My Jewish-raised grandparents used to pick me up from school every day. They would bring with them buttery croissants, chocolate chip cookies, eclairs, black-and-whites, and numerous other fresh baked goods. It was as though fattening me up was, in their mind, key to my success. Food always seemed to be on their mind. As such, every day, the minute I heaved my very large backpack into the car, my grandma would ask me the same question. “What did you have for lunch today, honey?” Every day, I would roll my eyes and mumble my answer under my breath. It annoyed me to no end. I felt like all the other events of my day (like tests or presentations or friend issues) just didn’t matter to her. One day, I decided I had had enough. She asked me the question and my response was more than audible that day. “A goat. I ate a goat for lunch.” She got very quiet…and she never asked me again. But I also noticed her disappointment and sadness within the silence from that day on, and this confused me for a long time.
Coming from an extended family not unlike that in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I was raised to believe that food was a sign of prosperity, of love, and of health. To decline such an offer or not eat heartily from one’s plate was the equivalent of a major insult as well as an indication that you might be sick (at the very least, in the head). Instead of accepting this view as my own, however, I realized that food had power- power to control my weight, my physical and mental health, how people viewed me, how I viewed myself, and even the power to make decisions to better the world. I sought to use that power to my advantage instead of allowing food to take control of me.
Why am I writing about families, culture, and religion when the title of this article is about being vegetarian? Because families, culture, and religion are SO tied into how we view food and so many of us do not have a healthy relationship with it. If you don’t believe me, think about your favorite meal and think of the reason why. I will bet that when you think about your favorite meal, a number of sensory “images” come to mind. I would bet that your favorite meal is rich in calories and flavor, that it is a warm meal, that its smell reminds you of one of your favorite times as a child when you were eating this meal, or at the very least reminds you of the person who makes or made it for you as a child and who shared it with you. I would wager that no matter how much you have searched for finding the best place that makes your favorite meal, you have yet to find a time where it tastes as good as the first time you ever had this meal. My favorite meal is one I have not eaten in a long time. It is a strange concoction of Kraft macaroni and cheese with extra milk, ketchup, and tuna fish. Whenever I imagine it, I can’t help but smile. I am reminded of the unique smell and my unique grandma making it for me as a child. Though this memory provides me with a pleasant feeling, I do not allow myself to dwell on the food, as I’ve realized that the food is only a lifeless medium that provides saliency for the emotion.
I only began to understand what food really is at its simplest- a combination of nutrients for our body to thrive- when I became vegetarian. Until then, I was always in conflict with food: If I eat this, will it make me gain weight? Will it make me feel bad? Will it give others power over me? Do I know what is really in this? Do I know how this food got to my plate? Will others think poorly of me? Will I look in the mirror and like what I see? If everyone ate this, would it still be here in a thousand years for others? Until I became vegetarian, I didn’t consciously realize that these conflicts existed within me, that what I was consuming was really eating up (no pun in tended) so much of my mental and emotional energy. I believe the direction I went with my decision to be vegetarian stemmed in part to resolve these debates within me, although my husband will tell you we went vegetarian because he lost a debate.
A coworker of my husband’s was/is a vegan. Not an “only when I eat at home” vegan or an “I eat no animal products except honey” vegan. He was a VEGAN in all caps…and that is what his very large green tattoo said running down his arm as well. He was the kind of vegan that called up every company he bought anything from and would make sure every single bit of what he wanted to buy was without animal products of any kind (example: Pepsi uses crushed beetles within the dye in some of their sodas.). My husband D respected his sincerity and consistency, but would always have intellectual debates with him about why he was vegan. His coworker’s response was always the same. “Because I don’t *need* meat.” And D at some point realized it was a sound argument and one he had no response to. After showing interest in this lifestyle, he received a link to “Meet Your Meat” on goveg.com. We both watched it…or tried to. I was in tears within a few minutes. We decided in that moment that it would be wrong to continue eating meat now knowing what horrible means it took to get to our plates. And thus began our evolution of reasons for being vegetarian.
The first- Moral: Though the moral issue is the first reason that brought me to being vegetarian, it is the reason most people find issue with. I find the defensive reactions I receive interesting because a number of children, when informed of how meat gets to their plate, give up meat without a second glance back. When they realize that an animal that was once happily living its own life was killed in order for them to eat it, they determine whether it’s nutritionally necessary to eat it and then some will choose to give it up entirely (See video here.). I don’t think that response is something we get over, but one we learn to repress. I think back to my experience earlier that same year we made the switch to vegetarian when I was making my first (and last) Thanksgiving turkey. When I had to remove the organs from inside the turkey, I burst into tears. I had been confused at that reaction, as I had made chicken or sliced turkey so many times before without much thought. I believe it was a piece of me that finally connected the dots, that realized this was not just meat, it used to be a real animal with functioning organs…and now I am eating it. Though we call what we eat chicken and the animal the same, it doesn’t seem to register for a very long time until we stop repressing this reaction that really, this is from an animal that used to be breathing and thinking and living its own life. Once we stop eating meat, we stop needing to repress and thus can appropriate those emotional resources to be used for other needs.
Sustainability: Though I became vegetarian for moral reasons, my reasons for staying vegetarian evolved beyond this into personal and environmental health as well. The side effect of eating meat is that we need the resources for livestock to survive for long enough to eat them. In order to raise livestock, we need lots of water, land, and fossil fuels which then causes de-forestation and pollution and this increases greenhouse emissions. The amount of methane cows “fart” is dramatically contributing to the demolishing of the ozone layer as well on the order of 100-500 liters a day per cow (Read more here). The US livestock population outweighs the human population by five times and therefore “the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.” (Read more here.) Thus, if everyone were to ditch the meat and eat a plant-based diet, we could reduce our greenhouse emissions by 70% (Read more here.). That is a lot! So by being vegetarian, it makes me feel better that I am also doing well by the earth.
Health: Many people have asked me if I feel different being vegetarian compared to when I ate meat. The answer is yes, much. Let’s just say my intestines and my stomach are MUCH happier. When you become vegetarian (as long as you are open to actually eating vegetables), your dietary fiber intake skyrockets. Dietary fiber is like a brillo pad for your intestines and hence those half hour sessions on the toilet where your legs are falling asleep…well, they just don’t happen anymore. Additionally, after I eat, instead of feeling like some time on the couch is in order, I am energetic and ready to take a walk or run or climb. Food is my fuel, not a rock in my stomach weighing me down. Moreover, weight is no longer a pendulum. As long as I am eating something vegetarian (but not just scarfing down vegetarian cookies), I’ve found I maintain more or less the same healthy weight. Of course, I’m an “n” of 1 and I exercise a lot, so I may not be the most accurate representation. Many studies do show that vegetarians and especially vegans tend to have lower levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and lower rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease, dementia, diverticular disease, gallstones, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis (Read more here). I have also heard other vegetarians and vegans discuss the same phenomenon. If you’d like to read one of the most thorough research studies about why vegetarianism (and also veganism specifically) is healthier than the average American diet, I recommend the wonderful book The China Study by T. Colin Campbell (Read more here or buy his book here.)
Beyond feeling better, one of the most important changes that came from restricting my diet to vegetarian was that counterintuitively, my diet actually became more varied and healthier. Similar to a haiku where the limitations of expressing an idea make the result all the more beautiful, becoming vegetarian forced me to expand my taste buds and try new foods and learn how to cook in a different way than I had been. When I used to eat meat, I was apt to make every meal centered around meat with a side of vegetables or a starch. Becoming vegetarian made me change my perspective on what a meal is and found ways of incorporating proper nutrition into every meal without using meat as a backup plan for nutrients. It opened my eyes to fruits, vegetables, and grains I’d never even heard of before like these foods. It made me (and my Midwestern husband) discover an appreciation (if not love) for foods from different ethnicities like Indian, Persian, Ethiopian, and more. This also led us to make friends of different ethnicities and become more well-rounded culturally. It made me become more informed about what proper nutrition is and how to balance a complete diet. It made me learn how to transform recipes into ones that not only tasted better to me, but also were truly healthier (Read more here). I suppose the term for what I’ve become is an “honorary food scientist” (coined by a good friend). On that note, stay tuned for weekly easy, health-ified vegetarian recipes I’ve found to be a good balance of well-rounded, nutritious and tasty (first example here).
I am not trying to convince anyone to be vegetarian or vegan. Though it does effect the life of our planet and our people and ourselves, it is still a very personal decision. Besides, I know that force and persuasion don’t go well together. 🙂 I am just clarifying my stance, as it is a question that comes up a lot and is one of the major ways I balance my health, my lifestyle, and my mental attitude about food.
*Side Note: I know there are some of you out there who are asking why I am not vegan. I’m assuming those of you asking are probably vegan yourselves. I did go vegan for a little while and I just didn’t feel good or healthy. In reality, I do eat mostly vegan foods: I cook almost entirely vegan at home except for occasional cheese, but don’t limit myself to only vegan when I am out of the house. I had a hard time getting enough calories, protein, iron, etc when entirely vegan with all the exercise I do. I also felt like I could not enjoy being with other people eating out at a restaurant or their house because of my (voluntary) dietary restrictions. I’m not saying that others can’t or that it is not a positive direction to take. There are plenty of vegan athletes very successful in their endeavors, for example, and I respect them very much for making it work for them. I am also very much a proponent of people taking every step they can/are motivated to in being healthier and being consistent with their own moral, emotional, and physical compass. For me- right now- I am not taking that step.