Tracye McQuirter is an award-winning author, speaker, activist, public health nutritionist, and vegan trailblazer. Throughout her 33 years as a vegan, she has written multiple books and led the way for many others to follow in her footsteps. Her most recent endeavor is the 10,000 Black Vegan Women movement. She spoke with us about that and more.
Note: This interview was originally published earlier this year, but we’re bringing it back into the spotlight since the 10,000 Black Vegan Women 21-Day Vegan Fresh Start program kicks off today:
Chowhound: What’s your vegan story?
Tracye McQuirter: During my sophomore year at Amherst College in 1986, our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory—the global human rights activist and Civil Rights Movement icon—to campus to talk about the state of black America, but, instead, he decided to talk about the plate of black America. He talked about the health, politics, economics, and culture of what we ate, and why we should become vegetarians.
Most of us in the audience didn’t know that Gregory had become a vegetarian in 1965 based on the philosophy of nonviolence practiced during the Civil Rights Movement, which he extended to the treatment of animals. So, by the time Gregory came to speak on our campus in 1986, he had been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years. In his speech, he traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm to the slaughterhouse to a hamburger to a clogged artery to a heart attack, and it completely rocked my world.
I was completely uninterested in healthy food before that lecture (despite my mother’s best efforts when I was growing up). And I had gained 25 pounds during my first year. But I was going through a paradigm shift at the time as a result of courses I was taking on racism, sexism, classism, and more. So I was open to questioning the way society dictated I should eat as well.
But I was taking my junior year away, going to study in Kenya the first semester and then to Howard University in my hometown of Washington, D.C., the second semester. In Kenya, they couldn’t provide me with vegetarian food, but I had up some up close and personal experiences with animals while on safari for two weeks—from seeing animals being born, to seeing them living their lives freely in their own domains, to seeing them being killed and served—that made me know for sure that I’d be vegetarian when I returned home.
In D.C. the next semester, I found that there was a large black vegan and vegetarian community near Howard University that had opened the first all-vegan cafes and health food stores in the nation’s capital since at least the 1980s. I immersed myself in this community soaking up their knowledge, taking cooking classes, and learning where to shop and how to make it affordable, and about the politics of food. I essentially learned how to be vegetarian in this community during that spring semester and summer. And it would take me another year to let go of cheese back at Amherst during my senior year.
What can you tell me about 10,000 Black Vegan Women?
TM: 10,000 Black Vegan Women is a movement to help 10,000 black women go vegan this year. I want to truly change the health paradigm of black women in this country. We’re leaders in so many progressive ways, but we’re in a crisis when it comes to our health. We experience the highest rates of chronic diseases, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. And while there are many reasons for this, we absolutely have the power to take back control of our health. I tell folks it’s about your greens, not your genes!
I launched the program in celebration of the 10th 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 vegan during the last decade. And with the 10,000 Black Vegan Women movement, I want to help thousands more black women go vegan this year—to get healthy now and for the rest of their lives.
By Any Greens Necessary by Tracye McQuirter, $16.99 from Amazon
What are you hoping to accomplish with it?
TM: The program will be a series of online 21-Day Vegan Fresh Starts, which include online video training in the essentials of plant-based nutrition, and food as it relates to social justice, animals, and the environment; as well as cooking videos, meal plans, vegan recipes, grocery shopping lists, meal prep guides, and nutrition tips, all in a supportive online community. My goal is to give black women the information, inspiration, and affirmation to live a long and healthy plant-based life they love.
How can a vegan diet improve human health?
TM: Eating whole, plant-based foods, along with exercising, being smoke-free, and maintaining a healthy weight, can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases by up to 80 percent or more. And of these healthy lifestyle factors, what we eat is the most important. You cannot out-exercise an unhealthy diet. Good nutrition is key. Eating healthy vegan foods can not only help prevent chronic diseases, but can also treat or reverse heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. It’s our best chance at living a longer, healthier, disease-free life.
What can people do to make their transition to veganism easier?
TM: There are a couple of things people can do to make their transition easier. The first is to be crystal clear about why you’re going vegan. Is it for health, animals, the planet, spirituality? And then have a very solid foundation of knowledge about whatever your reason is. Read about it, watch videos and documentaries about it, go to talks about it. My mantra is “liberate your mind and your mouth will follow.” If you have a solid foundation, then when you experience the inevitable obstacles that will come your way as you transition, you can just start again the next day, knowing that you have a reason and purpose in mind.
The second thing people can do is get support. It’s so essential in making such a life-changing transition. So whether that’s joining a local veg group in person, or joining an online group, or having a vegan or vegan-friendly friend or family member, try to find like-minded people to share the experience with so you’re not going it alone.
Related Reading: The Best Vegan YouTube Cooking Shows
What was your biggest challenge when going vegan, and how did you deal with it?
TM: The biggest challenge was returning to Amherst for my senior year, after being immersed in the vegan and vegetarian community in D.C. and living at home with my mom, who was going vegan with me, during my junior year. At Amherst, there were no daily vegan or vegetarian hot meals served in the dining hall. So I caught the bus to the Bread & Circus in town every week (there was no Whole Foods on the east coast in 1987) to buy my groceries. Then I would make my meals in the kitchen of the Charles Drew House where I lived, then carry my plate of food over to the dining hall for lunch and dinner to eat with my friends. But it gets very cold in Massachusetts and sometimes I didn’t want to walk my plate of food over to the dining hall, so I would sit alone in front of the TV and eat. It was lonely doing that at times, but I knew why I was vegetarian (and soon to be vegan), and since I had been living as a vegetarian for nine previous months back in D.C., I was confident and committed to it.
So I really focused my senior year on letting go of cheese. That was the hardest to let go. Cheese still looked, smelled, and tasted good to me. And I had a feeling that might not change anytime soon. I knew it was going to be purely mind over matter (or mouth!). So I continuously read about how unhealthy cheese is, as the biggest source of artery-clogging saturated fat in the diet, and about the cruelty involved in producing it. By doing this, it finally clicked that the momentary pleasure of a piece of cheese in my mouth was not worth the health risk or the cruelty.
Related Reading: How to Make Your Own Vegan Cheese
What are your best, most practical meal-planning tips for vegans?
TM: If you’re new to planning your meals in advance for the week, start with recipes you already know how to make, like stir-fries or pasta dishes or soups and chilis. Check your fridge and pantry for ingredients you already have on hand and plan your week’s meals from those items.
Also, build multiple meals around the same ingredients. So black beans can be used for tacos or wraps on Monday and spicy black bean soup on Thursday. And tofu or tempeh can be added to a veggie stir-fry on Tuesday and a salad on Friday.
I also encourage people to eat a lot of dark, leafy greens, like kale, collards, spinach, dandelions, mustards, and chard, and sometimes it can be a pain to wash them. So I suggest washing the greens you get within a day of two of buying them, then drying them in a salad spinner and leaving them in the salad spinner in your fridge to add to a variety of dishes during the week.
OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner, $29.95 from Amazon
What are some of your favorite vegan dishes?
TM: I love so many different kinds of food! Thai, Indian, Ethiopian, Soul, Mexican. But if I had to be specific, I’d say the Spicy Basil Eggplant, Chana Masala, Lasagna, Kale Salad, and Perfect Pecan Pie recipes from “Ageless Vegan” are some of my current favorites.
Ageless Vegan by Tracye McQuirter, $21.99 from Amazon
What are your favorite food indulgences?
TM: Mango smoothies, vegetable pot pies, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and warm cookies—all vegan, of course!
What are some of your accomplishments you feel especially proud of?
TM: Being a vegan for 33 years and counting. Encouraging my mom and sister to go vegan with me 33 years ago. Helping thousands of people go vegan over the past 30 years. Co-creating one of the earliest vegan websites, and the first vegan website by and for African Americans, in 1997, with my sister. Writing “By Any Greens Necessary,” the first vegan diet book for African American women. Being cited as one of the most influential vegans in the country because of the impact of the book. Directing the first federally funded, community-based vegan nutrition program. Creating the first African American Vegan Starter Guide. Writing “Ageless Vegan” with my mom, celebrating our 30 years of being vegan.
What empowers you in your work?
TM: What empowers me is knowing that I’m helping people to live healthier, happier, freer lives. And that I’m helping to save the lives of animals and helping to save the planet. I also love the fact that being vegan and choosing the field of veganism as a profession have allowed me to combine my passions for writing, social justice, good food, travel, style, speaking, culture, and community building. Being a vegan is one of the beautiful and powerful lenses through which I see and live in the world and I feel incredibly grateful for that.
What do you wish every reader knew about veganism?
TM: I wish every reader could experience what I do, which is that being vegan makes me feel free. I know that many people think being vegan means feeling restricted and deprived. But, in reality, the opposite is true. Because of what I eat, I can live a life that’s healthiest for me, and kindest to people, animals, and the planet. There’s incredible freedom and fulfillment in that.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
Header image courtesy of Tracye McQuirter