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.
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.