So you want to be a vegetarian?
There are quite a few reasons one would choose to become a vegetarian. It’s healthier, it isn’t cruel to animals and it has a wider flavor palette than the traditional meat-plus-side combo. It was a decision I debated for some time, but I was unable to take the plunge until a documentary, called “Forks over Knives”, pushed me over the edge. The movie laid out a pretty convincing picture of the health risks associated with animal protein and, quite bluntly, stated that a vegetarian diet isn’t nearly as extreme as surgery to reverse the adverse effects of meat. I was lucky enough to have an ace up my sleeve for this process; my wife was already a vegetarian. This meant that I was already familiar with vegetarian food and the shift away from meat was more of a step than a leap. However, during the short time I’ve gone meatless, I’ve learned a lot of useful information for anyone else considering the switch. For example…
There is protein in a lot of things!
There are two very common responses when someone learns you are a vegetarian. The first is usually “Where do you get your protein?” This comes from the fact that meat carries a high protein count and is considered the ‘main course’ during most meals. Aside from imitation meat products, like those made by Boca and Morningstar, protein is actually found naturally in a surprising amount of foods. I was already eating protein from peanuts/peanut butter, spinach, corn, almonds, potatoes, whole grain bread/pasta and bananas, and that was when I wasn’t looking for protein alternatives. In general, beans, nuts and grains have more than enough protein for ones daily energy needs, but a little digging will reveal just how non-essential meat protein really is.
If I wasn’t worried about vitamins before, why would I start now?
The second response usually follows closely with the first, suggesting that you’re not getting enough calcium or vitamins from a meatless diet. I suppose the calcium one is valid if you’re giving up milk (which I did) but it’s incredibly easy to find plant based milks that are infused with calcium, as well as some natural sources like oranges and almonds. But, the more I thought about it, the more the vitamin argument didn’t make any sense to me. I paid little to no attention to my vitamin intake while eating meat, so why would I start worrying about it now, especially when I’m eating more fruits and vegetables? It seemed a little backwards, as if meat eaters should be the ones who are asked if they’re getting enough essential vitamins. It reminds me of an episode of the show Good Eats. The host, Alton Brown, held up an orange and a donut. He said that the donut was “energy dense” in the sense that you’re getting calories from it, which we can convert to energy, but not much else. He then said that the orange was “nutrient dense”, meaning that it didn’t have as much calories, but it contained far more good things for our body, like fiber, vitamin C, and calcium, than the donut. It was a beautifully simple concept. So, while I have no idea how many vitamins I’m getting from my vegetarian diet, I’m confident that I’m eating significantly more “nutrient dense” foods than I was while I was eating meat. Which means I’m far better off.
Meat is delicious, but I’d rather live longer.
There are some people out there who choose to be a vegetarian because they don’t like the taste or texture of meat (my wife is one of them). And then there are other people who still acknowledge that meat tastes good, but they don’t want to eat it because of how unhealthy it is (like me). There are some arguments that are made along the lines of “so-and-so eats meat and they lived to be one hundred!” These arguments remind me a lot of those over tobacco and alcohol. “So-and-so smokes and they lived to be one hundred” and so on. There are exceptions to every rule. Some people who treat their bodies poorly will live to a ripe old age. And some people will die of lung cancer even though they never touched a cigarette. But it’s a game of statistics. Like I said, the documentary was only the final push. I had been led to the edge by countless other sources that said meat, and most of the processed foods today, are killing us. Junk food is the tobacco battle of this generation. And, while there are a million different things outside my control that may kill me, why shouldn’t I take control of the few things I can influence?
Everybody loves bacon!
One of the most damaging aspects of being a vegetarian is the social pushback. Unless all of your friends are also vegetarians, there is a good chance that your meat-eating comrades will impose upon you a sense of smugness. As if, you’re choice to give up meat makes you superior to them. Of all the vegetarians I’ve come in contact with, none think themselves superior, nor do they have a problem with people who do eat meat. But, even if they don’t think you’re smug, they may have trouble understanding your choice and it will undoubtedly single you out at all those summer barbeques. It took me upwards of three months to ‘come out’ as a vegetarian to my family and friends. I’m still convinced that most of them don’t know about it because I’m not exactly flashing a neon sign. But, for whatever reason, people celebrate meat. Bacon is a meme, burgers are all-American and ham and turkey are the quintessential holiday dinners. It’s no surprise that a social culture, based largely around eating, is going to stumble at the sight of a vegetarian. So, if you’re thinking of becoming one, know that this may be an unfortunate by-product. On the bright side, with enough time, it will become second nature and you can be a role model for others who wish to make the switch.
Restaurants will not accommodate you.
It’s true that a lot of restaurants will have a vegetarian option on their menu, but unless it’s a particularly veggie friendly establishment, that one option is going to be loaded with cheese, milk or eggs. Not to mention; who wants to eat the same thing on the menu every time they go to that restaurant? My heart truly goes out to vegans who are forced to more-or-less exile themselves from restaurants that don’t cater directly to them. This means that, once again, you’ll be the awkward person at celebrations. The documentary I mentioned earlier stresses that all animal proteins are bad, including milk and eggs, but I’m not so strict that I will shun my friends and family. The compromise I made for myself is that I would be vegan at home and vegetarian when I’m out and about. There is also the issue of a beloved grandmother who makes you the roast you used to love as a child, and you don’t want to break her heart by saying you won’t eat it. There is a big difference between personal willpower and family guilt. I would not consider a vegetarian a failure if he/she ate meat to appease a clueless relative. And that’s an important thing to remember as a non-meat-eater. Don’t beat yourself up about it if you stumble. Much like with exercise, the only way to stay strong is to get back up and keep running.
I suck at cooking.
One of the last things I’ve learned about being a vegetarian is that it’s still very easy to eat like crap. For example, did you know that Oreos are vegan? When cutting out familiar foods, it’s easy to fall back on other familiar foods, some that are worse than the meat you’re giving up. That’s why it’s so important to check ingredient labels. Not just for meat/dairy products, but for heavily processed chemicals that are bad for everybody in large quantities. Ideally, you’ll be spending most of your time, and money, in the fresh fruits/vegetables section of your grocery store, but when you suck at cooking, it’s difficult to make anything more complex than peanut butter covered apple slices. I discovered, after making the switch, that I really enjoy mild peppers, but I can’t eat them all before they go bad. Part of that is because fresh food goes bad quickly, and part of it is because I never think to cook it in anything. In the past, my idea of cooking was to follow the directions on a box. I was pretty good at it, but eating healthy and eating vegetarian means you’re going to have to work without directions. Yes, there are lots of recipes out there, but some can vary wildly in their ingredients. Honestly, it’s all trial and error. If you prepare yourself to eat a lot of not-so-great-meals, you’ll have the right outlook to reach some truly delicious combinations.
This was one of the first documentaries to put America's unhealthy food problem into the mainstream light.
While Alton Brown isn't a vegetarian, he has no shortage of amazing food information.
A book about the shocking world of the food industry and food addiction.
Seeing the benefits.
Meat is a crutch. When I decided to give it up, I found myself willing to try new things on restaurant menus and in my shopping cart. Not all of them are hits, but I find the flavor palette to be considerably more refined rather than relying entirely on salt, fat and sugar. It’s true that one could have a similarly rich flavor experience with unprocessed meats and vegetables combined, but how many will really bother? I’ve found that my body has more energy to get through the day than when I ate meat. Previous stomach upset, when I ate bad foods, is virtually non-existent. And the sense of guilt that comes with eating cruelly killed animals is gone. I can’t say that vegetarianism is right for everyone, but I can say this: there are two decisions in my life that I absolutely do not regret. The first was marrying my wife. The second was becoming a vegetarian.
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