About a year ago, I embarked on a bit of an experiment. While eating lunch one day, I realized that it had been a few days since I had any meat. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that way. I found it interesting that I hadn’t even noticed.
I’ve always enjoyed imposing random little rules on myself to make decisions easier, to challenge myself, and sometimes “just because.” Starting right then and there, I decided I would keep a vegetarian diet and see how long I could go.
managed to go 1 solid week eating vegetarian so far. it’s not easy when you’re eating out / going to events. carboloading for the lose. — Jenn Vargas (@jennjenn) May 21, 2013
And here we are a year later.
I’ve chosen to break it twice: once on Thanksgiving where I had a slice of turkey about the size of credit card, and the second time during my annual Rolf’s dinner with Jimelle and Ioanna. I decided that I would break my rule ahead of time in both of these cases, both for the sake of tradition. Both times I felt horrible after the fact. Not for the poor animal, but for my poor stomach which was very confused and unhappy.
I also had a few accidental slip ups where I was told something was vegetarian but it wasn’t. (The taste of meat becomes very pronounced when you haven’t eaten it in a year). In all of those cases I just ate something else.
It turned out not to be a very difficult undertaking. I’ve never really had a very meat-heavy diet and living in New York means that there are a lot of food options around all the time. Basically any place you go will have at least one vegetarian option. It was, however, noticeably more difficult when I left the city.
Now that I’m coming up on the one-year mark, I want to re-evaluate why I’m doing this and whether it’s something I want to continue with. I figured I’d put my thoughts out there as a way of thinking through what to do next and maybe getting some new ideas from those of you out there on the internets.
When I first decided to do this, I had a few assumptions:
Eating out would be really difficult
This wasn’t true at all - at least in major cities. I rarely have a problem going out to eat and can find something to eat almost anywhere I go. Once I head out of major cities, though, it gets significantly more difficult. The “vegetarian option” on many menus is often the house salad or one of the least healthy options on the menu (hello giant plate of spaghetti). That said, eating vegetarian in restaurants was actually a big part of what forced me to expand my horizons and try new things since it was either that or a plate of fries.
I would feel hungry all the time
A mixed bag, really. In the beginning I was hungry ALL. THE. TIME. But it was mostly because I hadn’t yet learned to compensate my protein sources. I’m pretty sure my overall nutrition was a mess in the early days. Luckily I have a few vegetarian friends who realized what was happening and pushed me toward the protein.
Now I know what to look for, but that doesn’t always mean it’s an easy fix. This goes back to the availability of nutrient-complete vegetarian meals. When I would go to my mom’s house, or my aunt’s house, or in a lot of my travels, I would essentially end up carbo-loading because there wasn’t any protein in the “vegetarian” salad or because the only option in the restaurant was a plate of fries. Clearly not the best choice for a meal. It often left me feeling bloaty, cranky, hungry, and off-balance.
I would become “that friend” that was a pain to go out to eat with because my diet was limited
This was probably more true in the first few months, but there came a tipping point somewhere around the middle of summer last year where I became more adventurous in the foods I would eat (or at least try). That opened up a whole new world of eating options and the frequency with which I requested substitutions or alterations to a dish decreased. (Except tomatoes. I still hate tomatoes.)
I would crave meat
As the weather has warmed up lately, I’ve found myself craving a hot dog. It’s been weeks now. I haven’t had one, and the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s totally a psychological thing. As a kid, at the first signs of warm weather, my mom would fire up the grill in the yard and we would have hot dogs. It meant the school year was coming to an end. It meant no more snow. It meant eating outside. So in my mind warm weather = hot dog time. I’m actually in search of some vegetarian hot dogs, but in the meantime, I’m taking an alternate route home from the subway so I don’t pass Papaya King.
The only times I wished I didn’t have this rule in place were when some of my favorite family dishes were in front of me: empanadas (beef) and my cousin’s chicken kebabs. Empanadas have been my favorite Colombian dish since forever. I would eat them every meal if I could. And my cousin makes amazing chicken kebabs on the fire pit - they’re somewhere between middle eastern and spanish flavored and they’re oh so good. I never actually craved them, but I certainly missed eating them when they were right in front of me.
Limiting my diet forced me to expand my preferences within those limits
I mentioned above that I now eat all sorts of new foods. My mom is a happy camper because she can (finally) take me to seafood* restaurants and I won’t have to order the plate of fries or just eat oyster crackers. I also don’t hate tofu anymore. If nothing else, this experiment was a fantastic tool to force me to become a less picky eater. I do find it ironic that by restricting my options I actually expanded them, but hey, whatever works!
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t actually mean you’re eating more healthfully
Again - the availability of nutrient-complete vegetarian meals. It’s not a problem at all when I’m eating at home and in complete control of the food, but eating out (which I do about 80-90% of the time) is often a game of Russian Roulette. The vegetarian option is often not the healthiest option on the menu. Also, those “meat substitutes” and other things they do to food to make it veggie-friendly are actually more processed than eating a hunk of chicken.
When it comes down to it, my goal is to eat more healthfully. Somewhere around the 6-month mark I debated calling it quits, or even adopting what I called an “antisocial vegetarian” diet (which is the equivalent of a “social meat-eater”). I was frustrated by having to order dishes I knew were less healthy than the meat option just because of the vegetarian rule. The rule should be to choose what’s most healthy.
To be honest - I still haven’t come to a decision. I’m glad I stuck it out for the year, and the idea of eating meat again isn’t all that appealing to me, but I do like the idea of having the option to eat meat if I need to / want to / if it’s the best choice for me. It also makes the idea of eating well while traveling less daunting. Going to Ireland or Germany as a vegetarian? Not a lot of options there.
In that case, maybe being an antisocial vegetarian is the best path forward. But I think that still leaves too much wiggle room. I prefer clear rules for making my decisions.
I’ve wondered if maybe something like Paleo is a better option. That’s almost the opposite of what I’m doing now in terms of protein sources, but it will generally mean I can choose the healthier menu options.
So with all that said, I’m at the point where tossing a coin may be the best way to choose. You might say “Why bother choosing at all? Why do you want the rules in the first place?” And that’s a totally valid point. But I like having the rules. So even if it’s something simple like “choose the healthiest thing,” there still needs to be a rule. The question is: what should it be?
I’m open to any suggestions!
* Speaking of seafood: many have said that I’m actually sticking to a pescatarian diet. I’m not picky about labels, so call it whatever you will. The only seafood I eat is (some) shellfish. I don’t eat actual fish. Not because I feel bad for the fish or anything. I just don’t find them to be tasty.