health

A Year Without Meat

Last year on April Fool’s day I did something that was not a practical joke -- I became a vegetarian. I did eventually feel like a fool but only because I realized a.) how much I was lying to myself in order to eat a “normal American diet” an b.) how easy it was to eat more in line with my values. When people ask me about what it’s like to make the switch to vegetarianism I always tell them it’s one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. I don’t say that to downplay others’ more difficult transitions or to somehow make myself look better. I’ve honestly found this change to be one of the easiest habit changes I’ve ever undertaken. I’m happy to share my experience with becoming a vegetarian in this article but I’d like to take a step back and try to suss out why this behavior change was so easy for me. There are lessons somewhere in my experience that I want to try my best to uncover. But first, a couple thoughts specific to becoming and being a vegetarian.

LIMITATIONS ARE NOT A PROBLEM

The obvious assumption is that by removing a whole class of food from my diet I was going to end up feeling deprived or limited in some way. As many people have described in their own switches to vegetarianism, I did not feel limited in any way. In fact, it was the complete opposite. By giving myself guidelines and restrictions I suddenly had to use more creativity to eat a diet I wouldn't get completely bored of. I started trying food that I never would have if I had been eating my normal diet. I realized there is a whole world of food out there beyond my normal rotation of meals.

YOU CAN BE AN UNHEALTHY VEGETARIAN

Being a vegetarian doesn't mean I'm automatically healthier. I've struggled with this at times because some of my favorite junk foods fit right in with my vegetarian diet. Huge muffins, donuts, bread -- I could eat all of this for days. They may lack meat but they definitely don't lack in empty calories. Being a vegetarian requires an increase in my mindfulness regarding food and being a healthy vegetarian requires even more.

SOME PEOPLE CAN BE MEAN — MOST AREN’T

I've answered the question, "Why?" a lot over the past year. At first I felt a little self-conscious while answering this question. I felt like I immediately had to defend myself from those who were looking to denigrate my decisions. Then, I realized that most people were just genuinely curious. Being a vegetarian seemed like a crazy thing to them and they wanted to know what it was like. I'm happy to share that I have a myriad of reasons for why I've become a vegetarian and much of the time it's a nice segue into a great conversation.

THE LESSONS BEYOND VEGETARIANISM

My specific experiences becoming and being a vegetarian aren’t much different from anyone else’s who have made this same change. What may be a little bit unique is how easily I made the change into this type of lifestyle. This is what truly fascinates me because generally habits are incredibly difficult to change. I’ve had success changing some, utter failure changing others, but changing my diet like this is arguably my largest yet most successful change. What can I learn from this experience?

TYING INTELLECTUAL KNOWLEDGE TO VALUES IS POWER

When I was first becoming a vegetarian I spent a lot of time researching where most of our food comes from as Americans. I read about factory farms and the effect they have on the human workers who operate them, the environment we all live in, and obviously the animals that lose their lives there. I learned about the health benefits of a diet that features mostly plants and other whole foods. I discovered that being a vegetarian doesn't have to result in me being super skinny or frail. I then took all of this intellectual information that I learned through reading, watching documentaries, and talking to people and directly tied them to my values. I value Peace very highly and I could see that my normal diet was not particularly harmonious with that aim. I value Growth and I realized that challenging myself to undertake a diet that more closely aligned with what I believe would be a perfect avenue for growth. When I felt the urge to eat meat I didn't have to think only about the intellectual side of things (factory farms are terrible places, you can be healthy without meat, etc.) or only the values side of the equation (supporting the factory farm industry doesn't promote peace, etc.). Instead, I could think about both of these approaches and tie them together into a much more compelling reason to stick to my goals.

PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY IS PRETTY HUGE

I've been writing online for well over 2 years. Over a year ago I wrote about my switch to vegetarianism and wrote about my plan to stick with it. I didn't want to bail on this life change and have to write about how I failed. An even more powerful component of accountability was with the people that I interacted with on a daily basis. My family quickly realized that I was serious about this life change and I didn't want them to think I was giving up by eating meat. Same with my friends and other people I hung out with regularly. I didn't want to slap a piece of meat on my plate and then explain that I had failed. I didn't have a good reason for reverting to my old diet other than enjoying the taste of meat. That wasn't reason enough for me to let down my commitment.

STOPPING A HABIT = STARTING A NEW ONE

Changing my diet to a vegetarian one was the same as any other habit. It becomes much easier to stop doing something detrimental if you replace it with something positive. Instead of viewing my diet change as removing meat I tried to think of it as adding much more varied and interesting food. I tried to view it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness when I'm eating at a restaurant or catching a waft of barbecuing meat on a summer day. My diet change was growing a series of positive changes across my life, not just ending and removing something else.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Obviously, considering the tone of this article, I’m not going back to eating meat any time soon, if ever. In fact, the next inevitable step is going completely vegan. Considering the ethical and moral undertones of my reasons for being a vegetarian, I can’t continue participating in the dairy and egg industry with a clear conscience. I’ve already been moving in that direction for the last couple of months by removing most of the obvious sources of dairy and egg from my diet (like glasses of milk and hardboiled eggs). Once I’ve lived comfortably for awhile with these obvious sources removed I’ll then concentrate on those food items where they are somewhat hidden. I’ve been on the lookout for substitutes and have been trying various brands so when I do finally make the switch I’ll be used to what’s out there. Once I feel ready to make the final surge into full veganism I’ll probably spend some time doing additional research into the dairy and egg farming industry to make my commitment as real as possible.

Other than removing the last bit of incongruence from my diet I’d like to make a more concerted effort to just eat better. I can still fall into lapses where I eat lots of baked goods and crappy (yet vegetarian) food. I need to challenge myself in the kitchen more so I can continue to grow my skills in preparing food for myself. I don’t necessarily need to be eating new and exotic food all of the time since I’m pretty content with a couple staples, but it’s still nice to be pushing the boundaries with my cooking abilities.  Lastly, I’ll soon spend a month or so recording everything I eat so I can make sure my macronutrient intake is where it should be. Even though protein suggestions seem to be overblown in our society, I am lifting weights regularly and I want to make sure I’m getting enough to make my time in the gym worth something. I also want to make sure I’m not somehow missing vital vitamins or minerals with what I’m currently eating (yes I am taking a multivitamin with B12).

If there’s any parting advice I can give you if you’re thinking about becoming a vegetarian it’s to just try it. This entire lifestyle change started with a 30 Day Challenge where I firmly intended to go back to the way I was eating before. If I hadn’t done that challenge just to see what it was like I probably would have never made the change. The other aspect is to focus on what you can eat — not what you can’t. If all you think about is what you can’t eat you’re setting yourself up for some serious mental anguish and likely failure. Instead, try to focus on the new things you’re trying and how much you enjoy them. Lastly, try to tie the behavior change to a deeply held belief or value. When you can do that it’s no longer a matter of “not eating meat” but “not participating in a cruel industry” or “not contributing to the environmental destruction that factory farms cause” or “not supporting an industry that mistreats its workers.” Those are powerful emotions and reasons that will help you get past the fact that hamburgers taste good.

Have you made the switch to vegetarianism or veganism? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.

 

What I've Learned From a Month of Being a Vegetarian

On April 1st I started a month-long experiment in being a vegetarian. It’s not a particularly unique 30 Day Challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. As I’ve learned more about myself and how to live more consciously, I’ve discovered that the best way to do anything is not to read about it or think about it — but to actually do it. So, after months of reading about other people who have made the switch to vegetarianism and experienced impressive improvements in their life, I decided to give it a shot myself.

I had two main reasons for doing this. Firstly, I simply wanted to see if I could do it. I like challenging myself and giving up meat is something that requires at least a little bit of willpower. I wanted to see if I was capable of changing my diet that drastically. Secondly, I was interested in any potential health benefits. I’m in pretty good shape already but I wanted to see if maybe changing my diet would change how I felt on a day-to-day basis. These were my two reasons for giving the experiment a shot, but you’ll see that they did not end up being my most compelling reason to stick with it.

But first, a couple things that I learned:

  1. It was much easier than I thought it'd be: I’ve largely lost my taste for meat. Maybe this is only a temporary sensation but I don’t feel some guttural longing when I see a slab of steak on a plate. Vegetables just look more appealing, lighter, and more energy packed than any piece of flesh. Other than a few moments of momentary social pressure, I haven’t found the switch very difficult.
  2. I have a wider array of food choices: I assumed I would feel like my food options were incredibly restricted once I made the switch to vegetarian. The opposite is true. When you remove meat from your options suddenly a bunch of items you never considered become available. I’ve tried more new recipes and types of food in the past month than I have in the past 24 years of my life.
  3. A life-wide increase in mindfulness: Having a “rule” of no meat has made me more conscious about everything. Obviously, I’ve become more mindful about what I’m putting in my mouth but I’ve found that increased mindfulness has spilled over to other parts of my life. I’m not some kind of Zen master now, but I do find myself questioning some of the things I’ve always taken for granted.
  4. I'm developing a new skill: To be a healthy vegetarian you have to be able to cook. It’s not like I never cooked before, but now I’m doing it a lot more. I knew that if I didn’t want to eat salad and pasta for every meal I was going to have to try some new recipes. It has been a ton of fun and I’m developing a skill I can use for the rest of my life (and impress the ladies, obviously).
  5. Some people seem to take what I eat very personally: I was surprised how many people reacted to my vegetarianism with outright hostility. I spent exactly zero time proselytizing about all the benefits I was experiencing with this life change and yet on several occasions people very close to me decided that I was personally affronting them by not eating meat. It’s truly remarkable how dearly some people hold their habits and how unwilling they are to see other people doing something completely different. Strange and a little disheartening.

While all of these were good reasons to keep going throughout my monthlong challenge, something surprising happened. I developed and tapped into my moral reasons for doing this.

THE SURPRISING RATIONALITY OF BEING A VEGETARIAN

I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist or anything close to a PETA member. I thought animals were delicious and that’s about as far as I ever followed that train of thought. However, over the past few months, and especially during my month of vegetarianism, I have clarified some moral thoughts that I’ve been having.

If I have two options that are very similar in difficulty, expense, energy, and convenience but one requires the suffering of an entity that very obviously feels pain, why should I select that option? Over the past month I’ve discovered that it’s not hard to not eat meat. It’s not more expensive to not eat meat. It doesn’t take much more energy or inconvenience me to not eat meat. So, why should I eat meat? Because it tastes good? Is that reason enough to justify killing an animal? I’m not convinced that it is.

Additionally, it is very apparent to anybody that has done one iota of research on the industry of factory farming that it is not a.) sustainable b.) humane for the animals and c.) particularly humane for the workers that run it.Why should I participate in a diet that supports this industry when I know I can easily, and at almost no inconvenience to myself, change my actions to support a more humane, logical, and sustainable way to feed people?

Before this experiment I think I just assumed that it would be very difficult to switch to a vegetarian diet. I’ve learned that I was very wrong in making that assumption. I don’t feel deprived or weak in any way. In fact, I feel like I’m in better health both mentally and physically than I was before I started this experiment.

MOVING FORWARD

As you can probably guess from the tone of this article, I’m planning on continuing my vegetarian eating habits for the foreseeable future. I’m going to continue to take it a month at a time but for now, I’m happy with the way I feel eating this way. I know I can still make many improvements to my diet and I’m excited to explore more of what vegetarianism has to offer.

I think the underlying lesson that I learned from this month is the truthfulness of the overused cliche, “Don’t knock it until you try it.” I used to think vegetarians were pretty weird, irrational, and uncannily disciplined. Then, I tried it for myself and found out that I don’t think I’m any weirder than I used to be, I feel MORE rational than I ever have now that I’ve thought about the implications of my diet, and that making this change has required less self-discipline than many other changes I’ve made or need to make in my life.

If you want to make a change in your life but aren’t sure that you want to commit to the long haul, just do it for a month. Give yourself complete permission to revert back to your old ways at the end of the 30 days if you don’t like it. You might just find out that you’ve been missing out on something pretty great.