning the food that I ate, that everyone was telling me I should eat. I was questioning the whole food system and the way this country told us we should eat as well as a lot of things about what this country did and was doing. So I was ripe to hear that information at that time.
Also my freshman year in college I had gained 25 pounds. And that was because I was away from home and I was able to eat whatever I wanted. I hated vegetables, and I hated anything that I thought was healthy. I was gaining weight and who knows if I had not been introduced to it at that time, I could have been a part of the statistics.
Immediately after Dick Gregory’s lecture was lunch and I was stunned. I didn’t know what to eat. So for the first week I stopped eating burgers and hot dogs which I had been eating almost everyday. Then after a week I thought “Ok, he’s crazy, nobody could not eat meat.” But I couldn’t get what he said out of my mind. So that summer when I was home I went to the library and read everything I could find about vegetarianism. To see if what he was saying was true because, I was that moved by what he was saying that I had to find our for myself if what he said was true.
My mother and one of my sisters, read the same books and by the end of the summer we decided to become vegetarians. And then the next year I was taking the year away from Amherst and I went to Nairobi Kenya the first semester and to Howard the second semester.
In Nairobi I was not able to eat vegetarian because when I had applied I was not vegetarian but when I showed up I was and they couldn’t accommodate me. I was eating meat.
When I went to Howard the next semester I was determined that I was going to eat vegetarian. There was a community right up the street from Howard University of black vegetarians and vegans. They owned at the time the only all vegan cafe, carry out and health food store in the city. It was right up the street from Howard.
So I immersed myself in the community and I learned how to cook, what to cook, how to make it delicious, how to make it nutritious, how to make it affordable that whole spring semester and the summer. So that was about nine months under my belt of learning everything I could about vegetarianism and veganism and so when I went back to Amherst for my senior year I was a full fledged vegetarian and confident and was able to eat that way for my senior year.
It took me that year and probably another several months to give up cheese. Because I had heard and knew cheese was unhealthy but I couldn’t give it up, I was addicted to it. But I finally decided that the momentary pleasure of a piece of cheese in my mouth was not worth the health risks, and I became a vegan. That was 1988. So that’s how it happened for me.
Ama: What’s your raw food intake.
Tracye: I eat a lot of raw food. I actually prefer to eat my vegetables and fruit raw. Most of the time the vegetables I eat are raw. So I would say that at least ⅓ of my plate is raw. I do eat cooked food. And I eat whole grains cooked. I have done 100% raw. And the longest I did that was 6 months. I felt great. I think that if I lived in a place, or when I ever, live in a place where the food, produce is local, and it’s sunny, and it grows year round, it would be a lot easier for me to be raw.
Ama: Why is this important for black folks to be vegan?
Tracye: First, there is a long history of black folks being vegan. We are pioneers in the plant based food movement here in this country. There are already millions of us who are eating this way. So this is part of our heritage and part of our culture here. There are obviously many more who are primarily omnivore but there are many of us who have been eating vegan food for generations. So I always like to start with that to say that this is nothing new in our community.
It’s important for more of us to eat plant based foods, particularly black women, because we are experiencing such dire health outcomes based on lack of exercise and the unhealthy foods that we eat. So diabetes, overweight, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, fibroids, lupus, breast cancer, all of these things that are fully or somewhat diet related effect us–and prostate cancer for men–it just goes on and on. Its very important for us to actually eat more plant based foods and if we can, if we can afford it and have the knowledge to actually become vegan 100%.
Just for me I see my mother who became vegetarian and then a vegan when she was in her 50s, and of her siblings who have survived, she is the only one who has no health problems. She had 14 brothers and sisters and all of them had some sort of chronic disease. Both of her parents died of chronic disease. So she exercises 6 days a week, and she has been vegan for almost 30 years. She has changed that entire paradigm for the family simply by doing those two things, those simple profound things, plant based foods and exercise. She’ll be 77 this year and she’s doing great. She looks fabulous, she is still has the figure that she had when she was in her thirties.
Its not rocket science. Its just making the decision based on information that you receive. Learning how to make the food healthy and delicious. And that in our families we can change our whole paradigm. Its really doable and possible. That we do not have to have chronic disease, we do not have be overweight, we do not have to have high blood pressure, we do not have to get diabetes. None of that is normal and none of that is natural. What is normal and natural is for us to live long healthy lives. And to feed ourselves with plant based foods. That’s the natural diet for us.
My mission is to share with folks how to do it and why to do it. I target black folks particularly women.
Ama: Did you see that study out recently that says vegetarians MAY make you live longer?
Tracye: I always chuckle at that stuff. Its like finally the media is catching up to whats been there since the 1950s. It’s not new science its just new publicity.
Ama: What challenges did you have when you first became vegetarian? Did you have any troubles sticking to it?
Tracye: The biggest challenge for me was going from vegetarian to vegan. For me its information that is my point of entry. For some people its tasting the food and seeing that it tastes good and then they are like ok, I can do this. For me it was like, this is why I should do it. This is the information telling me that this is the healthy thing to do. Therefore I am going to do it. I just have to figure out how to do it.
The learning how to shop, how to cook, and how to make it delicious I just had to figure that out and learn that. But something had already clicked in my mind that this was something that I was going to do. And it didn’t matter that most of my friends and most of my extended family were not eating that way. They did not have the same information.
The fact that my mother and my sister were doing it at the same time was everything because we supported each other. It was very important. Its crucial to have some support. I had that. And we were all figuring it out and learning together. That was crucial. I don’t know if it would have been as easy to go from omnivore to vegetarian.
The vegetarian to vegan thing was just giving up cheese. And that again was just mind over matter. I had to read, read, read about how unhealthy cheese is and what it does to the body. And finally, at some point it clicked that it wasn’t worth the momentary pleasure of this cheese in my mouth, that wasn’t enough to counter the effects on my health of the cheese. And so that again it was just filling my mind with information until it clicked. So the biggest challenge for me was giving up cheese.
And back then in 1988 there were only a few non dairy cheeses on the market and they tasted horrible to me. So I gave up cheese cold turkey, there were no substitutes, I didn’t eat that stuff. So for people who say that their holdout now is cheese, there are so many non-dairy cheeses out there, that transition can be easier.
Cheese is absolutely addictive, and also one of the biggest sources of saturated fat in our diet. I suggest people get off cheese first, to try to let cheese go first because its so addictive.
But outside of that, for whatever reason the fact that other than my middle sister and my mother I really didn’t have any other friends that were eating this way, I didn’t have any other family members, didn’t make me want to go back to eating meat and dairy based foods, it just didn’t. Because I knew this was the healthy thing, that was enough. That was enough, it didn’t matter what anyone else was doing. I knew that this was the right thing for me to do.
Ama: How much does animal rights play into your veganism?
Tracye: Thats a good question. For me that came much later. It came about 10 years into my being vegan because I did not have an awareness about animal rights, animal welfare and animal advocacy or any of that at the time. My experiences in Kenya during my junior year in college kind of cemented my commitment to becoming vegetarian when I got back and that was because I felt kind of guilty about eating the animals that I had actually seen alive. And I had never had that experience before but after that I didn’t really think about animals.
It wasn’t until I was working with PCRM, The Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, as a public policy liaison. So I had to immerse myself in all of the issues that PCRM was addressing. And so I had to watch all the videos and read the books that were in PCRMs library. You know undercover factory farm footage. So that is what really led me to consider animals for the first time.
PCRM also had a policy that you could not wear clothes made from animal hair and animal skin. And I just thought that was the craziest thing in the world. You know I’m from DC, we didn’t wear pleather, and that kind of thing. But having to watch that footage, and having to read all the materials, pamphlets, all of that, again it was knowledge. Once I read that and I saw the videos that led me to decide that I would not use animals for food or clothing or entertainment. So that came later for me but so now everything in my life is vegan. My furniture, my shoes, my cosmetics, my skin care products, nail polish, everything in my life is vegan.
Ama: Yes I remember your pleather boots when you were here in Atlanta earlier this year!
Tracye: [Chuckles] Yeah everything is vegan so it goes way beyond food for me and that was because of my experience at PCRM. I don’t do zoos and circuses and that stuff, so I am grateful to have been introduced to that aspect of veganism as well and I’m 100% behind that.
Ama: So what about the black vegetarian community then and now?
Tracye: I was brought into vegetarianism and veganism by Dick Gregory and then this thriving black vegetarian and vegan community here in DC. And you know, I call myself a professional vegan because I advocate for this and this is the work that I do, most of the people I know who are vegan are black and the number just grows and grows.
And also because my sister and I started blackvegetarians.org in the mid 90s. That was the first full and comprehensive website for and about black vegetarian and vegans. Back in 1997, we used to get about 1000 visitors a day. From primarily (we’re assuming) Black folks. Based on that network we knew we had a large group of Black folks who were vegan or vegetarian or veg friendly. And we hoped to grow more Black vegetarians and vegans as well.
So the last survey that I saw that was commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group its estimated that there are 3 million black vegetarians and vegans in the country. 8% of our population. That’s a huge number and that’s just an estimation. I think it’s growing. I see that it’s growing. Black vegetarian groups and societies and meet-ups, web-sites. Oh my gosh So many web-sites and blogs that are targeting black vegetarians, it’s unbelievable. So its definitely growing.
And when you go to a cook-out or family reunion it’s not weird to say your vegetarian or vegan. It used to be 20 years ago people looked at you like you were crazy. Why would you do that? Now the first comment is like “Oh I don’t eat so much meat.” or “My so-and-so is vegan.” or “Can you help me? My doctor says I should eat less meat.” It’s just become part of the paradigm now. People get it.
Ama: What advice to you have for someone who is just starting?
Tracye: For someone who is just starting what I suggest is to add rather than subtract. If you can think that about the fact that you already eat vegan foods, like you already eat vegetables, you already eat fruit, you already eat grains, these are all vegan foods. So, a lot of your diet is already vegan, its already plant-based you just don’t think of it that way. Think of adding more of these foods that you’re already eating. You’re already eating beans and lentils anyway. Add more of these.
Start by making half of your plate dark leafy greens at least twice a day. For lunch and dinner. So, that means having a kale salad or having some sautéed collard greens or stir-fried broccoli, whatever it is, mix it up with the vegetables that you like, spinach, swiss chard, brussel sprouts, whatever it is. Make that half of your plate.
And then, if you’re going to be eating grains, if you’re going to be eating rice or pasta, make it a whole grain rice or pasta. The white flour, the refined grains, make it whole grains. So half of your plate is vegetables and then, a third of your plate is whole grains, which you would be eating anyway.
Already two thirds of your plate is vegan. Two thirds of your plate is plant based. So then the other thing is the “Protein”, you know the piece of meat on your plate. There are millions of, so many vegan recipes out there that are loaded with protein. There are so many ways that you can get protein and other nutrients. Even fruits and vegetables have protein in small amounts.
So you just have to kind of start where you are. I tell people with don’t get bogged down with the worry of getting enough protein. At this point add more fruits, more vegetables and more whole grains to your plate. Then if you’re thinking of the main part of your meal you can look at my book, you can look on line and just google “vegan recipes” or “vegan meals” or “vegan main dishes” to get loads of ideas about the type of vegan foods that you can eat as the main course.
Ama: That’s great advice, I like that. I had never thought of it like that, add not subtract.
Tracye: Yeah because people think that they are loosing something or being deprived of something when really it’s abundance. This diet, this way of eating is about abundance. Its not about lack, its not about depriving yourself. Its the opposite of that, its about freeing yourself, opening yourself to an abundance of food that you just have not been eating. Opening your pallet up. So that’s why I say really to think of it as adding to your plate.
The more healthy plant based food you eat, the less you will want the heavy saturated fat laden, and cholesterol laden foods that are not healthy for you. You will feel the difference based on the way that you eat. You will feel differently in your body. You’ll feel clearer, you’ll feel lighter. You will naturally start to eat less of the unhealthy food, the processed and junk food and your body will want more of the healthy food.
Ama: Is there a connection between veganism and spirituality?
Tracye: Absolutely, there definitely can be. For me becoming vegan was like a window, like a gateway, to start yoga, to start meditating, become more active, because once I decided that I wanted to eat healthier I also wanted to be healthier, and more focused and more clear. So I just started looking at other natural ways of doing that. My veganism led me to that. For a lot of people spirituality is what led them to veganism. Its all connected. So definitely they can be related.
Ama: Tell me about By Any Greens Necessary, the book and the website. What are you trying to do with those?
Tracye: The name of my business is also By Any Greens Necessary. What I want to do is to show people how and why to eat more plant based foods for their own health, for the health of the planet and for the sake of the animals. So I wrote By Any Greens Necessary and targeted it towards black women because there wasn’t a vegan diet food book targeting black women. It needed to exist and I wanted to write it as a black women who has a degree in public health and nutrition. So I wrote the book that I would have wanted to read when I was thinking about doing this 27 years ago.
Also writing is my first love. If I could do nothing else but write, write, write for the rest of my life I would be happy. I love to write and I always have. And so I knew that the way that I was going to get my message out was through writing, through writing a book. It’s very important for me to have a well written book. So these are the reasons why I wanted to write By Any Greens Necessary, and I think I accomplished all that. It’s kind of a laid back style so that people could be at ease and comfortable with reading it and relating to it and not be such a book that was off-putting in its language. So I tried to make the language be easy and conversational.
So I envision By Any Greens Necessary as a multiple book series. There are at least 5 more books that I am going to write as a part of this touching different aspects of the vegan lifestyle. I am working on the second one now which I hope will be out in 2014. And keep doing that. There is so much to talk about when it comes to veganism. I want to write about all of these things. And because I love to write and I love to speak to groups of folks. This is my avenue.
Ama: You mentioned your degrees in Public Health and Nutrition what else do you bring to your expertise?
Tracye: I have a masters degree in Public Health and Nutrition and its an MPH with a focus on nutrition from New York University. And I was actually mentored by Marion Nestle who is probably the most renowned nutritionist in the country and was the head of my department at NYU. My background is in public health and nutrition for my masters degree and I also have an undergraduate degree from Amherst college in African American Studies, in Black Studies.
I directed the first federally funded vegan nutrition program in the country. This is a program started by the Vegetarian Society of DC and funded by the US Department of Health And Human Services. It was a community based nutrition program where we targeted primarily low-income black women in the nations capital and taught them how and why to eat vegan foods, plant based foods. It was a very successful program. I developed the curriculum and taught it. I brought in chefs and doctors and different types of folks to show them how to do this.
I started the Black Vegetarian Society of New York when I was in Graduate School and started the website that was by and for black vegetarians and vegans.
I was recently named a National Food Hero by Vegetarian Times for the advocacy and work that I do. So this is my life, this is how I live and this is what I practice.
Ama: Congratulations on your award. I’d say you are a national food hero. Tell me about your curriculum and the food program.
Tracye: The Eat Smart program is still going on. Its a smaller program. I taught it for about 5 years then became an advisor on the program. Its still being done by the vegetarian society of DC. It’s now a 9 week program, it started as a 12 week program. Now they do it monthly. So it’s still being done, not on the scale that we were doing it but on a smaller scale. It’s been modeled in other places around the country.
Ama: Is your curriculum still available?
Tracye: I’m sure it is and that its publicly available. People can contact the Vegetarian Society of DC. vsdc.com
And I also through byanygreensnecessary.com teach cooking classes and I’ll be offering an on-line program to teach people how and why to become vegan. So I encourage people to sign up on my website to get on my email list to find out more about that.
All of the things that I have been doing over the years I am doing on line so that I can reach I wider audience people in other cities and other countries can participate.
Ama: How can people get in touch with you?
Ama: Any thing else that you would like to say?
Tracye: Thank you for all of the pioneering work that you have been doing around vegetarianism and veganism and I am proud to be in your number to be doing this kind of work with you all. And I applaud the work that you’ve been doing as well.
Ama: Thank you. I look forward to connecting with you again soon.