@February 4, 2024
I stopped buying meat about three years ago. It began as part of the “vegan January” challenge: an annual campaign that encourages people to try the vegan diet, just for one month.
I can’t say I lasted very long as a vegan. I didn’t come close to making it through the whole month. But by putting in the effort—to learn new recipes and appreciate a different style of cooking—I changed my perspective on food to last three years and counting as a “mostly” vegetarian.
What motivated me to change?
I grew up with a typical American diet that made a meat-based main entree seem like the only thing worth eating. In college, I was weightlifting six days a week, and would try to eat 200 grams of protein per day. I convinced myself that a meat-dominant diet was the only feasible option.
After living in San Francisco for several years, I was surrounded by a much wider variety of cuisines and vegetarian friends, including several serious athletes. Making the switch started to seem more viable.
Ultimately, there were two books that pushed me over the edge:
- In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. This is the book where Pollan makes the well-known recommendation, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. My main takeaway was surprisingly more about “eat food” than “mostly plants”. By “eat food”, Pollan means eat real food. The best foods are those that don’t have a nutrition label: whole fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, and many others.
- How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger. This book argues that many chronic diseases are preventable, and strongly correlated with diet. Greger, a physician, cites perhaps a hundred different studies related to disease prevention and longevity that point to a plant-based diet as immensely positive.
Essentially, I was convinced that a mostly plant-based, non-processed diet, would help me live a longer, healthier life.
What does it mean to be “mostly” vegetarian?
I’ve been using the word “mostly” a lot, and it’s important to clarify why. I will still eat fish or meat on occasion, but it’s becoming less and less frequent.
I think trying to hold ourselves to black and white, strict diets, is the number one reason they fail. It’s much easier to introduce changes incrementally than to go all in. It’s frustrating to see people try to go 100% vegetarian, conclude it’s too hard, then relapse completely.
I also dislike how diets have become part of our identity. Even if I stopped eating meat entirely, I would hesitate to call myself a “vegetarian”, because it reinforces the idea that the choice to eat meat is all or nothing. It is not. The world could benefit substantially from even a small reduction in industrialized meat and fish consumption.
I have two principles that have incrementally reduced my meat consumption by 95% (from about 12 meals per week to 3 meals per month).
- No meat in the house
- No thoughtless consumption
Being a vegetarian at home is easy. I know that I can prepare meals that I enjoy (often with less effort) than meat-based dishes.
If I have meat, I want to enjoy it. I want it to be because I’m at a restaurant where it’s their speciality, and there are no good vegetarian alternatives. I don’t want to eat a chicken sandwich that I won’t even appreciate simply because it’s available.
What I eat
Eating less meat seemed daunting at first, but I soon realized it was because I was unaware of filling, vegetarian alternatives.
The number one question I, and many vegetarians get, is “how do you eat enough protein?” Ironically, this is often from people who rarely exercise, and have never attempted to count daily macronutrients—something I’ve been doing throughout years of competitive athletic training.
Eating vegetarian means that protein comes in smaller amounts from a wider variety of sources, as opposed to a large amount in a single serving, which also helps the body to process it more effectively. I found it quite easy to have 150-200g of protein per day, which is much more than most people need.
This comes from things like chickpeas and hummus, tempeh, tofu, and edamame, lentils, beans, quinoa, wild rice and oats, sweet potatoes, peas, nuts and nut butters. These are all vegan sources of protein. It’s also possible to supplement with eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, and whey, which are high in protein and still vegetarian.
Some of my favorite cookbooks are Love Real Food by Kathryne Taylor, Plant over Processed by Andrea Hannemann, and Isa Does It by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Making meals from these books helped me realize that it’s possible to have a satisfying dinner without a meat main.
Over the last three years, I have been constantly surprised to see my desires change. Like many people, I came from a place where it was difficult to imagine a meal without meat. I felt that I derived so much enjoyment from it, it was hard to consider the possibility of transitioning away.
However, I had long heard from vegetarian friends that they had lost the desire for meat altogether. I used to not believe them—to me, it seemed to occur on a subconscious, biological level. But as I started eating less meat, and found satisfying alternatives, I slowly saw the same psychological change happening to me.
Beginning with not eating meat at home, I would still order it frequently at restaurants. But over time, I found myself less and less interested, and perhaps someday I’ll reach the point where I have no desire for it at all. I think this concept of ratcheting is important and applies to other areas in life. With exercise, for example, I’ve seen many people take small steps to go from detesting it to feeling the need to be active every day.
So my closing advice would be, if you’re interested in changing your diet, take small steps. Buy one of the cookbooks from above, and try making a vegetarian meal one night per week. Find ingredients you love and see where it takes you.