Why am I vegetarian?

Naturally, the more food books you read, the more you start to think about your own diet. And by this point, I’ve read enough Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver to give my food choices a pretty hard look.

I ate a pretty standard American diet up until I was 24. After seeing my cousins, several of my close friends and my boyfriend go vegetarian and not keel over from malnutrition or mope around because they didn’t get to eat what everyone else ate, my mind opened to the idea. They ate very well, in fact, and as a foodie I needed to see that.

But going vegetarian was a decision I had to make entirely on my own. So being in Boulder out on my own (and let’s face it, being in Boulder) was probably the right time for me to start to consider it. I watched a couple of public access shows — one about animal cruelty in factory farms and the second about how quitting meat could reduce your risk for disease, including cancer — and after that thought to myself, why not just try it for a week? If it was hard, I’d just go back to meat. But it wasn’t hard.

I started to realize that I didn’t eat that much meat to begin with. I subsisted mostly on nachos and Spanish rice when I was on my own. When I cooked, I made the recipes I knew. So I started to make them without meat. I think I kind of enjoyed the creativity. It didn’t take long before I couldn’t stomach the idea of meat. I accidentally bought a meat lasagna frozen dinner, and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. So I tossed it. I felt bad about wasting food, but this was something I had to do all the way.

Of course, I have never gone ALL the way. I kept fish and seafood in my diet, and if I encountered the occasional chicken stock in soup, I didn’t freak out. The truth is that being vegetarian can be very isolating at times, and it’s a constant battle to look at a menu, or at the spread your family cooked for Thanksgiving, and push it away. Thankfully, most of the time I can find plenty to eat, and it doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice. I’m a pro at picking things out, making a veggie sandwich, whatever I have to do. Well meaning people often feel like they have to make a fuss over a vegetarian, and while we appreciate the care, most of the time we’d rather avoid a fuss altogether. We are really good at fending for ourselves.

I’ve gone back and forth on the fish stuff (and other things like Jello and marshmallows that contain “hidden” animal products). I still don’t have a perfect answer. What I try to do is cook with natural foods that create natural substitutes for meat. For a long time I relied on fake this and imitation that. And what I eventually realized is that those things are no better than their Tyson equivalent.

But when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, my mind started to open a little to the idea of eating meat again. Her philosophy is to eat local, and stay small. Small farms, accessible foods. In other words — food you can get to know and people who don’t pollute on a mass scale. I love this philosophy, and I think it takes us back to a time when we had a food system we could manage without intensely damaging our planet. But not everyone wants to be a subsistence farmer. Not everyone has access to the amount of food that she does. Not everyone is going to make bread daily or drop $6 a loaf to get it made my an artisan baker. So I think you have to look at your life and your resources and ask, what is right for me?

The longer I’ve been vegetarian, the more I’ve started to grow uncomfortable with the idea of killing an animal so I can eat it. I don’t need to – I can get my calories elsewhere, no problem. If I’m not doing the slaughtering, I’m not sure someone else should have to do it for me either. So what I’m trying to do is stay vegetarian, but with an eye toward buying as much local food as possible, and growing my own in our garden. (Well, Mike’s the grower. I just eat it!)

I don’t know how much lower my cholesterol is because I didn’t take it before. But I feel healthy, just like I always have. I never noticed a major change healthwise. I certainly didn’t lose weight, though! I read Skinny Bitch, and while it sounded awesome to go vegan and get skinny, it also sounded like an entire menu of fake this and fake that — not exactly a better way to eat in my book.

This works for me now. At some point it may not. I’ve had a lot of fun improvising with meals and learning to cook and eat new things. It’s kind of a food adventure. I think it’s one I share with a lot of other people who have been forced to change their diets for various reasons. If you’ve never read Gluten Free Girl, you really should. She does such a great job of showing how you can absolutely fall in love with food that you once thought would make you miserable. You can take control of your diet and turn it into a good thing. (And you should read about her love story with “the chef”. I got seriously teary after a while).

I also found this article on Slate recently that did a great job of summing up how vegetarians really feel. Read that too while you’re at it.