Meat Eater to Plant Eater – December’s 30-Day Life Challenge

As of today I am 32 days without eating meat.  I started this challenge (as with all my challenges) as a way to improve the quality of my life by diving head first into a focused 30-day life experiment.  As a hardcore carnivore, I entered December with the bias that a meal wasn’t really a meal unless it had meat as the centerpiece.   Why have just a cheese pizza when you can have buffalo chicken pizza?  Why have just a salad when you can have it with grilled chicken?  Why have just a veggie wrap when you can have roast beef?  The list goes on.  The point of this 30-day life experiment was to recalibrate my diet by eliminating meat and taking the time to focus on all the other areas of nutrition.  In doing so, I touched the tip of the iceberg as to what it’s like to be a vegetarian in a world dominated by meat and industrialized food.  I learned a lot about myself in doing this experiment, many of which may seem obvious to a lot of people but regardless, I had to learn these things for myself.  Feel free to leave comments on my findings below, here are a few of my takeaway lessons from being vegetarian for a month:

  1. Vegetarianism is not synonymous with being healthy.  Beer, chocolate chip cookies, soda, and cake are all allowable within the realm of vegetarianism.   Every time I ate a cookie or drank a beer I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s vegetarian!  Awesome.” I had this previously conceived notion that being vegetarian meant restricting your diet to only salads and veggie burgers when in fact it simply means that you just choose not to eat meat.  In reality vegetarianism a pretty simple concept.
  2. Vegetarianism is not synonymous with environmentalism.  You can still be a vegetarian and be incredibly unhealthy for yourself (sweets and processed foods) and for the environment (fruits and salads from South America shipped to Boston?!).  You still have to make good decisions about what foods you choose to eat, how it was grown/processed, and where it comes from.   More and more I started to notice how much of our produce comes from California, Mexico, and South America.  This has an incredibly bad impact on the environment when you consider the use of fossil fuels for transportation and storage.  Why do we eat lettuce from California or Argentina?  We eat them because the incentives our government has in place makes this extremely convenient and cost effective.  Just because we CAN get food cheaply from Mexico doesn’t mean it’s a good decision, especially for the environment, which is a consideration I knew existed before this month’s challenge but it came to the forefront very quickly for me.
  3. We live in a meat-dominated food culture. I knew that meat was everywhere, but I had no idea how pervasive it really was until I cut it out of my diet.  Every time I went out to eat I had to scour the menu for meatless options.  Unless you’re an environmentally progressive restaurant, most menu items include meat with very few examples of veggie-only meals aside from salad appetizers. Everything seemed to involve chicken, beef, or turkey in some capacity.  My friends would even look over the menu for me, pointing out different things I was allowed to eat as a vegetarian.  This highlights the fact that going meat-less is indeed a minority behavior and you have to work hard while you’re eating out in order to get a good meal.  It reminds me of a situation that happened a few months ago.  Sarah and I went on a double date with two of our friends (one a vegetarian and the other a vegan).  We weren’t really thinking so we chose to eat at a barbeque place.  There was one entrée out of dozens that was meat-free (obviously) but we definitely put our friends at an inconvenience and didn’t even consider the fact that not eating meat was an option.  This month put me in their shoes and now I better understand what it’s like to be a vegetarian in a meat-dominated culture.
  4. Vegetarians are a minority who most people just dismiss as granola, crunchy, or just plain silly.  At times I definitely felt discriminated against by choosing to exclude meat from my diet.  Some people already knew about my experiment but those who didn’t know I didn’t tell them just so that I could see their reactions to me becoming a vegetarian.  I had people tell me, “I have a great idea for your blog, EAT MEAT you idiot!” or “That sounds stupid, why would you do that” or “Just eat meat dude it’s good for you” or “You can’t be an athlete and be a vegetarian”.  I was called various names (all in jest by friends and family) but the point remains that only a handful of people (a few of my liberal college friends and a few family members) outright said it was a great idea and immediately saw the benefit my vegetarian experiment.  I think this is mostly because it’s just easy to ignore the reality that the meat industry has changed over the past 20+ years.  The way meat is currently produced is less healthy and sustainable than traditional farming.  It’s just that as the consumer going to the grocery store we didn’t notice the shift.  You have to go pretty far out of your way to educate yourself about the food you’re eating.  The more I educated myself about food and the more I talked about it to friends and family the more I felt people thought of me as a silly, crunchy, granola city-boy who’s too good for meat.  That’s not the case in reality but I definitely had recurring moments of that feeling.
  5. The industrial food industry is frightening.  I spent a lot of time reading articles and blogs about industrialized food as well as the popular book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”.  It has been crazy to learn how drastically it has changed over the past few decades.  The killing of animals is not my problem.  I could without a doubt put a gun to an animal’s head, pull the trigger, and feel great about eating it, that’s not my issue.  It’s simply the practices by which industry has them raised, slaughtered, transported, and stored for our convenience that I have an issue with.  Using capitalism to drive our food chain has led us to in effect remove food from its natural state.  Cows that have evolved to eat grass but are now fed corn which they cannot digest well.  Why?  Because corn is subsidized by the government.  There are many authors and bloggers who can do this topic justice but my main point is that our current industrial system of food has vast negative implications that we’re only starting to see.
  6. Eating healthy and sustainably in 2011 is incredibly confusing.  Should you eat organic even if your food comes from Venezuela?  Or should you eat local even when it happens to not be organic?  What does “free range” really mean in practice (if anything at all)?  If we outlaw antibiotics on animals to be considered organic are we then ok with sick animals simply being shot instead of treated?  Should you be vegetarian (no meat), pesce-vegetarian (includes fish), pollo-vegetarian (includes chicken and turkey but no red meat), flexitarian (meat sometimes), fruitarians (fruit, nuts, seeds, don’t harm the plant), vegan (no animal products), and the list goes on.   All of these considerations stressed me out mainly because it’s incredibly difficult to eat healthy food that’s not highly processed, that was raised humanely, and that didn’t travel 2500 miles to get to my plate.  It definitely makes shopping super difficult which is why most people (including myself) simply ignore the issues and rely on convenience instead (still including myself).
  7. Veggie burgers are the bomb, the end.

Distilling all of the things I learned about food and what it means to my life I’ve realized that many of the confusing and scarier issues goes away when you eat locally grown food that’s minimally processed.  The fewer ingredients the better and if you don’t know what an ingredient is then you should probably avoid it.  Easier said than done though considering I’m not willing to give up things like the occasional Snickers Bar or Soda.  Practically speaking, I plan to improve the quality of my nutrition by joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to get local vegetables and I hope I can find one for meat as well so I can stop worrying about whether or not my meat is healthy for me to be eating.  Check out the link above and put in your zip code to find a CSA near you.

I’ve been training just as hard as ever so part of me wants to go completely vegetarian just to show people that not only is it possible, but I might also perform at a higher level athletically because of it.  To my surprise, I didn’t crave meat even once throughout the whole month.  I thought I’d have mouth-watering temptations but that wasn’t the case at all, it was pretty easy once I figured out that my body wont tolerate three meals a day of beans and soy.  Moving forward, I will definitely continue to eat meat.  However, my perspectives have changed over the past 30 days.  I just plan to eat far less meat considering I’ve proved to myself that meat does not have to be the centerpiece in order for it to be considered a legitimate meal.  Meatless Mondays is something I plan to keep consistent because even having just one day without meat can have tremendous benefits on your health and the health of the environment.  I still plan to tweet and blog about various veggie-lifestyle things so if you have any comments or cool recipes then please forward them along.  I’m psyched to start my next challenge.

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