December 26, 2013 marked my one year anniversary of going fully vegetarian***. Today I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this transition. First, two disclaimers:
- I don’t think you’re a bad person for eating meat. I’m not trying to foist my opinions on you. I respect your choices. Okay? Okay.
- I’m sorry for the length of this post. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while and we all know that brevity is not my forté.
A Little Background: Beyond Health Benefits and into Animal Agriculture Territory
After flirting with a vegetarian/vegan diet for 8 months, I decided to take the plunge and go vegetarian, all the way, in 2013. This was perhaps six weeks after I wrote a blog post about Jeff’s and my experimentation with a vegan diet. In it, I wrote that “at this point, I don’t see either of us giving anything up completely.” So what changed?
I had read “The China Study” a year before and found that it brought up legitimate questions about the long term effects of meat, poultry, and dairy on our bodies, particularly in relation to the development of autoimmune diseases and cancer. I continued to try and educate myself about the research that has been done on disease rates in connection with diet. Then, in December, Jeff and I watched a documentary called Vegucated,which follows three average Americans attempting to make a full-scale shift to veganism. I had assumed that the documentary would be focusing on how these people made the switch to a vegan diet and to the effects the diet had on their health. There was some of that, but there was also a substantial amount of footage focused on the animal agriculture and welfare aspect of a vegetarian/vegan diet.
Let me start by saying this: I am not an “animal person.” I like big dogs, the kind that will run across a field with you, and I really enjoyed the 10-15 times in my life when I went horseback riding, but my love for animals pretty much ends there. When it came to food, I never wanted to educate myself about breeding or slaughtering practices because I knew it would likely be disturbing. I took the “we all have a place on the food chain” position or the “there’s only so much we can do” position, and remained happily unaware.
Vegucated showed only brief glances into the cattle, poultry, and fishing industries. It deserves to be said that this was a fairly “amateur” documentary, written and produced by a small crew, so it avoided the somewhat sensationalist, “exposé” feel of a Michael Moore film, for example. There was no undercover work; all of the people interviewed in the film were fully aware of the cameras. It simply showed what happens in regard to raising and slaughtering animals in America. (important note: the film focused on mass-produced beef and poultry products, not on tiny, organic, locally run farms in Oregon where the chickens have friends and playdates (Portlandia reference..anyone?) I’m not going to go into all of the practices that were discussed and documented. I’ll just say that for me, it was very difficult to see.
This may seem like a big leap, but it’s the truth: this film (and the research I did after seeing the film) would not have affected me in the same way before I became a mother. Watching, or even hearing about, people or animals suffer is now much more difficult than it ever was for me before. Watching a baby lamb screaming as it was ripped away from its mother 3 seconds after being born; watching a cow screaming as her babies were taken from her; watching a cow being castrated without any anesthesia (sorry!); it hit my heart in a way I never would have felt had I not had my own babies. I actually had to have Jeff fast-forward through several parts because I just couldn’t take it. After the movie, I was shell-shocked. Part of me wished I had remained completely ignorant of all of it. The other part of me had already made up my mind. “I’m not going to eat meat or poultry anymore.” I told Jeff.
And I haven’t. For me, the impetus for a complete shift to vegetarianism was a combination of wanting to move toward a healthier diet and wanting to move away from the animal agriculture practices I now find questionable.
I should now add that Jeff is not vegetarian (he occasionally eats meat at work, at restaurants, and during holidays/traveling) and that our boys are not either. In my ideal world, we would be a fully vegetarian household. However, we have been on a long journey toward improving Finn’s diet, one that included needing to address an iron deficiency, and at this time, trying to keep him dairy and gluten free as we are, we’re not in a place to remove one of the things on his limited list of foods. However, I do make a real effort to give the boys fat and protein through foods other than meat, and Eamonn is a big fan of black bean burgers and other vegetarian options. For now, I’ve decided that I don’t need to eat meat, so I don’t. What our family approach to eating might look like a few years down the road is still open. (edited to add: I don’t mean that I might go back to eating meat, but that we may all go fully vegetarian at some point down the road)
The Effects of Going Vegetarian: My Experience, One Year In
How Hard Was It?
Going vegetarian hasn’t been difficult for me, but I should add that I’ve never been someone who loved meat. Back in college and graduate school, I often cooked vegetarian meals because it was cheaper. I genuinely like beans and tofu and vegetables. So this switch was obviously not as hard for me as it would be for someone who hates spinach and lives for a good steakhouse dinner. The one thing I thought I would miss was cheeseburgers. I quickly realized, however, that what I really love about cheeseburgers are the 100 toppings and condiments I pile on them, rather than the actual meat. I’m still getting to pour a pound of ketchup, barbecue, hot sauce, and mustard on top of my veggie burgers, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
I’d say the hardest part for me is having it limit my cooking options. Cooking/reading about food/planning menus is a hobby of mine, and so it’s beena change for me to no longer get really excited about my latest issue of Bon Appetit (since I won’t be making at least half of the recipes) or to always have to go to the “vegetarian” section of the recipe index on the food blogs I love. This past summer, I expressed this to my friend Molly (who has also made the switch to this lifestyle) that going vegetarian has made me slightly less enthusiastic about cooking. She said that she’s actually found it really fun, trying to create recipes that are both healthy and that taste good, and finding new specialty ingredients and ways of preparing food. That helped me reframe my own thinking about it, and since then, I’ve looked at cooking vegetarian as more of a enjoyable challenge than as something I have to constrict myself over.
The Protein Question
The most frequent question I get from people when I say that I am a vegetarian is “how do you get enough protein?” Matt Frazier at The No-Meat Athlete does a great job of explaining the idea that (taken from his site)
You don’t need as much protein as most people think, and it’s easy to get what you do need from beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and even greens.
Matt follows the U.S. recommended daily allowance of protein and shows how a vegetarian can easily meet the recommendation. You can read a detailed explanation here, if you’re interested. This is another good article on what protein is, why we need it, and why you don’t need have to get it from animal sources.
Overall Health and Wellness
The biggest thing that keeps me happily vegetarian is simple: I feel good doing it. This past year has not been the kindest to my body, and someday I am going to need to make up for it by doing a lot of yoga and napping, but for all the sleep deprivation and physical demands of staying at home with my boys (one of whom needs a full-time spotter for his trapeze work), I feel pretty good. Although I wouldn’t say that a vegetarian diet necessarily “energizes” me, I will say that I think I feel a lot less tired and rundown than I would if I were eating more meat-laden meals, or more poorly in general.
I’ve lost some weight over the past year as well. I can’t chalk that up solely to vegetarianism, as a number of factors have contributed to it, such as having a very active lifestyle (despite not formally exercising at all) and curbing my chocolate habit a bit, but eating vegetarian has certainly played a role in it. I find that I naturally cook much less-rich meals, with less butter and oil, through vegetarian recipes. I don’t “splurge” as much while out at restaurants or social occasions because vegetarian options tend to be healthier overall.
Finally, I’ve found I’m more in tune with my hunger and satiety levels while eating vegetarian. Although I would have rolled my eyes at such a notion ten, five, or even one year ago, I’m more on board with the whole “treat your body like a temple” concept. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no paragon of willpower and healthy eating. There are plenty of times I fall prey to the typical pitfalls of being a mom of small children: namely, mindlessly finishing their food and finding myself polishing off a bag of chocolate chips when it’s been a really tough day. But I’m trying, at least trying, to do right by this one body I’ve got.
When I moved to making only vegetarian meals for Jeff and myself, I had hoped to see our grocery receipts go down a bit, as I wouldn’t be buying meat anymore. Unfortunately, going vegetarian hasn’t resulted in smaller grocery bills. If anything, our grocery bills have gone up. This has less to do with vegetarianism than it does with an overall shift in the food we buy.
- We are still buying meat for Finn (and sometimes Eamonn), and because I’m much more cautious now about what I’m putting into their bodies, all of the meat products I buy are those crazy-expensive, organic, farm-raised, tutored-in-Chinese, chickens-who-have-friends products.
- In the time since we went vegetarian, we went from having 3 eating-solid-food people to 4 eating-solid-food people. Eamonn has been very slow to solid foods, but I’m still always trying different things with him. Whether he eats them or not, it’s still money added to the bottom line.
- We eat a ton, a TON of vegetables and fruit. Finn downs fresh fruit like a maniac, and since he eats very little in the way of vegetables, I keep our fruit choices stocked for their vitamin/antioxidant benefits. I don’t know about you, but produce is responsible for the largest portion of our weekly bill.
Although I wasn’t expecting our grocery bill to go up after going vegetarian, it’s something I can live with, because I now put a higher premium on the connection between nutrition and health. We try to balance it out by only eating out once a month (for date night) and very rarely (maybe once every few months) getting takeout.
Lifestyle: Traveling, Eating Out, Social
In the Triangle area, most restaurants offer a vegetarian option. Of course, my choices are limited, but it’s not oppressive. I usually take the opportunity to eat something I wouldn’t make at home, like a vegetarian sushi roll or a really, really big cheese plate.
The only time I feel slightly uncomfortable about eating vegetarian is when I feel like my choice affects others. When we travel to visit one of our families, I don’t want them to feel like they have to plan meals around my diet. When we met up with friends at a tapas restaurant a couple of months ago, we wanted to share everything, but I didn’t want them to feel like they had to have enough non-meat items represented. These are little things, though, and they don’t factor much into my daily life.
The Vegan Question
I still eat eggs and cheese occasionally. I don’t use cow’s milk and I haven’t eaten yogurt in more than a year (when I cut back on dairy in general, yogurt just stopped tasting good to me). I’ve decided not to go fully vegan at this point simply because it would require a larger shift in my daily life that I don’t think I can take on right now. It would also affect many more lifestyle and social choices, as I think it would be more difficult to find restaurant options or share food with friends, etc. If there’s anything I’ve learned since becoming a parent, it’s never say never. But for now, I’m sticking with the vegetarian rather than vegan label.
What a Typical Daily Menu Looks Like
I eat mostly the same things for breakfast and lunch, day after day after day. I like it that way. Dinner is when I try new things and experiment with recipes.
Breakfast is either oatmeal/oat bran (if I have time) prepared with almond milk (unsweetened coconut and two kinds of nut butter on top), or whole wheat toast (I like Ezekiel bread) with nut butter. And coffee.
Lunch is nearly always one of these black bean burgers (very easy to double the recipe; I keep them in the freezer and heat in the microwave) on either pita bread, toast, or a sandwich thin, and a huge plate of kale. I like kale raw, but I usually heat it for 50-60 seconds in the microwave just to make it wilt a bit. Finn nearly always gags as the smell of it fills the kitchen. If I’m out of bean burgers, I’ll “fry” a couple of eggs and put those between some sort of bread with half an avocado. Oh, and the burgers/eggs are always topped with an assortment of condiments. My favorite combination at the moment is a lot of yellow mustard with a thin layer of apricot jam. Not kidding.
Dinner is lots of different things. Here’s a random recipe we really liked for Sweet and Sour Tempeh. (tempeh may not be a very “approachable” food for some, but the sauce is great…give it a try!)
In between, I snack a lot on fruit, nuts, popcorn, crackers and whatever other bits of food my children throw my way. I’m trying to be better about snacking less and eating more at meal time but… it is what it is.
Some favorite sites chock-full of excellent vegetarian/vegan recipes:
And…that’s it! If there is anyone who read that entire post, I’m impressed. I’d love to hear more about your approach to eating and/or feeding your family. What do/don’t you eat (I feel like 3/4 of the people I know have some sort of stipulation to their diet these days, whether it’s vegetarian, gluten-free, “paleo,” sugar-free, etc) ? Have you ever tried giving up meat for a period of time (Lent, etc)? What was your experience? Do you buy organic? (we only buy organic produce about 1/3 of the time)
***I have eaten fish/shellfish 4-5 times over the last year. I’m planning on going fish-free from here on out.