A year ago I would have told you I would never think of becoming vegetarian. I didn’t really see it as being healthier than an omnivorous diet, and health (especially weight maintenance) is what mattered most to me, as opposed to concern for the animals. From my reading of popular nutrition theories online and from my own experience, I believed it was easiest to maintain my weight if I ate a diet high in lean protein including fish, white meat chicken and turkey, low fat Greek yogurt, etc. I liked beans, for sure, but I couldn’t imagine a plant-based diet, probably because my mom’s home cooked meals always included fish, poultry, or, rarely, red meat, as the center of the meal. I didn’t and still don’t believe in the healthfulness of low-carb diets like Atkins, but I worried that a vegetarian diet would be too high in carbs.
All of this changed for me as a result of a handful of factors. One was my introductory nutrition class–I’m telling you, it changed my life. My brilliant professor presented finding after finding that showed that people these days are eating too much meat, which is bad for several reasons. A lot of meat that Americans consume is high in saturated fat, which increases risk for heart disease. Meat is more calorie dense than most plant based whole foods, which makes it easier to overeat, and many people do. When people consume more animal products, they consume less plant foods, which have most of the nutrients we need to thrive and prevent chronic disease. Also, protein isn’t as important as I thought it was. People only need 5-6% of their calories from protein to provide the necessary amino acids for muscle maintenance; athletes and people losing weight need a bit more. I learned the environmental repercussions of the way animals are raised in industrial agriculture–did you know that more global warming is caused by meat consumption than by all forms of transportation combined? Another factor was that at college I was exposed to delicious and healthy vegetarian meals. The dining hall in which I eat the most practices “Meatless Monday,” which has come to be my favorite dinner of the week, and on all days provides a vegetarian or vegan entree. There is also always a salad bar available, and an abundance of a variety of cooked vegetables throughout each week. The more I learned about the negatives of meat and the positives of veggies in class, the more I took advantage of the vegetarian selection. My roommate and now my best friend at school is a vegetarian as well, which no doubt has had an influence on me, eating with her every day. I realized from her how much protein plants can provide. I now share her love of beans as the center of a meal.
I decided to experiment and try out being a lacto-ovo vegetarian at school between Thanksgiving and Winter breaks. For the most part, I didn’t feel limited and got pretty used to avoiding the meat dishes. When I went home for winter break I started eating meat and fish again, though, because as I said my family meals center on meat, and it would have been harder. Since then, though, I pretty much eat pescatarian or vegetarian whenever it’s convenient, and it usually is in college dining facilities. I’ve found it just as easy if not easier to maintain my weight, because I can eat a higher volume of vegetables than I could meat for the same amount of calories. When it isn’t convenient, or when I’m eating out, I haven’t tried to avoid meat. Until now, that is. For the last week or so I’ve been participating in this really awesome Food Revolution Summit, where interviews with three experts a day on a variety of food topics were broadcast live on the internet. I’ve learned even more about the benefits of a so-called “plant strong” diet, and been even more inspired to minimize my consumption of animal products (yes, even dairy). The final push for me was learning about the horrors of factory farming.
Let me clear up a few things. I think there is room in a healthy diet for consumption of some animal products, especially fish. My professor last semester would say, “Use meat as a condiment,” which I really liked. But the way most animals are raised for food is in my opinion unacceptable–I don’t want to contribute to that kind of suffering. I think there’s something natural about the food chain; our paleolithic ancestors did hunt, after all (though their meat consumption was a fraction of what people consume today). But there is nothing natural about the typical practice of factory farming, for meat or eggs or dairy. I can’t go vegan yet, but I’m compelled to stop eating meat. Here’s the thing though- I still can’t say I won’t ever eat meat again, or that I won’t decide to eat it next week if it’s free range, grass fed, and antibiotic-free. I still haven’t even decided if I want to exclude fish, and I don’t know if I’ll ever officially “decide.” Can I call myself a vegetarian if I eat meat 5% of the time? More than just the identity crisis, I do want to encourage the idea that it is preferable for health and the environment to eat more of a plant-based diet even if you still eat some animal products. So when people ask, I’ll say I’m plant strong. It will certainly invite questions, but that’s the point. To achieve reform, you need dialogue. Maybe I’ll start a trend.