A little more than two years ago, I decided to become a vegetarian. This was actually something I’d been brewing in my head for quite a while, but was always afraid to take the leap. When I finally did, some people naturally asked why. Two years out, I still get questions, so I thought I’d answer some of them now and assemble a list of takeaways from what I’ve learned so far from this experience.
Okay, in all honesty, there are actually quite a bit more than just five things I’ve learned from this transition, and the points I lay out below are pretty layered. I could write a series of posts on this topic alone (and I may at some point). But they fall into five main buckets and I’ve tried to summarize as best I can.
(Quick disclaimer: I’m not a food or health professional by any stretch of the imagination and while I believe there benefits to eating more whole, plant-based foods, none of what you see here should be considered medical or health advice. This is just an explanation as to why I decided to stop eating meat and what I’ve learned so far in the process.)
I’m still learning quite a bit about the vegetarian diet and I should note here that I’m far from where I’d like to be in terms of what I eat, how much I prepare for my family and myself, and what I’d like to really focus on in terms of diet (and that is really just eating more whole foods). I should also note that my diet to date is strictly vegetarian, not vegan, so I don’t want to mislead anyone to my decision making here.
Final note before I dig in — I made this decision with two caveats for myself:
- No consumption of deceased animals — this includes meat, poultry, and seafood
- Do not, under any circumstances, try to persuade others to follow this lifestyle. NO PREACHING. This was a big part of the choice. I come from a family of meat-eaters and I never once have tried to convince them that they should follow one path or the other. This was an individual choice on my part, and after two years of this, there have been zero issues or conflicts. I have been more than happy to talk about why I made the choice, as I’m doing here, but I realize and appreciate that everyone has their own path and choices to make. I’m just explaining why I made this one for myself.
Okay, enough rambling. Here are the main five things I’ve learned about becoming a vegetarian.
1. There are questions.
The two biggest that I’ve received from this change are “why” and “do you eat fish.”
Most people who learn I don’t eat meat have been curious if I made this choice based on moral or health reasons. The answer is both. I’d been reading a lot on the realities of factory farming and the meat industry, and I just could not continue to turn a blind eye to what I saw. Plus, once you start really digging into that world, you can’t unsee what you’ve seen, and claiming ignorance is no longer really an option.
And yes, I realize that given that fact that I still eat some dairy (mostly cheese; milk and egg consumption are minimal), this is still important to consider. Two big resources that I looked to on this front were the documentary Cowspiracy and Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. Both dramatically changed my perspective on what it means to eat mass-produced animal products. Cowspiracy takes this a step further and digs into the climate-change implications of factory farming. Real eye opener — regardless of your diet choices, that movie is worth watching.
As for the health side of things, I began reading vegetarian and plant-based cookbooks and watched films like Forks Over Knives, which is eye-opening to say the least as it relates to the human diet. Resources from the book world have included Rich Roll’s The Plantpower Way, Matt Frazier’s No Meat Athlete, and all three volumes of books by Thug Kitchen.
There seems to be a general idea that all vegetarians eat fish, and I know a few vegetarians personally that do this, so I understand the generalization. I, however, decided to cut seafood, which was, oddly, the hardest thing to give up (I’ll get to this more in a minute). As I indicated earlier, the main idea with this move was to not eat deceased animals. To me, it just felt odd to cut out one animal and not the other. Again, this was the most difficult part for me, because I loved seafood and miss the taste of it.
2. People are really curious about protein.
Among all the questions I got this was one of the top ones. What are you doing for protein? Sometimes when I order a veggie sandwich I get an odd look or a question from the chef or cook or food prep person asking ‘you want any protein with that?’ with a face that says “This looks pretty boring, man.” This is a common question, I’ve learned.
Also, I’m separating this into its own category because it’s apparently a big deal for people and I don’t really understand the general obsession over it. I understand its importance, but there are plenty of areas to get protein into your diet without meat. Beans. Nuts. Tofu (though I don’t eat much tofu, I’ve tried it, and lo and behold, I suck at making it, so no). The list goes on.
In fact, hey, here’s a list of non-meat sources of protein by One Green Planet.
3. The smells will always entice.
Yes, I still get haunted by the warm smells of chicken and hot dogs at barbecues and, worse for me, as it seems, the distant smell of a clam shack in the summer months, wafting in the July wind. I mean, good God, that smell hits me every time. You learn to live with that. Besides, I don’t miss the heartburn.
Despite the enticing and nostalgic emotions the aroma brings, and excluding fish, I haven’t really missed actually eating meat as a result. But yes, I notice the smells of these things more now.
4. It’s quite possible to gain weight after scraping the meat.
And for me, it was. This was a surprise. My lowest (and healthiest) weight in the last three years has been at 165 lbs. This was, I learned, my ideal weight for my size and age (and this was when I was still eating meat). It was humbling to hit this mark rather unexpectedly, which I did after years of wading in the waters of 220-230 lbs. with high cholesterol. The big shift me was was in food choice. I started paying attention, I implemented smoothies into my diet, which was quite literally a life-changer, and I started exercising more (usually running, but oddly enough even when I ran two half marathons I wasn’t at my lowest weight).
So yes, I’ve actually put on a little weight since I stopped eating meat. Not much, but enough to keep me in check. This isn’t unheard of, but I think it’s less acknowledged because there is a general idea that once you become a vegetarian you’re going to be healthy-looking and optimal in weight. Not necessarily so. It’s actually easier and more tempting to think, “Oh, I’ll eat that (whatever it is), since I don’t eat meat anymore.” Well “that” could be anything from junk food to some other form of processed food.
5. The transition isn’t that hard.
I’ve sprinkled hints of this throughout this post, but the biggest surprise was how relatively simple this transition was. Granted I’d already had a low consumption of meat in my diet, but I was sort of surprised how much I didn’t really miss it. More importantly, I was surprised (and grateful) at how accepting others were, namely family. As I mentioned earlier, my family has fortunately been accepting of this decision, and anytime I’m at a big family meal and meat is the main course, I simply substitute it with more sides (usually potatoes and another vegetable).
It’s been an interesting two years and I feel as though I’ve just started. There’s a ton more to learn. But it’s worth it, I feel good about the choice and I’ve come to realize the learning curve doesn’t really stop. There’s lots of experimenting yet to do, lots of meals to cook and prep, lots of things to try out. But for those considering the transition, hopefully some of this makes it easier and less scary.
Because it’s really not that scary. Like most things, our conscious minds just make it so.