It's been a few years since Alicia Silverstone stole our hearts as Cher in Clueless. But since then she's found her leading role: being an outspoken animal rights activist and fervent vegan. You might remember her provocative ad for PETA in which she posed nude, proudly declaring herself a vegetarian. In her new ambitiously titled book, The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet, Alicia shares some of her tricks and secrets for vegetarianism, nutrition and ecological conservation. She talked to HuffPost Living about accidentally stumbling into good health, finding inner peace and trying to save the world with a plant-based diet.
What prompted you to write this book? What was the inspiration behind it?
I've been thinking about writing a book for 8 years. I wanted to put all the best recipes and really good inspirational ideas I'd come across during my travels into one place. It's sort of an epic decision to write a book, just because of the amount of time it takes. I wasn't sure it was ever going to happen.
Finally, a lot of the friends I was helping with various health problems said to me when I gave them the information, "This is a book!" Finally, I just went for it. My goal was that I wanted people to know that they can live their best lives. They can be their healthiest, they can be their happiest, and they can look their best. It's easy, delicious, fun and non-judgmental. You can go baby steps or you can go large steps. You can do whatever you want. I just wanted to give people the tools to make their lives better.
At what stage in your life did a healthy lifestyle become really important?
It's interesting, when I was 21, I didn't care about health and it was the last thing I wanted to hear about. If anybody talked to me about my health or my body I would be like, leave me alone. It feels like judgment or it feels annoying. What happened was I loved animals so much and I dabbled in vegetarianism from age 8 to 21. I would lose my resolve or forget. When I was 21, I came face to face with what exactly happens to create our meat and dairy, and I just couldn't bear it anymore. Once I really saw it with my own eyes I could not accept it, and there was no way I could ever go back. I went vegan then and, by default, started to feel amazing.
My skin changed drastically. My body changed and just got really healthy. My nails felt really strong, my body shed some pounds that it was holding on to. I was like, what is going on? Is this just good karma? And then I started to research it and became really interested in health. I figured out that this was actually making me healthier and I had so much more energy. I researched it and found out there were all kinds of athletes and body builders who were vegetarian and vegan, not because they cared about animals or the planet, but because they cared about performance.
I started seeing all this medical research that had been done and all the statistics were pointing in one direction that this was actually the healthiest way to live, that you can cure cancer and heart disease and prevent these illnesses. And there are doctors like John McDougall and Dean Ornish, amazing doctors who have entire clinics that are reversing illness. It was interesting to me that something I did for my little reasons was actually something helped the planet, and healed all the needless suffering that people are experiencing in their lives through all these illnesses. Then there's all the superficial stuff, like not needing to take aspirin and not needing Tums. I used to be on an asthma inhaler and I used to get allergy shots twice a week. The second I did this, it all went away.
Was there a spiritual reason behind your decision?
Spirituality is so individual in terms of what that means to a person, so it's sort of hard to talk about. For me, it was my commitment to non-suffering. I don't want anyone or any creature to suffer, and I certainly don't want them to suffer because of me. It's one thing to be unable to help when somebody is suffering, but when you see that you actually are the cause of the suffering by making those choices that's a whole other thing. To me, that's the spiritual component: How could you be willing to turn your back when you know that there's so much suffering going on and when there are so many things we can do to end the suffering?
Do you see the current trend in our culture of buying local and green as an awakening of health consciousness or just a passing cultural fad?
It's crucial and vital to our survival. When it was explained to me first it was so powerful. I had already been vegan for years and years and I was talking to a macrobiotic woman. I was in New York City and I was trying to find mangoes because I was eating raw food at the time. She said to me, "Mangoes are not growing anywhere near New York City. They're growing maybe in Thailand, maybe in Maui and they have to ship them over here." That's the environmental aspect.
But the health aspect is that if it's not growing here, it means your body's conditions aren't set up for that. Mangoes are designed to cool your body off in the heat. The idea of having something that's meant to cool your body off in the snow is ridiculous. I really started to understand that what is growing is what is meant to be. It's nature's way. And when we ship all over the world we feel so luxurious and we can have whatever we want whenever we want it, but it's actually damaging. Your body isn't really equipped to deal with it. Then there's the taste. It's not going to taste as good when it's been waxed and flown, or it's been picked too early. As a foodie, I really love love love food so I want it to be the freshest it can be and there's just no comparison.
In the West, we have a very meat, dairy and wheat based food culture. In your book you have recipes from Greek, Mexican, Japanese and Indian cuisine. During your research, did you come across a certain dietary culture that was naturally very eco-friendly and healthy?
The China Study is an amazing book that everyone should read. I think it was Time magazine that did a story on people who live the longest in the world. There were all these different cultures, and all these people were living to 100s and they were all eating similar foods. When you track the people who are free of illness and are living really long, they all eat the same way. All these cultures are [eco-friendly and healthy] until they get Americanized.
If you look at Japan, people never had cancer. Thirty years ago, they had no types of cancer, no breast cancer. They had so little illness. Their illnesses were not the kind of diseases that we have, but that's normal for them now. The reason they didn't have them was because they ate a mostly plant-based diet and if they ate meat it was such a small part of their diet. And they weren't drinking milk. Milk is now a part of life that's really screwed people up. And then there's India, lots of India is vegetarian inclined. You can pick any culture.
When I go to an unfamiliar country, I am really interested in what the people are eating, not the fancy, rich people, but just the people. And usually the traditional dishes are made without meat, because meat was a luxury at one point. Now, we've made it into this cheap thing because the government subsidizes it and it's horrible business. Meat was really a luxury, because life was worth something a little bit more and we were more mindful of the actual art of agriculture. Poor people were always eating more country food, and those dishes were always so flavorful and awesome. When I was in Prague, I remember their traditional dish had potatoes and almonds and maybe broccoli in it and all kinds of spices. When I would go into restaurants and ask for it they would laugh at me, because I was eating peasant food. But it was really the traditional food. I find that I try to do that wherever I go and get to taste the yummiest country food. Any culture has those dishes. Mexican food can easily be made vegan and healthy. Even the French have great chefs who can make it really healthy.
In the exercise section of your book you mention yoga as a battlefield. Do you have a favorite style of yoga?
I really like, I think it's called Anusara. Why I love it is, I feel really safe. It's really practical. I love my specific teacher, too. You're focused on strength and growth. The whole time you're there, they say, "make sure you know about your pinky toe pressing into the ground and pull up." And they do a whole class on pulling up into your hamstring muscles, and you're thinking you know what those are, but until you do the class you have no idea what they are. They really get you to learn about every little part of your body.
What are some other methods you use to maintain emotional and spiritual health? Do you meditate?
I do meditate. I should meditate every day, and I do love the idea of that. But in reality, I meditate at least a couple of times a week. Sometimes my husband and I meditate together. My diet is really the core of it all. When you eat really well, you're so clear-minded and so present. I feel so connected to the earth. My heart has opened and softened through this lifestyle so much. Sometimes, you're just walking in meditation, if that makes any sense. I feel really connected to my truth, and I feel like I'm committed to growth and learning. The quest for deeper truth is really what I'm living for. That journey can take you anywhere.
This may be a silly question, but do you enjoy cooking? Do you have a favorite recipe from the book that you would like to highlight?
I love it. I love it so much. I don't get to do it very often which may be why I love it so much. The chocolate peanut butter cups are ridiculous. They are mandatory. Also the chorizo tacos or the waffle sausage and cheese panini sandwich. I love the bak choy with ume vinaigrette drizzled all over it.
What is your response to people who say they don't have the time to adopt a healthier lifestyle? Is time a significant factor, or are they just making excuses?
I don't have time for anything either. I made that excuse myself for years. At some point in your life you have to decide if it's important to you to feel great everyday. People have time to go buy really expensive clothes and shoes, go see a movie once a week or watch a lot of television shows. You have to ask the question, 'what do I want my life to be about?' I realized I can keep talking about this life I want to live, like 'one day I want to be all peaceful, one day I want to have less anxiety and one day I want to do yoga all the time,' but it wasn't done until I sat down and said, 'what do I want in this life? What's my big picture goal in every department of my life?'
You're not going to be a good mother to your children if you don't feel amazing. You're not going to be a good wife to your husband if you don't feel amazing. And you're not going to be good at your job. So you're failing in every area of your life if you don't take care of yourself on a fundamental level. We're all walking around being low grade versions of ourselves, doing just a little bit. We're not doing the best we can do. So instead of making it the tenth on my list, it's the first thing I think of. It takes about 10 minutes to figure out where I am going to be and how I am going to get my good food. It's all about planning. You spend more time going through junk e-mail, flipping through channels, figuring out what clothes you're going to wear or what magical makeup you can buy that's going to make you look prettier where you wouldn't even need makeup if you just ate well. Yeah, sure, you can find the best moisturizer, but the core of it all is your nutrition. If you don't put good stuff into you, it's not going to come out well. You're clogging up the machine.
How did you go about vetting the medical information for the book. Earlier you mentioned John McDougall and Dean Ornish. How did their research or opinions guide you?
There are so many sites for each issue, so many amazing studies. There's so much information out there and it's undeniable, but the only reason it's not getting to you is that there are huge forces against us, not wanting us to know because they benefit from us being unhealthy. I don't like to think that they want it that way, but in a roundabout way that's what it ends up being. We just have to take our power into our own hands. What I love about Dr. John McDougall is that he has been proving over and over that you can prevent and reverse heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. And the same with Dr. Dean Ornish. They have programs, long studies and so much experience. So many people are going in ill and coming out well. I believe, even insurance companies are giving breaks to people who follow these programs so it's pretty amazing.
How important is sleep to you? How much rest do you get each night?
I'm working on creating a boundary of how to rest and how to relax. It's really easy for me to do it, once I know I'm allowed to do it. I think sleep is very important. I notice I don't need as much sleep when I eat really well. You feel rested and nourished when you wake up. You don't feel bad. When I didn't eat well it was hard to go to sleep and I used to need like 10 to 12 hours. Now I can function completely on far less sleep. Ideally, I love a good eight hours. And naps are awesome too. I like to meditate and then fall asleep.
The book's aim is quite ambitious, because in the tag line itself you're trying to help people feel better, lose weight and save the planet... does the scope of the work cut out for us intimidate you? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the negative aspects of our culture?
Oh yeah, it's really sad what you witness on a daily basis, my heart breaks often. But I feel hopeful because I can contribute in a positive way. There are so many heroes, so many people who are trying so hard. There's been so much progress, it's undeniable. We have to care. I know a lot of people do care but they just don't know what to do. That's why I wrote this book, so people will have a clear path if they do care. There are so many people who saw An Inconvenient Truth and were really moved and inspired, but they were left often with questions about what to do. And I think this book answers that. If you really want to make a change on this planet, a plant-based diet is the easiest, fastest way to get there.
We all try and conserve water all the time, but to produce a 16 ounce piece of steak requires the amount of water you could use to shower in for 6 whole months. We're using billions of gallons of gas a year to produce meat, and eating a plant-based diet dials down our insane consumption of precious resources like fresh water, oil, coal and the rain forests. For me, it's the answer to world peace. It sounds naive, but to me it sounds naive not to give it a shot. It will relieve suffering for humans in terms of their ailments, it will relieve planetary suffering and it relieves suffering karmically because we're not harming other creatures. It just makes you really peaceful and happy inside.
What's your next step in life?
I made these cosmetic bags and makeup brushes called EcoTools. They're made with hemp and vegetable dyes, and recycled PET. And the makeup brushes are made from recycled metal and bamboo, and they're all packaged in post-consumer waste paper and have eco-tips on them. The money, there's a 1% donation to the planet. They're sold at Walmart, Target and they're going to be available on sale at Christmas time. They are, to me, a solution to the other things on the shelf made with horrible nylons. They're not made with any sort of conscience. And these are products that are inexpensive and stylish and happen to be green.
I'm doing a play on Broadway in January, called "Time Stands Still." I hope to spend November resting because I've been working really hard.
At these times when we're all worried about money, it's easy to switch to a plant-based diet. This radiant health is available for all of us and it's affordable. Your grocery bill will be the same when you trade in for a plant-based diet. Over time, you'll see the doctor less and need less drugs, if any. Like cappuccinos and anti-acids and sleeping pills, it all adds up. It's a really good investment in yourself. It's really good for your wallet. It reduces your health care issues too. Because these doctors, like Dean Ornish and John McDougall have proven that a plant-based diet is so powerful, powerful enough to reverse or prevent these diseases. These diseases and conditions end up costing the country billions of dollars so it's also a contribution to rescuing the health care system, in a way.