YouTuber Makes Veganism Cool
Chris MacAskill points lens at family, nutritional experts and scientists for the answers
The videos are just plain cool.
There are bison and cows, occasionally a 9-year-old yellow lab; there are adorable grandchildren bouncing on trampolines or drumming on boxes of products for a 5-day fast; there’s a daughter whipping up healthy shakes in the kitchen for her kids to sample; and there’s the tall, baseball cap-wearing host strolling along woodsy paths recording himself on a GoPro camera (sometimes on a skateboard!) responding to critics who suggest that the family’s vegan lifestyle is making his children and grandchildren too pale and thin.
Plant Chompers is the year-old brainchild of Chris MacAskill, a 68-year-old Stanford-educated geophysicist, former tech exec at NeXT (the computer company founded by Steve Jobs after he was forced out of Apple), cofounder of the popular SmugMug photo sharing site, and now a passionate creator of this entertaining and informative YouTube channel about food and health. A fascinating TED talk entitled “Your difference can be your superpower,” offers a riveting glimpse of his unconventional path to success, including homelessness, juvenile detention, and failing college English multiple times.
Among the provocative titles of the thoughtful, often funny episodes of Plant Chompers that frequently include his family in starring roles: “Can vitamins make us fat?”; “Why scientists believe meat has dire consequences for the planet”; “How long do health influencers really live?”; and “The Poop Whisperer.”
After checking out the channel, I was eager to interview Chris. A number of people I know—including myself—are either vegan or “vegan-curious.” In any case, they’re motivated to improve their diets, help our warming planet and become healthier by cutting back on the animal products they consume. Chris’s story and channel might be a catalyst for change. It certainly couldn’t hurt.
My husband Jeff had gotten to know Chris while reporting on tech for USA Today. The two bonded over a shared love of photography and making videos. Chris said part of his inspiration to start his channel was seeing how much Jeff enjoyed creating Photowalks episodes. The two had a ball making a video together at the San Francisco Bay Trail in Mountain View.
But why the focus on health, particularly the vegan lifestyle that Chris and many members of his family had chosen to adopt? The roots of his obsession began long ago, Chris told me in a Zoom interview.
As a teenager he had worked as a caddie for pioneering fitness and nutrition guru Jack LaLanne at a golf course in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“When we’d get to the 11th hole, the golfer was supposed to buy the caddie a candy bar or treat. I always wanted a Butterfinger bar, Baby Ruth or Snickers. Jack would give me a choice between raisins and peanuts.”
Chris never forgot LaLanne, who, long before Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons, promoted exercise and health as the road to well-being and started a popular TV exercise show that ran for 34 years. I’m pretty sure I used to see my mother attempting a few Jack LaLanne exercises in front of the TV set—probably the Jumping Jacks that he performed at the beginning of every show.
LaLanne emphasized a diet rich in vegetables and fruit, with a little fish and chicken thrown in. He wasn’t big on grains but lent his name to a whole grain bread brand.
“He would tell me things like, ‘If it comes from a cow or a pig, don’t eat it,’ ” Chris recalled.
A sugarholic and junk food junkie in his teens, LaLanne reinvented himself as a super-healthy bodybuilder who became famous for taking on physical challenges such as swimming from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco while in handcuffs.
To teenage Chris, he was a hero.
“He was ripped and muscular,” he recalled. “Photos of him were just amazing.”
In contrast, Chris witnessed his 6-foot-tall dad top the scale at 235 pounds and cope with gout and high blood pressure. He attempted to lose weight on the low-carb Atkins diet but ended up dying of a heart attack at 70. At that same age, PR-savvy LaLanne swam a mile with his hands and feet shackled while hauling 70 rowboats with 70 people aboard, as the TV cameras rolled. LaLanne died at 96 in 2011, reportedly of pneumonia. An LA Times obituary called him “the spiritual father of the health movement.”
Observing the contrast between his father and LaLanne was definitely a formative experience for Chris.
Another was living on the streets of Oakland from about 3rd through 5th grades with his schizophrenic mother, who wouldn’t allow him to attend school for fear the Communists would nab him.
“We ate whatever we could shoplift or get out of trash cans,” he said. “I remember a lot of Hostess pies, Cheetos and crap like that. It was a really hard time.”
Chris traces some heart issues to that period of homelessness as a child. Later, high-pressure jobs in Silicon Valley contributed to further health problems.
At 6-foot-4, and 228 pounds, he wasn’t fat, but his cholesterol was high. Determined to get in shape, he trained for three years for an Ironman competition, dropping to 185 pounds, but his high cholesterol numbers didn’t budge. His doctor pressed him to go on drugs to control it, telling him, “You can’t outrun your genes.” But Chris didn’t like the way the meds made him feel.
At the recommendation of some folks on a triathlon forum, Chris read The China Study, a book based on a 20-year Cornell-Oxford research study that examined mortality rates from cancer and other chronic diseases between 1973 to 1975 in more than 60 counties in China.
Although the diets varied a lot and there were no vegans, the researchers found that those “who ate the most whole plants and unrefined plant foods lived the longest by far,” Chris said. “It was a dramatic difference.”
For Chris, changing his diet was a game changer, lowering his cholesterol and blood pressure and helping him keep weight off.
“It was a day/night thing,” he said.
From there, he said, the move toward veganism seemed natural. His example and passion for his new regimen eventually attracted some 30 people in his circle, including wife Toni, daughter Annie, her husband Scott and their five children, and several more of his and Toni’s 13 grandchildren.
While he thinks the Mediterranean diet—mostly plant- and grain-based, plus small amounts of fish, chicken and even very occasionally beef—may actually be the healthiest diet of all, Chris’s own choice to exclude animal products is based on a trio of reasons: first, protecting his heart and health; second, love for animals; and third, concerns about the havoc wreaked by global warming, in particular, its connection with destructive animal-raising practices.
Though a vegan diet has proved a boon for his health, Chris says he doesn’t preach veganism on his channel or in his daily life.
“Some people, even in my family, just assume you’re judging them if they go have a steak. I’m not, but they assume that I am.
“I don't think a little bit of fish hurts you, and it may even be healthier than just eating whole plants—and maybe a bit of chicken. But I just can’t bring myself to eat them. So I’m basically 100% vegan.”
Even Bodi, the family dog, is vegan, though occasionally his owner relents and feeds him a few sardines as a treat. “He looks amazing for 9 years old,” he said.
Apparently dogs can do well on a vegan diet but not cats.
Both Bodi and his owner take B-12 vitamins, something that is essential for vegans.
What they eat
When Chris became a vegan almost 20 years ago, it was more challenging because there weren’t many cookbooks or vegan choices at restaurants. “Now it seems like [veganism] is almost everywhere,” he said.
He and Toni eat simply, avoiding processed foods, sugar and—as Chris has a problem with gluten—most bread. Although his wife makes most of the more complicated dishes, they have adopted a fairly comfortable eating routine that doesn’t require a lot of effort in the kitchen.
Chris shows me the contents of the refrigerator on Zoom. For breakfast, there’s oatmeal, which Toni cooks up in an enormous batch that lasts a week. They eat it with a variety of toppings, such as chia seeds, mixed berries, and homemade pumpkin pie spice mix.
For lunch, there’s usually a salad that Toni, who handles SmugMug’s accounting and holds the official title of “Countess of Cash,” makes daily and leaves for Chris in a big red bowl in the fridge. Typically, it consists of romaine lettuce, pumpkin seeds, shredded carrots, tomatoes, and raisins—the latter reminding Chris of the snack Jack LaLanne bought him as a teen.
There’s a big pitcher of unsweetened green tea. There’s chopped fruit, sometimes from trees in the backyard of their home in Silicon Valley. In the afternoon there are smoothies, which Chris prepares from leafy greens and fruit. There are frozen black bean burgers, Trader Joe’s raw almond butter, chipotle black bean sauce, and 100% dark chocolate.
Doesn’t he miss a few things—like a big beefy burger or bacon?
Chris remembers that after warning him not to eat anything that came from a cow or pig, LaLanne would add, “You won’t miss it.”
“The heck I won’t,” he used to tell LaLanne.
But a strange thing happened after about a year of not eating beef, he said.
“I just stopped thinking about it. And then, after two years, the thing happened that I used to criticize about vegans a lot—which is, I would get a little bit nauseous and grossed out when I’d see it, especially when it was raw.”
Somewhere Jack LaLanne must be smiling.
Recipe for Chris MacAskill’s favorite dal
For her husband’s 68th birthday, Toni made him a spicy Indian-style dal that he enjoyed over riced broccoli made in a Vitamix blender. The dish can also be served over brown or white rice, quinoa, or riced cauliflower. I made it with soaked dried beans instead of canned and served it over a wild rice blend. It was delicious and filling. Here’s a link to the recipe: Fragrant Kidney Bean Lentil Dal.
Have you decided to make some changes to your diet in 2022—or are you already following a vegetarian, vegan or Mediterranean diet? Did you ever try the Atkins diet or another one that worked for you—or didn’t work? I’d love to hear about it.
Thanks for reading the latest edition of RuthTalksFood. And thanks to all of you who subscribe or are thinking about it. It keeps me going—and it’s absolutely free!
See you next time!