Cool to be Kind

Photography by: Jonathan Skow
Cool to be Kind

Alicia Silverstone doesn’t seem like an angry food activist. Savoring a plate of vegan nachos smothered in black beans and pico de gallo at one of her favorite Los Angeles restaurants, the 33-year-old actress—best known for playing Cher in the movie Clueless—can’t help leaning over and asking the couple at the table next to ours how they like their polenta-crust vegan pizza. When they give her the thumbs-up, she beams, “I knew it was good.” Is this the same woman who posed nude for a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ad? There’s not a hint of the stridency you might expect from a celebrity known for championing animal rights. To my surprise, she’s not here to convert me to veganism. In fact, the only message she’s pushing these days is that strict dietary rules, including crazy-making calorie counting, are counterproductive.

That philosophy was the inspiration for her exceptionally researched and engagingly written The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight and Saving the Planet (2009), which sets a new standard for celebrity lifestyle and cookbooks. “I want to present people with vital information in an accessible way,” she says. “I didn’t fill the book with dense science, but I do offer loving, friendly advice to educate people about how to be kind to yourself and kind to the planet by making healthy, easy and delicious food.” The book reflects the ways in which Silverstone is kind to herself: She enjoys drinking wine and even eating sweets, but most of the time she sticks to a vegan, macrobiotic-influenced diet that emphasizes whole grains, vegetables (especially greens), legumes and unrefined sweeteners like rice and maple syrups. “The recipes in The Kind Diet are the yummiest dishes my husband [musician Christopher Jarecki] and I have made over the past 11 years.”

From Clueless to kindness
The “journey” to The Kind Diet began more than a decade ago, when, in her early 20s, Silverstone was coming off the success of Clueless and preparing to star as Batgirl in Batman & Robin. Struggling with what she calls a “hypnotizing” penchant for calorie counting and body-image issues, she was once chased through LAX by paparazzi shouting, “Fat girl!” “That diet-oriented, calorie-counting brain was so oppressive,” she recalls. “People take an all-or-nothing attitude toward weight loss because they’re afraid of failing. But being bad to yourself doesn’t help you lose weight.” Once she took charge of her diet, embracing meat-free foods she loved, she shed pounds without trying and ultimately experienced a newfound freedom. “It was extremely empowering. It freed my brain not to focus on calories and not to look at food in a negative way. I could eat as much as I wanted—and I had so many choices.”

With those choices came other health benefits. Her nails that were once weak and speckled with white spots grew strong and pink. Her acne disappeared, as did her allergies (and the need for allergy shots) and asthma (and her inhaler). “I realized food can be as strong as medicine,” she explains. “It’s about finding balance and listening to what your body needs. If you just pay attention, [your body] will tell you.”

Teaching without preaching
In an effort to pass on what she’d learned, Silverstone started gathering facts and figures—she can spout meat-industry statistics like nobody’s business. With that commitment came her activism and membership into a Hollywood vegan club that includes actors such as Tobey Maguire, TV host Ellen DeGeneres and her good friends singer Alanis Morisette and actor Woody Harrelson. In addition to her now-infamous PETA ad, she’s spoken out against fur, received awards from organizations like Farm Sanctuary and publicly supported political candidates like fellow vegan and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). She may not be preachy about it, but Silverstone definitely regards The Kind Diet as a form of activism. “I started the book because people are always really curious about the way I eat,” she says. “I wanted to let them know healthy eating doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You don’t have to be all vegan or all macrobiotic. You don’t have to change a lifetime of habits in one day.” And, in case I missed the point, Silverstone says, “At no time is beating yourself up an option.”