Some of my favorite foods are chicken, cheese and turkey. Chicken has been a staple in my diet since forever, and I swore I couldn’t live without it. I said the same about cheese. My favorite cheese, Wensleydale with cranberries, is a heavenly, buttery snack cheese. I’m also keen on sharp cheddar, melted in the toaster oven, blissfully gooey with crisp edges. And roasted holiday turkey is the best part of Thanksgiving. Seriously, fuck mashed potatoes and pie. I get all drooly just thinking about a big juicy bird, sizzling from the oven with its crispy, golden skin, sliced and slathered with homemade cranberry relish.
I never in my life thought I would give them up, er, cold turkey, but except for an occasional bit of cheese, I have. I haven’t eaten any land meat since October 1st. At this point, my diet is about 95% plant-based. The other 5% of my diet is vegetarian – including butter, cheese, eggs, milk, and chocolate – because that gives me a little more flexibility when eating out, or as a guest in people’s homes, and sometimes a cookie or bit of chocolate becomes the object of my desire. If someone had told me I’d be eating like this a year ago, I would have rolled my eyes and told them to stop fucking with me.
In some ways, this has been a long time in the making. In other ways, it was a somewhat abrupt experiment that has persisted. The long-time-in-the-making version is a more complicated story that I will explore here in time, but part of it comes back to the ubiquitously complex relationship between food and diabetes. If it weren’t for that, I doubt I would have an interest in nutrition, the psychology of food, the food industry and food politics, all of which have affected my dietary shift. Those interests have compelled me to watch a lot of documentaries over the last several years, including Forks over Knives, Killer at Large, Food, Inc., King Corn, Supersize Me, Hungry for Change, and a cool online course from Open Yale Courses, The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food. Each one made me reflect on my food choices. Sometimes I’d even make minor changes, like purposefully ordering a veggie burger instead of a beef or turkey burger to reduce my meat consumption. Not to patently dismiss those occasional instances of avoiding meat as meaningless, but overall, those behavior changes were inconsistent, temporaneous, and didn’t amount to much. In response to those documentaries, I did think about my choices – not always, but often – and as time passed, I felt increasingly guilty for buying and eating foods that came from animals I felt certain had suffered at the hands of an industry that I find ethically, morally, politically, economically, socially and environmentally corrupt.
Last spring, I started to further reduce my meat consumption, primarily because I felt like I should – the lingering guilt proved to be negative reinforcement. I also had positive reinforcement though. My friend was posting photos of plant-based meals, which I found inspiring because they sounded delicious. I know others who have experimented with a vegan diet, and chatting with them left me curious. Then there were friends posting on Facebook that they were practicing Meatless Mondays. Seeing other people reducing meat from their diets to various extents made me think I could do it too.
Then last summer, while at school in Boston, I took a break from the endless slog of research and writing and writing and research to watch the documentary, Vegucated. The basic premise is that a woman who has converted to veganism recruits three people through Craigslist to try a vegan diet. This was educational, inspiring, and very moving for me. It was a turning point that led to the abrupt experiment.
I decided I was going to stop eating land animals, not in an absolute I-will-never-eat-meat-again kind of way, but in a one-meal-at-a-time kind of way. I decided I would still eat fish – it’s heart-healthy, brain-healthy, and I figured I could use the protein – which I did a handful of times into the fall. However, when I posted on Facebook that I wasn’t eating meat except for fish, a friend pointed out that the fishing industry has some rather despicable practices. The nagging guilt struck every time I had a tuna sandwich, so I haven’t eaten fish since September or October.
Eating is a biological necessity, but it is also a social activity, and I have struggled with managing the social implications of my dietary shift. I have never been a picky eater, and have no food allergies, so despite diabetes, and the fucked up relationship I had with food during my teens and 20’s, for the most part, my dietary social life has been unremarkable. My great-grandmother used to brag about how I would eat almost anything that was put in front of me – zucchini, okra, collard greens, turnip greens, beets, snap peas, any vegetable. She bragged the way other people brag about kids being smart or athletic. As an adult, I could count the foods I really disliked on one hand, so regardless of where I was eating, I was easy to please. Jason, on the other hand, can be a little selective – he won’t eat seafood, he’s pretty lukewarm to Indian and Thai, which I quite like, and compared to me, there are a lot of foods he’s just not fond of – cranberries, sweet potatoes, winter squash, eggplant, beans, for example. Until recently, if we were invited to go to a restaurant, I felt obligated to scope out the menu beforehand to make sure there would be something he liked. The dining table has turned a bit since I eliminated meat, and now I’m scoping out menus to make sure there’s something I’m willing to eat. Going from easy-to-please eater to needing to politely tell people I won’t eat this or that is a whole new, very uncomfortable change for me that I’m still trying to navigate.
When I went to Texas to see my family in late September, I decided to not make it a thing, and I ate meat. Eating meat again for those few days turned out to be as much an experiment as not eating it had been during July, August and September. It tasted good, so in that respect, I enjoyed it, but my conscious bothered me, which was hard to swallow, so to speak. If I went down to visit them again tomorrow though, I’m not sure if I would ask them to accommodate me, or if I would just take the when-in-Rome approach again. I don’t want to be inflexible to the point that people would just rather not have me at their home. As long as I’m avoiding meat though, I need to work on negotiating a balance that isn’t an imposition on others, unless I want to be confined to only eating at home.
For now though, I do mostly only eat at home. We haven’t been eating at restaurants as much as we had been. That’s because we’re trying to save money, but it’s also made sticking to a plant-based diet a lot easier. Now that I’m cooking more, I enjoy eating at home more too. There’s a lot to be said for cooking not just to nourish your body, but also your spirit and beliefs. We don’t socialize that often, mostly because our circle of friends likes to go to restaurants, and that’s very costly. I used to go out for lunch on my office days, but now I bring lunch, partly to save money, partly because my former go-to eatery, Panera, leaves something to be desired as far as vegan menu options go – except for PBJ, black bean soup, and the classic cafe salad, everything has to be ordered without meat and/or cheese. That’s a short menu, and if I want to eat a PBJ, I’ll bring a bag lunch to the office, which is exactly what I’ve been doing.
I’m happier now though. I’m cooking way more than I used to, and I’m enjoying it. It gives me great joy to be creative, and I derive great satisfaction from doing something that is good for my body. My appetite has decreased, and I don’t have junky cravings like I once did, presumably because I’m eating less overly processed foods with all those chemicals and preservatives, which I suspect screw with people’s metabolism. I can’t prove that, but I don’t have a better explanation for the change in my appetite and decrease in cravings. The health implications of a plant-based diet are beyond the scope of this post, and are certainly debatable, but so far, I’ve had positive results. My conscious is eased. I used to feel like a hypocrite – concerned about farm animal welfare and the environment, but still eating conventionally raised farm animals. I am a dirty hippie after all, so the environment and animal welfare concern me. I’m not comfortable contributing to the problem, so that means owning up, stepping up, and trying to be part of the solution. I’m not living a total vegan lifestyle – I have a disease which scientists are trying to cure in mice, I’m sure some of the health and beauty products I use have been tested on animals, I’m still using leather handbags I bought ages ago, and I drive a car with leather seats for fuck’s sake – so I’m far from the vegan poster child, but I’m trying. I can’t recall which of my friends posted this, but there’s a quote I like that I am trying to live by: I will not do nothing simply because I cannot do everything.