I’ve been vegetarian on and off for pretty much my entire life. When I was 13, the school took us to a chicken farm for a school field trip. I held a chicken and it struck me how warm and soft it was, just like one of our pet cats. After that I decided I didn’t want to eat meat anymore. It had nothing to do with health, or even with the ethical treatment of animals. It was the idea of eating this warm, living, breathing being. I simply felt it wasn’t something I wanted to do.
When I was 25, I fell off the vegetarian wagon. I couldn’t really tell you what happened, but I think I just stopped caring. I was eating poorly, drinking regularly, and just not paying attention.
A year and a half ago, I saw the movie, Food Inc, and the next day I went back to being vegetarian. This time it was for my health, for the ethical treatment of animals, and because I did not want to support an industry that so clearly didn’t care its workers or consumer health. I ate meat a few times in the following years, but only when I knew it wasn’t coming from a factory farm. Thinking about it now, I doubt I will eat meat again anytime soon. I simply prefer not eating it at all.
It’s exciting to me to see a renewed interest in vegetarianism and veganism in the public, due in part to a few popular books like In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and The China Study by T Colin Campbell. Movies like Food Inc and Forks Over Knives show the darker side of the meat industry and the health benefits of a plant based diet.
I can tell you from first hand experience that going vegetarian will not make you healthier by default. I gained a lot of weight the first time I was vegetarian. Don’t forget, there’s no meat in cheese pizza, potato chips, soda, cake, doughnuts, grilled cheese, french fries, or any number of nutrition-free, high calorie binge foods.
To be a healthy vegetarian, you have to eat vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. You can’t use it as a reason to have cheese with every meal. It’s also important to think about getting protein. I’m not one who thinks you need a ton of protein unless you’re a bodybuilder. The average American gets too much. But as a vegetarian, you can end up with a lower protein intake than you desire if you don’t give it a bit of thought. If you eat a variety of vegetable foods with moderate protein content, you’ll get plenty. The protein comes in small bits rather than one big hit from meat. Dairy and eggs are the obvious choices aside from meat for a high protein content, so I’m going to share a Vegan protein list with you so you can think outside the animal products box:
In fact the whole Vegetarian Resource Group website is great if you have questions or concerns about getting the right nutrition without meat.
I prefer cooking without meat. It’s more interesting to me. I find many of my favorite recipes through simple Google searches. Ethnic food, like Thai, Indian, and Chinese is perfect for vegetarian cooking because it tends to be all about the spices. What’s American food about? A hunk of meat with a potato and maybe a mushy veggie? Boring. Give me a coconut curry any day!
If you want to be a healthy vegetarian, you’re going to have to cook for yourself and cut back on eating out. I hate to say this, but at many restaurants the non-meat choice is the worst nutritionally. Chain restaurants seem to think that nobody wants a dish without meat unless it’s smothered in cheese or creamy sauce. The choices I made when I was a teenager: quesadillas, cheese sticks, and cheese enchiladas (with cheese sauce!) were not good choices. I know better now. If you happen to live somewhere with a lot of ethnic food options, you may be able to eat out more often than I do. But where I live it’s almost all chain restaurants and they are quite bad for vegetarians.
There’s no reason you can’t try vegetarian cooking without giving up meat. Perhaps you do a Meatless Monday. Or maybe you just decide to skip the meat for some meals. You could decide to make at least one meal a day vegetarian. It really doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Meat eaters will certainly benefit from getting additional vegetables in their diets as well.
If you have any questions about vegetarianism, please feel free to ask me either here or on my Facebook page. If you want to know more about my thoughts on vegetarianism, check out this post: