So, you want to be a vegetarian?
Let me share with you my personal journey to going (mostly) meat free over the last five months.
Ground rules, when I refer to vegetarianism in this post I’m referring to those who don’t eat any animal flesh including fish but do eat eggs, dairy, and consume other animals byproducts. Also known as ovo-lacto vegetarians.
For me, my main motivation to become vegetarian was the environment. My initial interest in sustainability stemmed from wanting to reduce the waste associated with unused foods and food packaging. However, access and mental health complications have made the cost and restrictive nature of low package or locally produced foods a bit too much for me to handle. So food has actually been one of the last things in my life I’ve moved towards making more sustainable.
However, in one of my sustainability courses my professor told us that after quitting driving or going off the grid (things that aren’t possible for most Americans), not eating meat was the single most effective way to reduce your individual carbon footprint. The packaging issue still felt a bit daunting to tackle, but cutting back on meat seemed very doable.
At first, I made sure to eat meat no more than once a day. Now, I didn’t often eat meat multiple times a day before but it did happen a couple times a week. This was a small achievable goal that helped me to feel confident moving forward. Next, I stopped buying meat from the grocery store, but I still ate meat at restaurants and in my college dining halls when friends let me in on their meal plans. I lived this way for the last month and a half of my spring semester before returning home.
Once I went home for the summer I ate more or less what my parents were eating because I didn’t want to be a bother. However, they do eat a very meat heavy diet and after a couple weeks of eating so much meat I could tell that my body wasn’t really loving it and my desire to go vegetarian was strengthened.
I declared my intent to be fully vegetarian a couple of weeks after returning home.
The First Few Weeks
I then proceeded to not have the heart to tell my friends parents I wouldn’t be eating the lovely dinners they prepared when I was visiting. This was largely because I hadn’t yet thought to tell everyone I was vegetarian so of course their parents wouldn’t know. There was no way I could tell the mother of a childhood friend I was refusing homemade meatballs!
After I actually told people I had gone vegetarian it wasn’t really a big deal at all. Everyone was more than willing to accommodate with mock meat substitutes or just make a traditionally meat free meal that night like pasta and salad. Bonus, I usually get to take any left over mock meats home with me when I have dinner at other people’s houses!
I’ll start with the positives of my experience so far, which are mostly intangible factors.
Being an environmental vegetarian fills your day to day mundane choices of what to eat with a sense of meaning. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned after studying psychology for three years it’s that our brains are always looking to create meaning. For someone like myself who has a history of depression this is a real benefit. This is something that vegetarianism and sustainable living overall have brought into my life that I really value.
- Animal Empathy
I’ve found that I feel an increased connection to and empathy for animals. Now, I’m not vegan so I understand that I’m still contributing to factory farming and animal mistreatment. But, reducing my meat intake is a step in the right direction and feeling less guilty has enabled me to really explore my feelings about and connection to the other animals I share this planet with.
- New Foods
I have cooked, baked, and purchased many foods I would not have otherwise tried. Vegetarianism has generally encouraged me to explore many vegan foods as well that I would not have thought to try were I not already vegetarian. While I don’t plan to become vegan anytime soon I do preference vegan options wherever I can.
- Lower Grocery Bill
Ever notice that meat is expensive? Well, when you’re a vegetarian you won’t be buying any of that anymore. For me, the foods I’ve used as protein sources instead of meat such as eggs, peanut butter, beans, and tofu are all way cheaper than meat so I’ve saved a bit of money.
While I’ve enjoyed being vegetarian there are a few things I don’t love.
- Vitamin B Deficiency
Yes, I made the rookie mistake of not supplementing and suffered symptoms of vitamin B deficiency for about two weeks. This was mostly my fault for not doing my research ahead of time, but a simple store brand daily multivitamin did the trick and I stopped feeling the symptoms within a week.
- Forgetting Protein
It isn’t too difficult to get protein as a vegetarian, but you do have to try a little bit harder. Especially at first before I’d adjusted to the new diet I’d find myself feeling odd at the end of the day only to realize I’d neglected eating any protein.
- Limited Restaurant Choices
Lucky for me the three towns I’ve lived in since going vegetarian have all had vegetarian friendly restaurants, which are great. But, when you’re at the average American style establishment, like an Applebee’s, options will be slim. If you’re tired of salad entrees your only options are likely to be appetizers and sides. Particularly if your a college student and your main source of food is a dining hall the vegetarian diet is going to feel a lot more restrictive. This was the case for me during my 8 week long summer job and it was definitely more difficult to be vegetarian there than it was at home.
- Annoying Comments
Often people say things to me like “Well what difference does it even make for you to not eat meat, why bother?” Or they get defensive about their meat consumption despite me never saying anything to them that they should reduce their meat consumption. Most people are actually really cool about it and I welcome questions that show genuine curiosity about vegetarianism or just me as a person. But I don’t love when it’s assumed I’m judging people or questions imply that they already believe vegetarianism is stupid.
Yes, I do eat meat occasionally. About once every two to three weeks, why? Sometimes it’s because I’m staying over my boyfriends house and there isn’t really anything vegetarian in the fridge or some similar situation. Mostly it’s because never eating another piece of fried chicken or special family dishes my whole life (or for years) sounds sad. I want to lower my carbon footprint but I don’t want to deprive myself or drive myself crazy doing it. Additionally, I don’t really want to lose the ability to process meat which is something that can happen if you are very strict for a long time. Maybe I should call myself flexitarian instead, but because my meat consumption is so infrequent I find vegetarian the most accurate and easy shorthand for others.
Why Vegetarianism Doesn’t Always Work
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some reasons people may not be able to go vegetarian or that it might not make sense.
There are both physical and mental health reasons that could prevent a person from being able to cut meat from their diet. Those living in food desert, relying on free meal programs, who have never been exposed to vegetarian foods, crave meat, or don’t directly control their food (minors living at home, living at an institution etc.) will also have additional challenges to going vegetarian.
I also want to recognize that vegetarianism alone isn’t a nuanced enough solution reducing the negative impacts of meat production. The most efficient and sustainable food production may involve farming both animals and plants on the same land together (though my brief research revealed no absolute consensus).
Additionally, the meat production system outside of western culture is much more localized and ethical so going vegetarian for those reasons in other cultures may not make as much sense.
For all of the reasons above, I’m not really interested in pushing a vegetarian lifestyle on others. I aim only to share my own experience to help others who are interested switch, create conversation, and spread some awareness.
At the end of the day, being a vegetarian is working really well for me right now.
The pros outweigh the cons and unless I have a reason to switch back I’ll stick with not eating meat. If you’re interested in reducing your meat consumption I would say just try it out! Enjoy experimenting with new foods and please, don’t forget your multivitamin.
Are you interested in vegetarianism, veganism, or plant based eating? There are so many things I touched on only quickly in this post or had to delete to keep it from getting too long so please leave a suggestion for a future post related to this topic!