The last eighteen months or so have been an adventure of sorts: I stopped eating animals. I won’t say I stopped eating meat, because depending on whom you ask, this may only include red meat, maybe chicken, and probably not fish. Many people even call themselves vegetarians, but love a good piece or salmon or red snapper. Newsflash: fish have feelings too, and they were definitely once alive. If you eat fish, but not other animals, that makes you a pescatarian.
Ok, enough of a lesson on the semantics of language pertaining to dietary choices. I’m not here to lecture, merely to share my experience. I myself, in technical terms, am a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, which is the most common definition when people use the word 'vegetarian'. This means that in addition to plant based foods, I also eat dairy and egg products. I personally try to be sure that my dairy and egg products are organic, grass fed, free-range, etcetera, to make sure the animals that these products come from are as healthy as possible. I enjoy cheese and yogurt far too much to give them up, and my Italian family might just disown me if I stopped eating cheese in addition to meat.
My decision to try being a vegetarian diet was solidified in the Fall of 2010. I had a good friend staying with me who had recently become vegan after spending a year as a vegetarian. For him it was mainly a moral decision; he refused to consume animal products. Prior to being vegetarian, he had eaten everything. During his first year of medical school, he began dissecting animals as part of the curriculum for some of his courses. This didn't sit well with him, and he developed strong feelings that animals were entitled to life just as much as humans were. In his mind, with all the advances of modern society, there was no need to derive any nutrition from animals. Humans could feed themselves in a healthy manner without any animal products.
Having the close friendship that we have, we had some very interesting philosophical debates about the merits of vegetarianism and veganism. I admired his convictions and thought he justified his behavior in a practical and logical manner. I saw where he was coming from and though I didn't buy into it immediately, I was open minded to the idea. To humor him, I was a vegan for the week during which he stayed with me. It was definitely an adjustment, but my friend was very diligent about his diet: he checked the ingredients list on any package or box of food prior to eating it and when in a restaurant, he had a slew of questions for the waiter. All of this made me very cognizant of what I was eating, and also what I didn't know I was eating. You would be surprised about the minor dairy products that might be in the flavoring of a bag of chips, or the mushroom soup you ordered in a restaurant that was made with chicken stock.
After my friend left, I went back to eating everything; It wasn't that I had necessarily disliked a vegan diet, but it was a bit more work and an adjustment. Eating meat like before was just easier. It is worth noting that I grew up in a house that was focused around produce and grains instead of meat. My father grew up on a farm in Sicily and those were the foods consumed most frequently. Hence, I already had an atypical diet by American standards. I was also already somewhat health-conscious and knowledgeable about the food industry. So the majority of the meat I consumed for the few years prior had been predominantly organic, grass fed, and other adjectives that indicate a “healthy” animal existence prior to human consumption.
Our conversations stayed with me and I continued to think about it a lot, especially since at the time I was studying sustainability in graduate school. I had many classmates who were vegetarian, and there is a strong argument that current levels of meat production are not environmentally sustainable. A couple of weeks later, following Thanksgiving 2010, I decided that I wanted to try being a vegetarian. I cut back on meat consumption to about once a week, and by January, I was sticking to a proper vegetarian diet. Nobody is perfect and I have definitely eaten meat on a couple of occasions. But then again, I don’t do this for anyone other than myself. It’s been a fun experience. I have been experimenting with new foods and recipes, trying new restaurants, and feeling healthy and strong. People are often curious about how long I have been a vegetarian, and what is my motivation. It has become three-fold for me: environmental sustainability, my personal health and animal rights. There is a lot to say about each of these topics, so I’ll have to delve deeper in a future article.
I plan to continue my vegetarian diet indefinitely, until I decide otherwise. I don't find it very difficult, especially in a place like New York City, where there is access to all kinds of great produce and vegan foods as well as restaurants. It requires a bit of extra planning sometimes for meals, and a couple of extra questions at restaurants. But this is a minor burden that I'm ok with, because I've decided that maintaining this diet is something that is important to me. Not everyone can or should be a vegetarian. Many people have various food allergies and dietary restrictions, so it won't always be practical. But it's worth considering; there's really nothing to be lost by giving it a try. I consider myself a "normal" person, so I think that anyone can do it if it means a lot to them. The most important thing you should do is to think about what you eat, where it came from and what benefit it will provide for your body. Make the decision that is right for you.