Savoring the Vegan Life
with Alicia Silverstone
Embracing a plant-based “kind” diet, this activist star
of stage and screen is energized and at her happiest.
When Alicia Silverstone sought a role in an Aerosmith video 17 years ago, director Marty Callner was so taken with the 16-year-old budding star’s presence and freshness he dispensed with an audition and cast her in not one but three of the band’s videos. That work brought her to the attention of other filmmakers. Silverstone soon landed her breakthrough role as the superficial but likeable Cher Horowitz in 1995’s “Clueless.”
Callner’s most striking reflections of Silverstone are more personal than her film work. “I might have helped her career,” the director says, “but she saved my life. When you talk to me about Alicia, you’ll get nothing but rose petals.”
Those accolades have a lot to do with Callner’s switch to a vegan diet, prompted by Silverstone and now more than 11 years strong.
The transformation was so meaningful that Callner recalls the exact date—May 6—it began. On that day, Silverstone took her friend to a local restaurant for an all-vegan meal. She also gave Callner Food for Life (Three Rivers Press) by Neal Barnard, MD, about the value of a diet rich in grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits.
Callner says Silverstone’s tender guidance motivated him. “She opened the door by example,” he says. “She was never forceful or condescending. It was so pure and beautiful it was almost impossible not to be intoxicated by it. She very cleverly opened my eyes in a way that worked for me. That’s one of her secrets. She talks a gentle message and she motivates everybody based on their own personalities. It’s what we do when we direct: Every actor and artist is different, but you always try to get to the same place without treating them like they are on an assembly line.”
That flexible, gentle approach is evident in Silverstone’s new book, The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet (Rodale), with a foreword by Barnard.
Though she can’t tailor her message to every reader’s personality, she has distilled it into three distinct approaches, from Flirting to Superhero, aimed at bringing readers varying degrees closer to vegan living.
Wearing a pink windbreaker, striped blouse and beige scarf, Silverstone, 33, met with us on a brisk fall day at a New York health food café. Silverstone, animated and with color in her cheeks, brought her own butternut squash soup and spoon, the latter as insurance that one less plastic utensil will work its way into a landfill.
Energy Times: Your book is very flexible in its approaches to making the transition from carnivore to vegan to a macrobiotic diet. What was behind your decision to offer several entry points, if you will, to this lifestyle?
Alicia Silverstone: I just don’t want to frighten people. I noticed over the years that people can make even little changes that have huge benefits. I don’t want to alienate people by saying, “It has to be this way, all the way or nothing.” Most people who don’t know vegan or vegetarian diets will automatically just go, “I don’t want to be a vegetarian; it’s too hard.” They have no idea, but they’re just saying no. Those are the people I want. I want them to know how you don’t have to make any commitment, that you could be really happier and healthier and that if you just take these baby steps in this direction. Even those baby steps will make you feel better.
And there is no judgment. I have also heard people say, “I’ve tried but I fell off.” Well, rather then stopping because you’ve made one mistake, how about you just go, “Oh well, tomorrow I’ll just get back on.” There is no beating yourself up.
ET: You say that the benefits are both physical and mental, and that this is deeper than losing weight. Tell me more about that.
AS: It’s really just the truth. When I first made this choice, the first thing I noticed was the deepest thing of all; I just felt like I was walking around with a lighter spirit. That happened right away. It’s as if a huge weight has been lifted off. It’s very strange. I can only kind of physically show you, but suddenly I was walking around the world like this (straightening up from a hunched position). I was more open and lighter. That was the deepest thing that happened.
Then I had all these exciting benefits like really strong nails, my eyes got really white, and I had loads of energy and lost weight. My skin started glowing and just drastically improved. My hair is long and thick. Overall I feel so much different. I guess I feel like I look younger now than when I was 19.
ET: How did these changes affect your world outlook?
AS: There’s a positive and a negative. The positive is that I feel so much more connected to my truth and my purpose. I feel really good in my body. I love being me and I love being in this skin. So walking through the world is always very exciting and an adventure and fun and I love meeting people. The sad part is that you see things a bit more clearly. The more you know about what’s going on in the world the more you’re a little
ET: What’s an example of that?
AS: Someone might look at a building and go, “Wow, that’s such a beautiful building.” Well it’s not made with [environmentally friendly] materials. We didn’t really need that new building, did we?
Sometimes you just see the lack of space on the planet differently. There’s not a lot of room for green and for wildlife. When people are trying to build things in wild areas it’s just heartbreaking because you know that those wild areas are providing us with oxygen. They’re providing us with biodiversity. When we make creatures extinct we’re making ourselves extinct. You just see more clearly what’s done for money and out of greed, versus what’s done for growth and compassion.
ET: You embraced a vegan diet in your early 20s. Then, when you were in “The Graduate” on Broadway, you explored a raw food diet. But you learned that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables was only part of the equation.
AS: I was getting all excited about eating raw food and I realized it was not working for me. It’s not that fruits and vegetables aren’t good; everybody should [eat them]. But I still ate a lot of processed food and a lot of sugar and things like that, and white flour. In New York City you can get anything you want at any time so I was in the dead of winter trying to eat mangos. God created mangos to cool you off in the heat; that’s why they don’t grow in the cold. So here I was in the snow making myself colder.
[My nutritionist] also got me to realize that I needed to get the sugar out and the processed foods out. That made a massive difference. And I wasn’t eating whole grains. I wasn’t focusing on these magical foods that the beautiful earth provides that really nourish you and give you all these vitamins.
So I still felt better being vegan—I had all those amazing benefits—but when I went in this other area, it was like magic.
ET: You call your version of the macrobiotic diet the “superhero” diet.
AS: The superhero diet is my snappy snazzy version of macro. Macro truly does cure illness. But not everyone has deep illnesses to worry about, so to get people all fussed about every little detail is not necessary when they really just want to feel better.
The basics of macro is non-processed food: It’s no sugar, it’s eating in season, basing your meal on vegetables and whole grains. And it’s about balance. One of the amazing things about macrobiotics is that when I sit down to a really balanced macro meal, I don’t crave anything naughty afterwards. I’m completely balanced whereas if I eat more fun, playful foods I might be craving other stuff later.
ET: Do you have a sense that there is a good reception to a diet that doesn’t revolve around animal products? I saw one statistic that in 2008 about 1 million Americans identified themselves as vegan. Yet when you first embraced this lifestyle, you felt very alone and needed to turn to Woody Harrelson, who shared your outlook.
AS: Not a lot of people around me were very interested. You know when somebody’s young and passionate and when you just found something out you want to walk around shaking people. They’re like, “Yeah, that’s really interesting.” You’re screaming, “There’s a fire!” and nobody’s listening. I just needed some kind of camaraderie so I called [Harrelson] and asked him what to do. He said, “You have to come to Peru with me.” It made me feel really good. I never doubted what I was doing—ever—but it just made me realize there’s a whole community of us and I just need
to hang with them more so that my reality is not so dismal.
I remember being on [The Tonight Show with Jay Leno] and talking about veganism and [Late Night with David Letterman] when I was really young, and it was “What is that?” It’s definitely a mainstream word now. It’s very well received and I think it’s because of the medical research and the scientific research. Eventually the truth rises.
ET: You note that carnivores get their B12 from meat and that people who don’t consume meat have to ensure they are getting that particular vitamin. Please elaborate on that.
AS: Without B12 it can be really dangerous for your brain. It’s just one of those essential elements. B12 is the only thing you need to be careful of when you are on a plant-based diet. We clean things so well these days that we clean off all the bacteria, the natural bacteria that would kind of be around vegetables. I often don’t clean my vegetables as methodically as most people do because they come from my garden. There might be some nice bacteria, some nice B12, and it’s good for you.
But you can also get B12 in tempe, in miso, basically it’s in fermented food. Just to be extra careful every once in a while it’s a really good idea to have a B12 vitamin (for more, see page 48).
ET: You travel a lot so I’m curious what type of exercise you do both on the road and at home.
AS: It’s tricky when you’re on the road. I just walked to the restaurant to get my lunch and I walked back, so that’s how I get my exercise on the road. And that’s actually what I do at home. If you want to have an amazing figure and you hate exercise do the Kind diet because you don’t have to exercise; you can just go on little walks here and there and just keep your body moving. When you walk you’re able to breathe fresh air. You’re able to engage with other human beings. You’re just more connected to what’s happening around you.
That’s not super crazy exercise. You don’t have to go to a gym. But if you want to you can and this diet still supports you. There are so many athletes in this book that I talk about who went veggie because they wanted better performance, and they’re really amazing athletes. I just love that you don’t have to be so insane about exercise. I do like to get exercise. It feels good to me now. I enjoy walking, I love getting a yoga class in here or there. But when I have my period I don’t like exercising at all so I don’t. I just listen to my body and do what it feels.
ET: How do you mean?
AS: By clearing the diet up you start to feel so good that your body becomes like a sounding board. Your body becomes so crystal clear and it knows exactly what it wants, so everything that doesn’t resonate with that starts to become a problem. You’re less tolerant of nonsense. You start to feel amazing and want more. It just makes you really compassionate towards yourself and about making your life about the life you want to live.
ET: When you live such a healthy lifestyle, what possible New Year’s resolutions can you make?
AS: My husband and I have a tradition. Every New Year’s we just stay home. We write down the big things that we accomplished or that happened that year and that kind of define the year. Then we write down our dreams for what we want to see happen for the next year. It’s usually all the stuff you’ve been working on all along but it gives sort of a sense of, “Wow, I did accomplish that! I don’t have that anymore!” It’s very exciting.
I remember one of my dreams was not to have anxiety anymore. It was a long time ago, and through all the work I’ve done and all the eating well it was gone. When I went to read what I’ve written about my resolutions those four or five years earlier I didn’t even know what that [anxiety] feels like anymore. New Year’s resolutions are nice but we don’t really make resolutions; we just keep defining how we want to live our lives.
That bowl of soup Alicia Silverstone is holding on the cover of her book The Kind Diet (Rodale) may be the reason behind that broad smile. Silverstone calls it “Alicia’s Magical Healing Soup.” It’s the vegan actress’ incarnation of that old stalwart—chicken soup—when rundown with colds and the flu, but without the chicken, of course. From page 251 of her book, here’s the recipe.
Alicia’s Magical Healing Soup
½ medium carrot, cut into large chunks
¼ medium daikon, cut into large chunks
¼ red onion, cut into large chunks
2-3 celery stalks, chopped
3-4 small broccoli florets
4 button mushrooms, sliced
2-3 trumpet mushrooms, sliced
½ medium leek, halved then cut into large chunks and swirled in a bowl of water to dislodge any grit
Ginger juice to taste (grate a 1-in. piece of ginger and squeeze out the juice with your fingers)
Shoyu to taste
1 whole scallion, roots and all, thinly sliced on the diagonal
¼ bunch watercress, tough stems discarded
Mochi, chopped or shredded (optional)
Toasted nori pieces (optional)
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the carrot and daikon. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the red onion, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the celery, broccoli, mushrooms, and leek. Add the ginger juice and shoyu to the broth to taste. Simmer until the vegetables are cooked through but still slightly firm, about 5 minutes. Add the scallion, and turn off the heat. (If you prefer the scallions raw, add them just before serving.) To serve, ladle the soup into bowls. Top each serving with some watercress, mochi, and nori.
Note: You can make this soup into a miso soup by adding about 2 to 3 teaspoons of miso paste at the end. Dilute the miso with a little soup broth, and add it to the soup at the end of cooking, allowing it to simmer for about 2 to 3 minutes.
Serves 2. Analysis per serving: 68 calories, 4g protein, 0g fat, 4g fiber, 14g carbohydrate, 548 mg sodium (assuming 1 tbsp shoyu)