I always swore I could never be a vegetarian.
“I like meat too much.”
“But bacon is so…good.”
My sister went through one or two vegetarian stints throughout her high school years. I can remember sneaking into her bedroom while she was at work or driving around with friends or at a sleepover. Once, as I cracked open her door and quickly scanned the contents of her messy bureau-top, a small, round sticker stopped me in my peripheral tracks.
It featured a cutesy cartoon clown fish with a frown and furrowed brows — if a clown fish can have brows. He was surrounded by a mass of bubbly white text: “Fish are Friends, Not Food!”
Shortly after, I would learn that the stickers had come as part of a free vegetarian starter kit she had ordered from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website.
At the time, I knew a few things for certain: a large part of the meat industry’s daily tasks involve the cruel and inhumane treatment of animals leading up to, and during, slaughter; vegetarians don’t eat meat; and vegans basically don’t want anything to do with animal products.
I knew that the treatment of animals was disagreeable, abhorrent, and disturbing. I knew that I could never stand to see my beloved family pets treated in such a way.
I knew that my sister and some of her friends — and a few years later, some of mine — were exploring these injustices, and acting upon them, for valid reasons.
And yet, I never felt an urgent need to test out vegetarianism for myself.
Maybe I was too naïve or too young or too cowardly. Maybe I wasn’t courageous enough to face the facts and stare at the problem head-on. Maybe I didn’t feel the need to eliminate meat from my diet. Maybe I never dabbled in the “veg” pool because I simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Or maybe it just never happened.
Now it has.
I recently decided to join the United States’ 7.3 million vegetarians for a week and explore not only new eating habits but a new lifestyle, as well. Clearly, I was in good company.
I was lucky enough to have a knowledgeable and admirable mentor by my side, someone to point me in the right direction, someone whom I could text when I needed help finding alternative sources of protein, and someone who wouldn’t judge me if, at the end of this experience, I decided to go back to my carnivorous ways.
My friend Staci had been a vegan for four years and is raising her 1-year-old son the same way. When I told her about my plans to try out vegetarianism, she coined a fitting name for the process: getting “vegucated.”
She sent me an email a day or two after we first spoke about my idea, in which she said there are two driving forces behind the “veg” movement: health and animal cruelty. People who go meat-free obviously have to be more conscious of the foods that they consume.
The elimination of meat from one’s diet usually results in increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables—although there are some non-meat-eaters who exist in a rut of processed food consumption.
Furthermore, vegetarians and vegans prefer not to support the meat industry because of the ways animals are treated before, and during, slaughter.
So what, exactly, did this lifestyle shift entail for me?
In a nutshell, it meant that, by making the conscious decision to avoid eating certain meat products, I would end up paying closer attention to everything I ate.
Most of my days are spent in and out of classes on a college campus, which means that I am pretty much subject to whatever meals are available in the cafeteria. As I walked through the orange turnstiles at the entrance of the cafe on my first day as a vegetarian, the reality of my choice began to settle in.
The first thing I saw: the build-your-own-burger station, complete with the usual long line of hungry, hard-working students longingly watching their lunchmeat sizzle on an oversized grill. I quickly kept walking, ignoring the temptation that existed just outside of my periphery and trying to convince myself that deep-fried chicken tenders dipped in honey mustard weren’t my favorite grab-and-go meal on campus.
Let’s just say there was a lot of salad involved.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since I genuinely love salad anyway. But I did get a little bored toward the end of the week.
When you decide to go full-on vegetarian after about 20 years of doing the opposite, you have to grow up and stop being so damn picky. Because your meal options are really limited, at least compared to what you’re used to. And you don’t want to become a part of the vegetarians-who-only-eat-processed-foods statistic.
The pizza here isn’t your favorite? Eat it anyway. You’d rather have smoked beef jerky instead of trail mix? Choose the trail mix anyway. You’re sick of boring bowls full of leafy greens, sliced carrots and broccoli, but you only like eggs if they’re cooked a certain way? Grab two hard-boiled eggs anyway. And eat them like an adult would.
Although I stuck to the plan for the majority of the week, I didn’t make for the perfect vegetarian. I did indulge in a bowl of chili and a junior bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s.
But, in my defense, I don’t believe that these apparent slip-ups stemmed from a lack of understanding, acceptance, or appreciation for vegetarianism and all that it stands for. Nor did they come from a lack of interest in my personal health or a wavering dedication to the project.
More than anything, I ate the chili on Thursday because it was there. It was what my dad happened to make for dinner that night. I ate the Wendy’s cheeseburger because it was available. I was in a huge rush, and a salad doesn’t make for the best car food.
If I had asked him to, my dad could have just as easily whipped up a vegetarian version of his chili. And if I had been more prepared, maybe I wouldn’t have had to make that fast-food stop.
But I wasn’t raised in such a way that avoiding meat is second nature; thinking like a vegetarian doesn’t come naturally to me. Although I had learned how to navigate the school cafeteria in order to eat like a vegetarian, and although I was getting along all right without meat, it’s true that my brain isn’t wired to not want beef or fish or chicken.
The point is, assimilating to the “veg” world came as a bit of a culture shock to me, as someone who spent her whole life eating meat — and loving it. Moving forward, I’m not so sure that being a devoted vegetarian is for me. How am I not supposed to order a steak at Outback? Why wouldn’t I love the taste of super crispy bacon at brunch?
This is not to say that I don’t respect vegetarians or vegans or anyone else devoted to the “veg” movement. If anything, this experience has given me a deeper understanding of the “veg” world and those who choose to be a part of it.
But I’ve realized that the decision to become a vegetarian can probably go one of two ways: you either hit a turning point, during which you devote yourself to the “veg” lifestyle wholeheartedly, as Staci did; or you become exposed to and more aware of the lifestyle and begin to make small changes where you see fit, even if that means continuing to eat meat while still being aware of the arguments against doing so.
You can imagine the direction in which I naturally lean.