About a year ago I decided to go full vegetarian.
This is a short summary of my experience being 100% vegetarian (but not vegan) for a full year. And to go straight into the bottom line without further ado: you're probably wondering what was the hardest part of it.
Well, the hardest part of being a vegetarian, for me, was... drum roll please...
Fielding questions, incredulity and judgement of family and friends.
Yep. You read that right. Nothing related to the eating habit itself. Getting protein wasn't hard. Feeling satisfied wasn't hard. Iron levels and B12 are doing fine, thank you. Feeling good and energized was a piece of cake. And no, I'm not missing meat. None of that was the challenge. As crazy as it seems, having to defend my decision to others and fielding their repetitive questions and often times judgemental comments was harder than any of the mechanics of being vegetarian.
More on that in a bit. Let me give you some context first.
How I became a vegetarian
It wasn't exactly cold-turkey or overnight. More like a slow process that lead into it.
I had been reducing my intake of meat for quite a while before the decision to go veggie. It started mostly out of convenience. At work, where food is provided, lines for meat are longer than lines at the salad bar. Since I love salad and hate lines, I was already going for salad first. And then I'd top it off with some meat if I could talk myself into facing the line. Most of the time I'd just top it off with some cold chicken from the salad bar. With time and with the realization that I was eating the same exact chicken every day (since it's a cloned, engineered chicken anyway) I figured I wasn't adding much DNA diversity into my diet by eating it. So after a while I dropped the chicken and decided to be a weekday, lunch-time vegetarian. Meat became something for nights and weekends only.
But eating a lot of meat at night was just not very practical since I come home late often. So eating a lighter, more veggie dinner became pretty common. Meat became an even smaller piece of my meal, if it was present at all. Then on weekends I'd eat the same amount as usual.
It wasn't until a trip to Taiwan on August of last year that I decided to drop the occasional meat at night and weekends. The trip was organized by Buddhist monks and as such it was meat-free. It was a great experience and I discovered new veggies and new ways of preparing them. Turns out the culinary in Taiwan was the best I've ever had. So, clearly, meat cannot be a big differentiating factor in my life if the best food I've ever had was meat-free.
Some of the delicious things I've tried included these delicious meals:
After returning from that 15-day trip, it was clear to me that continuing on a vegetarian diet was easy. For a month, I even followed their strict diet and excluded dairy and eggs as well. But then I added them back and decided to stay on the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for at least another whole year. As this meat-free year comes to a close very soon, I figured I'd share my experience and also answer some questions people had -- questions which turned out to be more challenging than not eating meat.
Things people ask me and their gut reactions
Here are some of the things I heard in this first year from acquaintances, family, and close friends. These range from amusing to offensive and include some reasonable questions too.
- Did you join a sect?
- Are you not a man anymore?
- Are you gay?
- Are you sick?
- Did you lose your Brazilian citizenship?
- Why the radicalism?
- Did you give up sex too?
- Are you getting enough X? (where X might be protein, iron, vitamin B12, amino acids, etc)
- Did you consult a doctor about it?
- Why give up something that you enjoy and gives you pleasure?
- For health reasons or animal rights?
- Why not just reduce it and eat with moderation?
- But humans need meat.
- Come on, you must be kidding.
- But it's just for a year, right? When do you go back to eating meat?
- Why? Why? Why?
I sort of expected some of this reaction, actually. I grew up in the south of Brazil, which is a region where people eat a lot of meat in the form of churrasco (brazilian BBQ), and my family was always very much into meat. Plus, I won't deny having been a hard core carnivore -- I always took pride in making the best churrasco in the galaxy. So, it wasn't unexpected to hear some surprised and concerned questions, especially because most people didn't see my gradual reduction in meat consumption.
Some of these questions were asked in a context of teasing or making fun of me. But in every case the person wanted to hear an explanation, so even the joking and offensive questions were there for a reason other than pure entertainment or laughs. So I take that most questions were real and people were genuinely curious and/or concerned for my health. I won't bother answering all of them, but I'll go over some of the more interesting ones.
Why give up something that you enjoy and gives you pleasure?
I will answer the "why" part in the sections below. But I just want to touch here on the pleasure-seeking nature we all seem to be eluded by (myself included).
The contexts where this question was asked implied that by not eating meat, which is something that I used to enjoy in the past, I would somehow diminish my ability to be happy. And that's where the problem lies: conflating pleasure with happiness.
Pleasure is important and it had (and still has) a big role in the survival of the human species. So it's understandable that we tend to think that by seeking constant pleasure we'll achieve enduring happiness. But I think that's not the case.
You see, pleasure by its own nature is a temporary, impermanent, fleeting thing. We have it one moment and then we don't have it anymore. Having a constant stream of pleasure is not the answer either because not only is the constant part not achievable, but it's often times self-defeating and numbing -- the more we have it, the least pleasure we get from each dose. This recent article summarizes it well.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not an ascetic nor advocating that we should have no pleasure in life. We should, of course. Liking what you eat is much better than hating it, obviously. My point is that not eating meat does not somehow reduce my chances of finding enduring happiness, because enduring happiness, I believe, is an intrinsic trait and does not depend on very many external factors such as eating food X, using drug Y, having thing Z or behaving in way W. How can enduring happiness be enduring if the simple lack of these mundane things could cause unhappiness? Do I really want to give up control of my happiness to a few material things and behaviors? Obviously, that's not the answer.
Paradoxically, by looking for happiness elsewhere other than by seeking momentary pleasure, I might be able to enjoy meat in the future (should I choose to eat it again) and still be happy. Speaking of having your cake and eating it too!
For health reasons or animal rights?
This is a question leads to many further questions and often debate. It's a fair question to ask with a complicated answer: both. Both reasons -- health and cruelty to animals -- are actually joined at the hip and most people just don't realize it.
Inhumane conditions; pain and fear; antibiotics
First, there is something to be said about the meat and poultry industry: It's just inhumane. I won't describe here all the cruelty that goes on. Go watch any documentary on how these "farm" animals are raised and you'll realize how cruel the process is. Search for CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). If you can't stomach strong images, you can also read Michael Polan's "The Omnivore Dilemma".
Many of the health reasons stem from the inhumane way these animals are raised. Cows and pigs are raised in confined spaces, very close to one another, in dirty conditions. They thus get sick more often and are then fed antibiotics and other drugs to combat their ailments. Traces of these antibiotics find their way into our bodies and the environment at large and this, it's speculated, gives rise to super bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Cows are often fed the wrong diet (corn instead of grass) and that causes them to get sick of the stomach and have to be given even more drugs. They grow up in pain. And in fear. They know when they're about to be slaughtered and that generates even more fear. Pain and fear cannot make for a very healthy meat, no matter how tasty it might be.
Pollution and water & energy use
Cow and pig farms are responsible for large greenhouse gases emissions. They also consume more water per pound of food produced than any plant-based food. Energy for energy, one calorie consumed from plant-based food is always more efficient to produce (energy-wise) than one calorie from animal sources.
What about pesticides in vegetables, I hear you ask. They pollute and are bad for our health. That's all true and it's a shame. On that matter, I choose to vote with my wallet and voice. I buy organic whenever possible -- even if something I want is not available, I tend to choose something else that is organic instead. And I sign petitions against evil corporations, nasty farming practices and absurd laws.
Right to live, fear of death
Compassion for animals is something I hadn't thought about much before. Mostly because the meat we buy at the grocery store is so much dissociated from the animal form of a cow or a pig that I rarely stopped to link them together. I'd only make that association if I had to prepare a turkey for thanksgiving.
But animals' right to live is one of those things that raises questions as well. After all, aren't plants alive too? Why aren't people concerned about their well-being?
Well, I can't prove it. But what did it for me was observable fear. I know that all animal beings fear for their lives and strive to stay alive as much as possible, just like us. I can't say the same thing about plants. Yes, they have mechanisms to stay alive and reproduce. But I can't observe fear in them. I can't relate to them the same way as I can with an animal.
I wouldn't kill a dog and eat it. And I wouldn't kill a cow or a chicken either. Why should I eat one that I didn't kill, if I wouldn't kill it myself for eating? Yes, I have been fishing before in my life, but very few times and a long, long time ago. And I didn't even enjoy the fishing part. And I'm not going fishing again for the same reasons I wouldn't kill a chicken, even if I meant to eat it.
And what if a chicken was the last thing available for me to eat, you ask. I probably wouldn't kill it either. If there's a chicken around, there's probably corn or some plant for me. If it's truly the last one on Earth, what good is eating it anyway? I'd postpone my inevitable death by a few hours at best.
So, does that mean we shouldn't kill insects either? Yes, we should not. They feel fear too.
It's a lot harder for me to relate to insects the same way I relate to animals. And it's hard to discern if a mosquito's fear of my hand is the same as a dog's fear of a black bear. Does the mosquito just have instincts to avoid any large object approaching it? All I know is that it experiences what I believe to be fear. And so, there is an argument there for not killing it either. Since becoming vegetarian, I have tried my best not to kill anything. It has been harder than not eating meat at times (especially those pesky cockroaches) but it had some quite clear benefits too. I can talk about that in another blog post. For now, let's go back to vegetarianism.
On the health front, besides reducing my exposure to antibiotics, hormones, pink slime and possibly other by-products of meat farming, processing and handling, all my vitals are better than they were a few years ago, when I started reducing meat and finally became vegetarian last year: total cholesterol, HDL, total cholesterol to HDL ratio and triglycerides are all better. I also lost 10 kilos and I feel great. My body fat percentage dropped from my usual 12-11% to under 5%. By the way, I believe this 5% body fat reading is probably incorrect, but it was measured by the same tool that used to measure 12-11% before, so there was a big reduction even if the absolute numbers are not precise.
Not everything is due to vegetarianism, of course. It's part of my overall healthy living philosophy that I have been refining for a long time. In the past few years or so I've changed the quality of the exercises I do, both for the body and mind. Instead of muscle building being the focus of my exercise routine, I'm now more concern about cardio, flexibility, posture and concentration. More on these on yet another future blog post.
But vegetarianism just naturally found its way in my living plan and it has helped the cause significantly. It's hard to argue with facts and numbers.
Just reduce it and use moderation
Moderation is another theme I hear constantly. And the moderation argument is a good one on the health front. It would work quite well if my sole reason for going vegetarian was health. But as I've explained above, it's also a philosophy of preserving life, reducing pollution, making a statement about suffering and inhumane conditions.
What about green, cruelty-free meat? Would that solve the problem? Partially, it would, yes.
But the deep philosophical aspect would still be there: should we be promoting the death of animals just for our pleasure? Again, I don't think I would have killed any meat I ever ate, except for fish (and even fish now I wouldn't kill to eat anymore as I already mentioned).
The realization that animals, like us, have fear of death cannot be undone in my mind.
It's not like I didn't know that before. But it's one of those things that click when it's pointed out to you. I can pretend not to pay attention to it and eat green, cruelty-free meat. But the realization is there. The shift has happened. And it's not something that can be easily undone, especially because I don't feel it's right to undo it. It's like witnessing a crime. You could choose not to tell the police who did it. But it can't be unseen. You know who did it. You can be silent, but you'll have to live with the silence forever.
Are you getting enough of X? Are you following up with a doctor?
I appreciate the concern. I'm fine. I check my vitals often. Not because of the diet, really. Just because it's important to check anyway. I used to do it before my diet change and I continue doing it.
Protein, iron and vitamin B12 are more easily available when meat is part of the diet. That much is true. So the concern about getting enough of these things is well-founded. But I've found way more scientific evidence suggesting that a well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients one needs than articles saying vegetarianism is dangerous due to its deficiencies in nutrients. I'm not very concerned about the possible negative health effects. Most of the effects known to science are positive and the negatives are simple to watch for and correct.
And about the doctor, it's interesting that if I were Indian, no one would ask me that. But the truth is I did ask a few doctors about it. And they didn't know, nor did they care. In one case, I asked an endocrinologist about supplementing my diet with iodine and selenium and she was completely clueless about it. She did offer to prescribe thyroid hormone for me, but refused to let me take a blood test to verify if I actually needed it or if I had iodine deficiency. I got the same answer from my primary care doctor. I paid for the exams out-of-pocket by the way. (Big parenthesis: This is my pet-peeve with modern medicine that I need to write about sometime. It's all about the averages and fighting disease, not improving health. So, when it comes to fine-tuning my health, a doctor is mostly useless. In most cases, they're actually working against me by prescribing drugs instead of blood tests and choosing to remain ignorant about nutrition and focusing only on what works on average).
No one really asked about the real challenges and real risks of a vegetarian diet. So I'll write about them a bit.
Risk of increased carbohydrate consumption
I've been on a low-carb diet for years. It's not something I do very strictly, but I do avoid simple carbs when possible. Over the years I've learned to choose the good carbs: complex, low-glycemic ones. Think lentils instead of rice and chickpeas instead of bread or potatoes.
But when going full-vegetarian, I found it a bit more difficult to remain low-carb, because some of my default options for high-protein foods were no longer available -- meat. So I increased my consumption of nuts instead of going after carbs. But I do acknowledge that for most people, being veggie and low-carb is hard.
Most restaurants, employers cafeterias, airlines, caterers at events will acknowledge and help you if you're on a vegetarian diet. But hardly ever will they honor a low-carb one. When you combine both then it's pretty much a fact that you will have trouble finding suitable things to eat.
Risk of increased gluten consumption
This is mostly a corollary to the increased carb risk above. Since the common trashy carbs come from bread, pizza and pasta, you'll probably end up eating more gluten if you're not careful in your vegetarian diet.
I've been on a gluten-limited diet for many years now -- okay, maybe I'm a little obsessed with nutrition. But mixing gluten-free with low-carb plus vegetarianism is just mind-blowing to most people. It pretty much forces you to make concessions if you go places, such as friend's homes, parties, events, etc. Pre-eating is a viable option in most cases. It's definitely not for everyone. Don't try this at home, kids.
Risk of having too many conversations about diet
I like talking about diet, as you can probably guess (an entire section of this site is focused on it). But there's a limit to how many one-on-one discussions I want to have about it. It's frustrating to talk to people who will listen to my arguments and then accuse me of being a radical, and extremist. I don't think I've ever started a conversation by saying "you need to eat X or stop eating Y". Most of the time some one else asks me why I don't eat X or why I do eat Y and in the end they end up brushing off whatever I say -- that they asked about, mind you -- as radical, short-sighted or absurd. As if I'm declaring jihad on food just because I have my preferences -- preferences which do not impact other people in any way.
Eating meat is bad for my new moral standards, the environment and my health. But I do not mind you eating it, even in front of me. Just don't ask me to take a bite or call me crazy, please.
Oh, will I ever go back to eating meat?
I don't know. As I said, it's hard to go back now. But if I ever do, it will be under certain conditions and in very rare events. For the time being, I prefer not to think about "going back" but instead think of how to "move forward" in my path towards being a better, more compassionate person.