My How's and Why's of being a Vegetarian

The other day Gina, The Candid RD asked me a great question.  She wanted to know why I became a vegetarian.  There are many reasons and for everyone who opts for this, these reasons will be different.  There is no one reason to become a vegetarian and no one path to wind up there.

One reason would be for health, but for me, that wasn't it.  At 5-6 years of age, I wasn't even aware of my health.  But, I was aware of meat.

Have you ever seen a small child cry over being fed hot dogs and hamburgers.  Yeah, that would have been me.  Getting me to eat meat was a big fight.  The thought of a hamburger or hot dog was enough to make me upset.  I could not, did not like and would not want to chew the meat.  I had a problem with the texture.  I just didn't like to chew meat.  I was better with poultry, but red meat was a tough one (no pun intended!).

That is where the journey began for me.  Meals that involved meat, also involved me chewing, chewing, chewing, and then spitting the meat into a napkin.  As I got older, my mom got tired of holding that napkin and it was easier to not have me eat the meat.  I could stick with poultry and order other things on menus.  Pizza was a favorite.  

By the time I was 11-12, I was going to a sleep over camp.  The food options were the regular meal, a PB & J if you didn't like the meal, or a vegetarian option if you were a vegetarian.  At the time, I was still too young to understand what it meant to be a true vegetarian, but I knew I was getting tired of eating all those PB & J's.  So, I told them at camp I was a vegetarian.  This meant that when there was a meal of red meat or chicken, I got a different plate of food.  This was the start of phasing out chicken.  I did it all summer long and never missed it, so I stuck with that when I returned home.

By the time high school rolled around, I started to phase out fish too.  I can't remember exactly when, but probably sometime my freshman year.  At this point my mom was probably very frustrated because I wanted to be a vegetarian, but to me a vegetarian just didn't eat meat.  I didn't know what it really meant to be a healthy vegetarian.

My mom bought me a book that explained the in's and out's of being a vegetarian, explained protein sources, complementary proteins, and then had a bunch of recipes.  My mom suggested I invite some friends over and cook them a full meal of vegetarian foods so they would understand my dietary habits.  At this time I didn't really like vegetables or beans, so this was going to be interesting.  

I remember that I made a bean soup.  This was when I discovered that beans take forever to cook.  I also made a sun-dried tomato and goat cheese pizza.  I still get goat cheese comments to this day from some of my friends.  I know for dessert I served them some soy ice cream.  I still ate dairy, but the soy ice cream was a nice touch.

This was when I got really into being a vegetarian.  I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning I ate not animal products, except eggs and dairy.  No meat by-prodcuts, including gelatin, and I did not eat anything that was touching any meat, poultry or pork.  This habit sticks with me even today.

The problem was that I still needed to understand complementary proteins.  There are 20 amino acids required for life, and some of these are considered essential, meaning they need to come from food.  The others can be synthesized in the body, often from some of the essential amino acids.  The only foods that give all essential amino acids in the same food would be from animal source, with egg being the best source.  Grains and plant proteins do not contain all of these essential amino acids.  Well, the body doesn't really utilize the amino acids well unless those essential amino acids are all present, so a vegetarian needs to eat what are called complementary proteins.  The classic example is rice and beans, but there are tons of other ways to do this.  Basically, the rice is missing one of those essential amino acids, but the beans have this one.  Then, the beans are missing a different amino acid, and luckily the rice has that one.  So, when eaten together, all those essential amino acids are present.

Once I learned this, and learned the importance of vegetables, I was on my way to being a good vegetarian.  Too a 13 year old, pizza and fries seems like a vegetarian way of life, and it is, but it is not a healthy one.

When I got to college I found it difficult at that time to be a vegetarian and managed to get housing with a kitchen by junior year because I was often  by food service employees who did not like when I asked them if they could change their gloves after handling meat, asked to wipe down deli counters or even clean knives used to cut meat before cutting a a vegetarian sandwich.  Even in the main dining hall I had a hard time finding the list of ingredients for foods.  Things like mashed potatoes and rice dishes often have chicken stock added for flavor, and I wanted to know if I could eat certain things.  It was too stressful, and I started to lose weight.  I gave up and requested housing with a kitchen.  On a side note, I ate in the cafeteria senior year and I was impressed to find many improvements with vegetarian offerings.  True, there was always the salad bar, but I was trying to fit in without being that person that ONLY ate salad and nothing else.  Salad and cereal can get old after a while.

In my own apartment with a kitchen, I was much happier.  This was around the start of Morningstar Farms popularity and other meatless alternatives and I ate these all the time for protein.  Again, I was still young then, and I now know, even some of those products are really glorified junk foods.  Some are high in fat and sodium.  Some are really great and low in fat.  You just have to read the labels.

It was also at this time that I knew I would never go back to eating meat, no matter who tried to influence me.  As a biology major, I dissected animals, and I started to think that if I knew the anatomy of these animals, there was no way I could eat one of them.  I had always thought (after I became a vegetarian) that it was gross now to eat animals, but the point came across well as I was working on my biology degree.  

I think this was also the time I started to think about animal rights and all those things college students start to really contemplate.  I do think that it is wrong to mass produce animals for the sole purpose of slaughter for food.  I do however have no problem with the legitimate circle of life (hunting/fishing) for your food, or a small scale operation, like someone raising their own cattle, being their own farmer and then slaughtering the cow for their own sale as their own butcher.  That would be my current landlord!  There is nothing wrong with eating meat, but things have gotten out of hand, and some of the practices have led to unhealthy, high fat products with added hormones and such.  Certainly not the way humans started out doing things as hunters and gatherers.  I personally will not eat meat regardless, but I do have a respect for people who do this in a responsible way and stick closer to the circle of life, versus going to the store and buying it.  But, these are my personal opinions, they do not reflect my learning as a dietitian and do not make me look down on someone for their own choices when it comes to meat.

Now, I finished my biology degree at one school, but I started at another school nearby for nutrition.  During this degree program, I started to think that I might need to change things and I contemplated reintroducing fish into my diet.  I was probably 22 at this time.  It was not an easy choice, but one I thought was right for me.  No, I did not go from no fish to all fish all the time.  I tried a piece of fish.  Then a few months later, I tried some again.  This went on for some time, until I was comfortable enough to add it more regularly to my diet.  Honestly, some fish consistencies were too much for me and I could not handle the texture.  If this was the case, I just didn't eat the food, but I didn't let it stop me from trying something different another time.

In time I was able to give shrimp a try and even crab, which is huge in my home state of Maryland.

As I aged, I was glad to have made this decision.  Especially now on this island.  I am able to appreciate the seafood from the local area, and I have an appreciation for the real fisherman out there who have made this sport an art form.  I even like to watch my husband hunt underwater for fish using his spear gun.  He works for that fish, and that is the way it should be.

In the end, there are many reasons as to why I became a vegetarian, and as you can see, these evolved over time.  It all started with a texture issue, but in the end, I see that there were many good reasons for me to choose this lifestyle.  I am lucky enough to be educated on proper nutrition and I know how to balance my diet.  

My choices are my own, but I do encourage, if anything, incorporating more meatless meals into your life.  This is good for health and the environment.  It is more energy efficient to produce food from the land for people to consume versus producing food from the land for animals to consume and then have those animals feed people.  You will get a lots less out of this and it takes up more space on the earth to raise animals for feed.  This is one reason you will find that poorer nations are usually/mostly vegetarian.

Eating more vegetarian meals does not mean you are a vegetarian.  Eating a vegetarian meal does not meat you can't eat meat later.  All this means is that you are eating a variety of foods, and likely not over consuming protein like so many people do in the United States.

So, if you have any questions for me on this topic, feel free to ask.

With all of this talk about vegetarian diets, I wanted to share some pictures of my lunch creation from last week.  This is my "beef" and broccoli sandwich:

I started with meat free soy crumbles.
I used a 1/2 pita pocket, whole wheat, with a whooping 4 grams of fiber in each half.  Then I used some frozen broccoli.  Going with frozen means I always have broccoli the house.
Mixed it all together.
Then I added it to the pita.  I personally LOVE mustard, so I quirted some in the pita for some extra flavor.
This was so good that I made it for lunch 3 days in a row.  Next week I am thinking more variety, but for last week, this was too good to pass up.
QUESTIONS:  Are you a vegetarian?  If so, what was your reason(s) for this decision?  If not, do you try and incorporate meatless meals?

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!!!  I wanted to wish all the mother's out there a happy mother's day.  Also, a super special happy mother's day to my mom (for putting up with my vegetarian habits and all other dietary quirks) and my mother in law too.  Plus, I know my grandfather reads my blog, so tell grandma I said a super special happy mother's day to her too.  Oh, and my step-mother too.  Yes, Ryan and I plan of making the rounds of phone calls today.

6 comments:

Shannon said...

Its always interesting to read people's journey toward one diet/lifestyle or another. Thanks for sharing. I eat a lot of fish and seafood, but I very rarely eat meat. I won't eat any kind of steak, only because I don't like the feel of it. I don't like chewing it! I will eat ground beef, although I can't remember the last time I did, and now, after reading so much, I will only eat beef that has been grass fed and humanely raised. Same with chicken, but I never crave it, so I primarily stick with vegetarian and seafood meals.

Gina said...

Wow, what a great story!!! You know, I had a problem with hamburger meat's texture for a while, but other meat/animal proteins didn't bother me much. Actually I specifically remember the first time I had tofu, and HATED IT, I thought to myself, "thank goodness I'm not a vegetarian!" haha.

Thanks for this post Melinda, and I'm with you in agreeing that it's a good thing you eat fish now, or else it would be such a waste, I'm jealous of all the fresh fish you post about!!

Chris & Lisa said...

Awesome post Melinda! I am also a pescatarian and it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. My story is also long but the main 3 reasons, in order, are:
1) I don't like meat. The texture, the flavor, the way it feels between my teeth, gag.
2) The environment. I saw a little icon (I think on the PETA website maybe?) that said the best thing you can do for the earth is become a vegetarian. I was sold.
3) Health reasons. That is why I still eat fish (really only salmon, most white fish, and crab) and I only eat it (wild-caught only) 2-4 times per month. Also, I used to be obese and not eating meat certainly helps me maintain my weight (although this was not a reason to become a pescatarian).

Love your story...yet another thing we have in common! =)

Emily said...

Very interesting how you got into vegetarianism. I like how it began as a preference but then became more of a conscious decision. I'm not a total veg, but I only eat organic/local meat because I don't agree with the way the meat industry is run. For me, it's more of a political thing.

I did note from the ADA's latest position paper that complementary proteins are no longer necessary. As long as you eat a balanced diet with foods from a variety of sources throughout the day, you can get all the protein you need. Pretty neat, huh?!

swankyrd said...

Thanks for sharing. Although I do eat animal proteins (mostly chicken), I have definitely cut back on my consumption of meat. I do more vegetarian meals and am often experimenting with vegetarin products such as tofu. I do it for environmental reasons. I also feel that animals now a days are not treated in humane ways.

Beth said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I've probably said this before, but I consider myself to be a flexitarian--I'm mostly vegetarian, but I do eat meat (mostly chickent) a few times a week and I eat fish. I do not eat beef at all, and because beef is SO environmentally unfriendly, Noel never has it at home, only out so it's a "treat". The chicken we do eat at home we buy from Whole Foods, where there is a commitment to cruelty free meat. Yes it costs more, but that makes us eat it less, which is really the healthier option!

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