A little more than two and a half years ago, in a candlelit restaurant in Vienna, Austria, I sliced into a hunk of chicken cordon bleu, and declared defiantly to my boyfriend, "I could never be a vegetarian."
I remember that statement all-too-clearly, as is the case with sweeping generalizations that I sometimes make and inevitably have to retract. Later that spring of 2010, I returned to Chicago and met up with my college roommate Becca for lunch.
Becca had been a vegetarian for most of the time I'd known her, and had recently made the switch to a full-fledged vegan. As we took our seats in a tiny little Mexican restaurant, I quizzed her about her new lifestyle, the way a couch potato asks a runner about training for a marathon. "How do you do it?" "Do you feel tired?" "Are you getting enough protein?" "Do you miss cheese?"
She was, in fact, was doing great. I remember her telling me she felt healthier, lighter than ever before. I can attest; her skin was downright glowy. That bitch. I bit into my chicken quesadilla, dipped in sour cream, and swallowed uneasily. Maybe she was onto something.
After I expressed a mild interest in vegetarianism, Bec encouraged me--never preachy, this gal--to look into the book The Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. So I did. Who knew that Cher from "Clueless" would wind up being the spirit guide on my vegetarian quest? The book was my first foray into learning about the meat industry, which I had willfully neglected thinking about for my first 22 years. I discovered some eye-opening facts.
I decided to try vegetarianism for 30 days. I made a deal with myself: If I liked it, I would try for two months. If I was foaming at the mouth for a steak, I would return to my carnivorous ways.
That night, I grumpily ate my first veggie burger. It looked flat, unappetizing, and lifeless next to my family's stack of juicy cheeseburgers, all of which were positively radiating that yummy barbecued smell. I struggled a bit in those first four weeks, unsure of what to eat other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But before I knew it, 30 days had come and gone, somewhat painlessly. I signed on for another month.
Thanks to my new lifestyle, I was forced to pick the healthier, vegetarian entree at restaurants. I gave up fast food entirely, in one fell swoop, because most of the chains have next-to-zero veggie options on the menu. The few times I've had to swing by the Golden Arches, I get the salad (okay, and sometimes a McFlurry) because there is literally nothing else on the menu I can eat.
Then, three months had flown by. I stepped on the scale one day to discover I had lost 8 pounds without trying. And what do you know -- my skin really was clearer. This sounds like a terrible infomercial.
Of course, there were moments that first summer that I thought I might give up. I'm not an extremist by nature; I believe in the "everything in moderation" maxim. Would eating a rack of ribs every once in a while kill me? Absolutely not. But I can tell you, the more I read, the more impossible it became to go back, even once. I became a vegetarian for the health benefits; I stayed a vegetarian because of what I read about animal welfare.
The deeper I read that summer, the more entrenched I became. I'm not going to recount the horrific things I've read about animal conditions in the slaughterhouses. That information, should you desire it, is just a Google search away. I will tell you that what I read in various books caused me -- at least half a dozen times -- to put the book down, and just burst into uncontrollable tears. I'm talking sob. You can ask my mother. As an animal lover, I couldn't believe I had participated in that system for so long.
I never knew where my meat really came from -- factories, so far removed from the pastoral farm where you assume your steak was once a grazing cow. I remember being uneasy when I was younger, the first time I made the connection that the meatloaf on my plate was once a living, breathing animal -- not so different from the family dog. I comforted myself with the thought that he lived a long and happy life before he became my dinner, but I realize now that probably wasn't true. Unfortunately, most meat today is produced in a factory, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. What's worse is that it's passed onto us when we eat it.
In my personal experience, people are extremely sensitive about what they eat. I'd add "eating habits" to the list of taboo topics to bring up at a dinner party, like politics, religion and money. Because the way each of us eats is extremely personal, and moreover, we do it at least three times a day. Anything you do with that kind of frequency is bound to be an important component of your life. And so, I don't want to come across as preachy. But I've had some friends and family express genuine curiosity as to why I made the switch. I figure there are more curious people out there.
So where am I now? It's a little over two and a half years since I became a vegetarian, and it has suited me just fine. I eat way more fruits and vegetables on a regular basis. I feel healthier and lighter. My friends and family have been really supportive and accommodating, which has made the transition all the more easy. They'll throw my veggie burger patty on the grill, no questions asked. I really hate to inconvenience anyone because of my diet. I'm glad that vegetarianism is becoming more widespread; I'm never in a situation where I can't find something meat-free to eat.
I do believe you can still healthily incorporate some poultry and fish (raised on sustainable, cruelty-free farms) into your diet, and I would never judge anyone who chooses to do so. After all, I ate meat for 22 years. But I think there is a lot of good to be gleaned from the vegetarian lifestyle.
If you're interested in learning more, or exploring a vegetarian lifestyle, even for a few meals a week, here are some places I'd recommend starting. It's important to read up before you commit to going full-on veggie, so you know the nutrients you need and the best places to get them. It also helps to take a daily multi-vitamin to cover all your bases.
- Read: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone, and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- Watch: Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives
- Check out: Vegetarian Times, What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?, and I Heart Vegetables for vegetarian recipes