Back in March, after considerable amounts of contemplating, I made the decision to become a vegetarian. I maintained that lifestyle (with the exception to a couple of times in China) for about 4 months. While I have decided to no longer label myself as a vegetarian, there are a number of valuable lessons that I learned from the experience that I have kept with me and wanted to share.
1 // Society centers meals around meat
Think back to the last time you asked someone "What's for dinner?" They probably answered with something along the lines of "Steak" or "Chicken." However, I have never heard anyone say, "Steamed vegetables with a side of pork." We are a meat craving country. I've never been a big meat-eater anyway, but identifying myself as a vegetarian helped me re-frame the way I think about my meals each day. I am now more likely to look at the vegetables first when planning a meal and then expanding around that.
2 // Health Benefits of Watching Meat Intake
A number of studies indicate that there are a number of health benefits associated with adopting a plant-based diet. In a review of the available studies on vegan or vegetarian diets, it has been shown that the lifestyle is highly effective for weight loss and populations have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.1 The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also states that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is healthful and nutritionally adequate.2 The key is that it is a "well-planned" diet though. Sure, you can eat processed junk day in and day out and it might be considered vegetarian or vegan. But if that is your idea of plant-based, then you may as well just stick to your current eating because all of that processed junk is missing the point.
It's not realistic to expect that everyone will someday switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but people would benefit from limiting their meat intake and basing their diet on plant foods first...namely, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans!
3 // Social Setbacks with Restricted Diets
The hardest part for me when I finally told people that I was a vegetarian was the judgement and questions. As soon as you mention that you don't eat meat, suddenly everyone is a nutrition expert. Trust me, it didn't even matter that I have a degree in nutrition. I was always bombarded with the question: "But where do you get your protein?!?" To clear that one up, YES you can get all of the protein that you need from plants, plus a number of other benefits too! Eating out with people or especially while traveling in Asia was challenging. I never wanted to be the person to make special requests, so I often would just pick around meat or try to load up on the fruits and veggies we did have available.
While eliminating meat was my choice, it did give me a greater respect for people who must eliminate foods for allergies and other reasons. For example, people who are diagnosed with Celiacs and must eliminate gluten from their diet must go through a tremendous amount of stress both personally and socially each day. While I probably will never truly understand what that is like, I feel like I can better relate to some of the difficult situations that they face each day if I ever counsel them in the clinic setting.
4 // Overall Benefits
I found this infograph image from one of my role model dietitians, Julieanna Hever, that nicely sums up some of the reasons a person might opt for a plant based lifestyle.
While I no longer label myself as a vegetarian, I am so thankful for those four months where I did adopt the lifestyle fully. As a result, I have explored a greater range of fruits and vegetables in my diet. I have also experimented with new recipes. I've dived deeper into the research surrounding the plant-based movement and have slowly used some of the practices within my own life. Most days I would say that I could label myself as a vegetarian, because I hardly ever eat meat. However, there have been times throughout this summer where I have indulged, so I can't fully embrace the title.
What are your thoughts on a plant-based lifestyle? How do you stay healthy in your diet?
- Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013: 17(2): 61-66. Accessed on July 21, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009. 109:1266-82. Accessed on July 21, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357&terms=vegan.