Growing up, I was mostly served microwaved chicken nuggets and french fries for dinner. When we had a salad it would consist of iceberg lettuce smothered in ranch dressing. Needless to say, eating vegetables wasn't something that came naturally for me. But today, I find myself craving cabbage and peppers far more than a burger or brat. My transition from omnivore to vegetarian is something that I eased into and I'd like to share how it's something you can easily accomplish as well. Being vegetarian may not be ideal for everyone, but for a number of reasons I believe adopting a veggie based diet is a good idea and doesn't have to be a stressful process.
Baby steps toward a veggie diet
I didn't simply decide one day that I would never eat meat again. Instead I decided, "I'd like to eat less meat". Many people would like to do the same but find it difficult in a culture where eating meat in 2 out of 3 (if not 3 out of 3) meals a day is standard. Meat products are everywhere in restuarants, cafes, and other stores. They're also very cheap because of the production style in factory farms. So it's easy to eat meat in America, some would say a meat diet is easier than a veggie one in current social conditions. However, there are several ways to get started with a vegetarian diet:
- Set realistic goals. You do not have to give up all meat right away. Instead of eating meat everyday, first limit it to every other day, then only once a week, then once every two weeks, until you are accustomed to meals without it at all.
- Try chosing just one type of meat to eliminate at first. Get used to what it's like to avoid that kind of meat and how to substitute it. From there you can move on to another meat and another, until you are meat free.
- Use meat substitutes. Although "fake meat" can perpetuate mental dependence on meat, it can at least help in the transition until you are more comfortable with meals that don't include the texture of flesh. Of course there are soy products to use but there are other alternative as well like Quorn, so you have several options.
I don't think we can say there aren't any up-sides to eating meat. Meat does offer nutritional value and a significant amount of calroies to sustain life. Many athletes choose meat over carbohydrates/vegetables because in their personal experience that diet acheives results for them. However, as I will highlight more in the next section, you can get the same kinds of nutrition that meat offers but without the negative side effects (high cholesteral, hypertension...animal cruelty). Many seeds, grains, and even fruits can offer you high-density fatty acids, proteins, and minerals that are excellent fuel sources.
How a vegetarian diet has affected me
Eliminating meat from my diet makes weight control much easier, has given me more energy, and helped me experience new foods.
Though I maintained a healthy weight while eating omnivorously, it became even easier when those extra calories and fat from meat were eliminated. What is difficult is finding vegetarian options at fast food restaurants or other cheap food vendors. By making "no meat" a rule, it automatically took away my ability to eat at those undesireable places and cuts out fatty processed foods. No matter what I decide to eat from there is usually already an improvement on the average American diet.
During exercise, I find that I have plenty of energy needed to execute vigorous workouts and recuperate from them better. Contrary to popular belief, proteins produce a very small amount of energy (ATP) needed during exercise. Therefore, to power my workouts I rely more upon high-density fats from seeds and oils (along with certain carbohydrates). And though protein is linked to repairing muscles, I have found that I bounce back from heavy workouts more quickly since eliminating animal protein. I believe part of this is due to my vegetarian diet lowering the rates of stress hormones. Cortisol is a stress hormone known to cause sleeping problems, even insomnia. But a diet containing more whole-foods/vegetarian based is linked to lowering this hormone in humans. Therefore, because I sleep better, I allow my body more restfull time to repair itself and have more energy to keep working out.
As I've already mentioned, my upbringing didn't allow for much adventurous eating. So another benefit of going veg is being open to trying a variety of new things. I didn't even know some types of foods existed like quinoa for example. Quinoa is a South American crop grown mostly for its seeds. It's also known as the "super food" because it contains almost everything a person needs to survive within it; this includes protein and fats that are higher-density and therefore better for you than the kinds found in animal flesh. I've also explored the huge realm of vegetables previously unknown to me including a variety of dark greens not normally found in a standard American salad (kale, beet greens. etc.).
Don't let them make you feel badly
When I started telling friends and family that I was trying to go vegetarian, I got a lot of heckling or strange looks. It's almost as if being vegetarian isn't American. After all, the meat and dairy industry is huge for American companies. But who cares what anyone else thinks? It probably says more about their own defensive personality than anything about you because why should they care what you're eating anyway? Yet, on the other hand, I and other vegetarians/vegans do care about what the meat-eaters are eating. So is that a double standard or does being veg have more validity? I know what I would answer (paying someone to torture and kill animals on your behalf is wrong), but that doesn't mean I am objectively right or that there aren't other important arguments to consider. So in the end, dietary choices are up to the individual and you should eat what you believe is right for your life. Try something new and see how it affects your energy, mood , and overall health. No pressure - just adventure.