Did you know that Black people have been identifying as vegan at a higher rate than the rest of the population here in the United States? Studies from over the years have proven that. Pew Research from 2016 found that eight percent of Blacks in this country identified as vegan or vegetarian when compared to three percent for all Americans. And a 2019 Gallup poll revealed not only are women twice as likely as men to cut down on meat in their diet, for people of color, meat was being cut out of our diets at a higher rate than whites. We’re officially seeing green.
It’s true, long gone are the days where it was assumed that a vegan diet is bland. People are making “chicken” out of oyster and shitake mushrooms and there are plant-based loins on the market that look like a traditional sirloin made of soy and wheat. There are enough pages and YouTube channels out there to help people see what mouthwatering meals they can make on their own. And more and more vegan restaurants are popping up, including big names like Pinky Cole’s Slutty Vegan (which keeps a line of happy customers) expanding far past its roots in Atlanta. Many other Black-owned, plant-based haunts around the country are making waves too, not only in expected cities like NYC and LA, but also in other major hubs like Houston, Las Vegas, Detroit and more. It’s becoming easier than ever to join the vegan revolution, and many of us are diving in to access a healthier way of living.
So what has drawn us in? We spoke with an expert, Tracye McQuirter, MPH, to get some insight, and some advice on the best ways to make the leap. McQuirter is a vegan activist and public health nutritionist who wrote the books, By Any Greens Necessary and Ageless Vegan. She also is behind the community, 10 Million Black Vegan Women, which seeks to address a preventable heath crisis among Black women through plant-based nutrition and community support. Here’s what she had to say about the benefits of plant-based living and what’s behind the push back to it for Black men and women, especially.
ESSENCE: What do you think is drawing people to veganism in particular?
Tracye McQuirter, MPH: Black women are the current face of veganism in this country. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center Study, African Americans are the fastest growing vegan and vegetarian demographic in the country, at 8% as compared to 3% of Americans overall. And it’s estimated that the majority are women. Black women are leading the way. That’s the latest research we have and it’s consistent with research that the Vegetarian Research Group has been doing for decades, which shows that African Americans have been twice as likely to be vegan than whites.
I always say first that the main reason for this is that going vegan is the smart thing to do! It’s healthiest for people, animals, and the planet. And the second reason is that this is not new. We have a long history of eating plant-centered foods. From the beginning, African American foodways had their historical roots in the fiber-rich diets of our African ancestors. And this fiber-rich culinary heritage survived 400 years of our sojourn here in the United States – through enslavement, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements. Through the dietary upheavals of these past four centuries, African Americans have maintained an affinity for growing, purchasing, and eating fiber-rich foods.
In fact, 1965 dietary surveys show that before the proliferation of fast-food franchises in the 1970s, African Americans in cities were twice as likely to meet the dietary recommendations for fruits, vegetables, and fiber than the overall U.S. population. However, that began to systematically change in the 1970s.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain and in Supersizing Urban America by Chin Jou, both authors talk about fast-food restaurants targeting African American neighborhoods, with the help of federal subsidies, following the rebellions after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. So African American neighborhoods in major cities went from having no fast-food chains to being inundated with them. Federally subsidized fast food companies targeted African American communities with cheap, low-fiber, low-nutrition, high-calorie food, and relentless advertising.
As a result of this systematic targeting, African Americans went from being the highest consumers of fiber-rich food to being the lowest consumers by 1996. And that targeting continues today, along with systemic decreased access to healthy foods. One of the results has been higher rates of chronic diseases, disability, and premature death.
And yet next to this wide ocean of systematic targeting, there has been a mighty river of African Americans leaders and innovators in the plant-based food movement. This includes vegetarian Black Seventh Day Adventists at Oakwood University in Alabama from the 1890s; naturopathic physician Dr. Alvenia Fulton, who started the first vegetarian establishment on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s; activists like Dick Gregory, who extended the practice of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s to not eating animals; African Hebrew Israelites, who established Soul Vegetarian restaurants in the 1970s, which until recently was the largest vegan restaurant chain in the world; and Rastafarians, who eat plant-based foods for spiritual and health reasons.
Outside of health, I’ve heard people talk about food insecurity being a reason as well. Would you agree?
I agree that food apartheid is a reason that folks are drawn to plant-based foods because it is usually cheaper to buy whole plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, herbs and spices to create healthy and delicious meals, than it is to buy meat, dairy, and processed packaged foods. We’re all dealing with higher food prices now, no matter how we eat, but as a general rule, it’s more economical to eat whole plant-based foods. This is especially true if you can buy them from the bulk bins at your local store or the farmers market, or can grow your own.
I’ll also add that climate change and environmental justice are also reasons that we’re drawn to eating plant-based foods. The factory farming of more than nine billion chickens, cows, and pigs each year to produce meat and dairy products causes more global warming than all of the world’s transportation combined. The methane gas from the manure of factory farmed animals accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, buses, trains, boats and planes on the planet.
Animal agriculture is also the leading cause of water pollution and soil degradation in the world. And if the corn, soy and other grains fed to factory farmed animals in the U.S. were instead consumed directly by people, nearly a billion people around the world could be fed, helping to reduce global hunger.
A vegan diet is not only the healthiest way for us to eat, but it’s also one of the single best things we can do to help save the planet and its inhabitants. In fact, the United Nations states that eating plant-based foods has the most immediate and greatest impact on the climate.
What motivated you to create 10 Million Black Vegan Women?
In 2020, I celebrated the 10-year anniversary of my first book, By Any Greens Necessary, which was the first vegan diet book for Black women and has helped thousands of Black women go all or more vegan. In fact, The New York Times cited it as a key driver of the popular rise in veganism among African Americans during the past decade. So for the 10th anniversary, I came up with the idea to help 10,000 Black women go vegan together online for 21 days in October 2020. We ended having more than 12,000 women sign up for the program.
Because of the life-changing health benefits that they received – like lower blood pressure and cholesterol, weight loss, more energy, and mental clarity – I decided to expand it into a global movement and help 10 million Black women go vegan. Because, while Black women are estimated to be the fastest growing vegan demographic, the majority of us are experiencing among the worst health outcomes, for a variety of reasons. But we have the power to take back control of our health and eating a healthy plant-based diet is the most immediate and effective way to do that. I want to change the health paradigm of Black women now and for generations to come.
If someone is interested in taking the steps to a more plant-based diet, where would you recommend they start?
Over the years, I’ve noticed a few common things that can trip people up as they transition to veganism. So here they are, along with how to avoid them.
1. Feeling Pain Instead of Joy
When people think about going vegan, they often focus on how hard they think it will be. They focus on the foods they’ll be giving up, instead of all the new foods they’ll be adding on. They worry about being different than their family and friends, instead of the beauty of their own personal transformation. In other words, they fixate on deprivation, instead of abundance.
To avoid this mistake, shift your mindset. My mantra is “Liberate Your Mind and Your Mouth Will Follow.” So view going vegan as an exciting new journey that you’ll enjoy. Embrace the adventure of this new path you’re taking and keep an open mind and heart.
2. Comparing Instead of Inspiring
Do you know how long it’s going to take you to go vegan? The answer is, however long it takes you! I tell people all the time that it’s not a race or a competition. Your vegan journey is your own. It’s great to read the vegan transition stories of other people for inspiration. But there’s a big difference between inspiration and comparison or competition.
Inspiration can make you feel excited and motivated that you can do it, too. Comparison or competition can make you feel deflated and doubtful that you can do it. It’s not necessary to feel bad to grow. So be kind and gracious with yourself, and seek encouragement and support from folks who will lift you up.
3. Giving Up When You Slip Up
This one is key. When you’re transitioning to vegan foods, it can be common to take one step forward and two steps backward. So you might be doing great one day by eating all vegan food, then the next day or two, you might slip up by eating meat and dairy. Understand that this is usually part of the transition process. So don’t beat yourself up and don’t give up. Just start again the next day.
And at the same time, continue to read vegan books and blogs, watch vegan cooking videos and documentaries, and get support from others. So that even on those days when you slip up, know that all the things you’re doing are still working together in the background to help you mentally and physically transition. Keep your eyes on the prize and know that you are in the process of going vegan and you will do it.
In terms of foods, I encourage folks to start by veganizing the familiar foods they already love to eat. So if it’s a stir-fry dish, use chickpeas, black beans, cashews or tofu instead of meat, and keep the colorful veggies, and dried herbs and spices, because they’re already vegan. You can do the same for soups, stews, chili, wraps, pasta, salads, and more.
As this is a season of cleaning, cleansing and refreshing, would you say this is also a good time to start transforming yourself from the inside out, starting with what you consume?
Spring is the perfect season to go vegan because what we eat is the biggest factor in how healthy we’ll be from the inside out. So just by eating whole plant-based foods, you can naturally begin to clean out and build up your body to be healthy and strong.