Charlotte Willis discovers the inspiration behind the vegan ambassador, animal rights activist, qualified nutritionist and paralympic hopeful…
Heather Mills is a contemporary figure of strength, tenacity and purpose in the face of adversity. Having undergone major surgery after a near-fatal accident over 30 years ago that led her to discover a vegan lifestyle, Heather is now a passionate animal-rights activist and the proud creator of vegan food range VBites. In between her athletic feats, being a board member for the Special Olympics 2017 and training for the 2018 Korean Paralympics, Heather dedicates her remaining time to her philanthropic passions in life. Speaking exclusively to Charlotte Willis, Heather reveals how veganism quite literally saved her life and led her to discover a whole new perspective on food and animals…
As I listen to an immaculately dressed Heather Mills discuss interesting, topical issues in veganism, I am struck by how knowledgeable and genuinely passionate this all too often misconstrued public figure is about her lifestyle. In fact, there is very little about veganism that Heather isn’t aware of. This comes as no surprise as she’s a vegan convert of 30 years, fully qualified with a degree in nutrition, the proud owner and creator behind VBites vegan food products and cafes, as well as the author of vegan cookbook Love Bites.
The Healing Diet
Heather’s journey into veganism began with a ‘leap of faith’. Having been involved in a serious accident which left her fighting for her life and the loss of her lower left leg, Heather faced an aggressive infection while in hospital which would not heal and was spreading to her knee. Facing further amputation and the loss of her knee, Heather had to look at alternative methods to stop the infection. It was veganism that she credits for her remarkable recovery and health.
“The only reason I went vegan in the first place was because of the infection in my amputated leg. I was in the hospital for three months and nothing healed it. In 1993 it all changed when my friend flew me over to Hippocrates, a wellness and healing centre in West Palm Beach Florida. Within two weeks of wheatgrass, raw vegan food and garlic poultices, I was cured of what traditional medicine failed to treat. It was a real exercise in trust.”
Since her recovery, Heather believes she has gone from strength to strength in every way by following a vegan diet: “There is so much to be said for vegan food and healing the body. Veganism can help cure so many diseases – I’ve seen first-hand how people’s health can be turned around by switching their diets. My energy levels, my calmness, my health – everything improved. I think clearer and can make better decisions.”
Love at First Bite
As is the case with many transitioning vegans, Heather found herself craving traditional meat staples such as chicken and fish, she explains: “I missed the taste of meat, and that’s when I began making my own versions of bean burgers and gradually introducing a few fake-meat products.”
Heather was inspired to turn her passions for cooking and veganism into reality. In 2008, she created her range of ethically produced vegan, kosher, pareve and halal certified meatless-meats, cheese and fish substitutes called VBites. From a small start-up company, the brand has since bloomed. It exports to 24 countries worldwide, with exciting plans to expand in Europe and extend to the USA.
But what makes Heather different from other celebrities is her active involvement in every stage of the product development.
“I would never put my name to something I’ve never been a part of! I taste-test every product and come up with new ideas with my team. We are currently working on a new donner-style kebab and a periperi burger. One of my favourite VBites products is the Hoisin Duck. I put it in a lettuce cup wrap with chilli sauce and veg and snack on it! The Fishless-Fish is also something I’m really proud of. There is nothing like it on the market at the moment.”
Converting the Carnivore
VBites is Heather’s way of reaching out to both vegan and non-vegan communities alike. Heather believes food has the power to change opinion. “One of the easiest ways to change people’s perspectives on food is to let them eat it and try it for themselves. When my friends and customers try our products they are amazed that this kind of food is vegan and tastes so delicious.”
From their first taste she believes non-vegans become curious and their imagination is sparked: “They might try the vegan burger, then try another vegan dish, and before you know it they’re interested in going fully vegan, all from providing that initial taste.”
VBites was founded to help unify the two communities. “By creating simple alternative products for my family and others alike, you help them understand and remain vegan. I made sure that the kids in my family could go to any birthday party and have like-for-like vegan food so they never feel alienated or different.”
As word spread and success grew, the first VBites café opened in Brighton in 2009. Heather jokingly admitted, “When we first opened, the café got a few complaints! It was originally a fish restaurant – and the locals were not best pleased. But soon after they tried the food, they were converted!”
A believer in education of food, the cafés are designed to be family-friendly and interactive. “If we can make going vegan as simple, fun and creative as possible, it’s going to change the environment, health of the world, and help save so many animals. That’s why I opened the cafes and, with 74 products to choose from, everyone has a choice”.
Working behind the Headline
Becoming vegan has changed Heather’s life in many aspects, she explains: “When you learn about veganism, stop eating meat and dairy, you raise your head above the parapet. I’ve always loved animals, but I didn’t think for a second as a child that I was eating these creatures that I admired. I think there is a great disconnect between the food on our plates and where it originates from – especially when it comes to carnivores.”
Since making the change, Heather has become actively involved in animal welfare, campaigning as a patron for animal rights group VIVA! and making appearances in global campaigns for PETA. Notably, she was a crucial figure in the 2007 EU Parliamentary ban of dog and cat fur importation and exportation. She helped gather 250,000 petition signatures, bringing the issue to the public’s attention. “No-one thought it was going to be possible. But after I watched a video given to me, showing the absolutely horrific way in which these animals were skinned alive, I was in shock and had nightmares for months. I could not rest until something had been done.”
You can easily be accused of being unaware of Heather’s involvement in such projects. Her activism often remains out of public view due to the harmful impacts of mass media: “The media often don’t care about anything. I do everything behind the scenes now so that it does not damage the charity. It’s rare that I do a public speech these days, however I make exceptions for subjects I am truly passionate about.”
That’s not to say that she is a passive campaigner. Instead, Heather uses what she has learnt from her dealings with the media to campaign in a practical and intelligent way. “I think that everyone who begins as a vegan goes through a stage where they project their personal guilt, being very vocal and proactive. This was initially how I felt, but as you grow you learn that you need to focus your energy towards more problem solving, with ways to actively get your point across. That’s how we make a difference in today’s society.”
Despite her setbacks in life, Heather’s grit and determination is demonstrated by her dedication to winter sports. She is a fully qualified ski instructor and ski coach, she is a member on the board for the Special Olympics 2017, winner of numerous medals and trophies for downhill alpine skiing, and holds the world speed ski record for the fastest disabled woman on earth, having reached 166.84 km/ph on a downhill speed ski slope. Heather praises her vegan diet for her incredible abilities. “I have a fair few injuries on my legs and all over my body – I’m turning into a bionic woman! I never get tired as since becoming vegan my energy levels are so high. I can do 20 ski runs downhill and I have no leg soreness. A lot of my fellow competitors have changed the way they look at their own diets since talking to me and learning about my journey.”
She adds, enthusiastically: “At my age, I’m still here winning medals! I seem to become stronger and fitter every day and with every ski run, despite my age. My recovery time is massively improved because there is less pressure on my body. For anyone who says you don’t get enough protein, look at my muscles! I’ve got the most energy I’ve ever had and I’m almost 50.”
Changing Perspectives for Modern Veganism
Training for the 2018 Paralympics in Korea, Heather spends the majority of her time in European countries such as Austria and Germany – known for being very forward-thinking in terms of veganism awareness and acceptance. She explains: “The UK is a very closed-minded country when it comes to veganism. There simply isn’t enough public knowledge and so the public have these incorrect judgements. If you contrast that with Germany, which has nine vegan supermarkets, they are well ahead of us in terms of their thinking.”
However, she is optimistic about the future of veganism on a global scale: “I see this changing in the future. I believe there is a new generation of forward thinking people who are seeing such modern day problems, and who are inspired to become vegan. We need to show the world that vegans are forward thinking, innovative and modern. Then we can change the way people perceive us and help make a positive impact on the planet.”
After meeting Heather, I am left feeling inspired. She embodies a real sense of modern-day veganism. Figures like Heather help encourage ethical campaigning, which fuses with veganism’s incredible culinary diversity to reach out to promote a healthy change of perspective. Restoring the environment and bringing back compassion into the lives of modern day society all begins with the first bite.
Find out more about Heather on her website www.heathermills.org. Heather’s recipe book Love Bites is available to purchase from www.vbitesfoods.com and Heather’s VBites products are available in Holland and Barrett stores nationwide as well as online at www.vbites.com