Living Green: Why I Am a Vegetarian and What It Has Taught Me

It’s been one heck of a long year. When I started this journey in mid-December of last year, even I thought I was crazy. If you would have asked me then, I don’t think I would have had much faith in myself, if any at all. But now it has been a year… and I cannot believe what I have accomplished.

Before I dive in too far, I do have to say one thing: I love meat.

I love to eat meat and I have since I was able to chew. Hot wings were and are my favorite food in the world (of course, now I make them with tofu—please don’t knock it ‘till you try it). A double bacon cheeseburger at literally any time of day still sounds good to me and a thick, juicy steak would still make my mouth water. I used to throw chicken on exactly every meal, and if I weren’t a vegetarian I probably still would. And I’m not going to even go into the travesty that is (or sadly, isn’t) the spicy tuna roll.

However, if I am being completely honest, I do not miss meat at all. When I decided to stop eating meat, I told myself it would be for a week. Then, after the week had passed, I thought to myself, “That wasn’t so hard, I think I could make it a whole month.” And as you can probably guess, that cycle ensued—and here we are, one meatless year later.

Maybe this is the first you are hearing of my switch to vegetarianism, and that makes perfect sense. I learned very quickly that people have a lot of opinions on this issue. Not many are fans of my choice; I have gotten into more ridiculous arguments and been called dumb and rude by more people than I can remember. My favorite response is, “What do you mean you don’t like meat?!”

*Please see above paragraph detailing the many ways I love meat.

I get asked “Why?” most commonly, and I feel like that is a fair question. But I also have a question for everyone who asks any questions at all: Why does what I eat matter so much to you? The truth is, it shouldn’t and probably doesn’t. It’s just different—and that is what people are afraid of.

It didn’t take long at all for me to decide that it was best to keep the whole vegetarian thing to myself unless I absolutely couldn’t, or unless someone asked first.

But now that it has been a year, I feel knowledgeable and established enough to say something. The point of this is to answer all of your questions, and to tell you why I continuously wake up in the morning and choose to live this lifestyle—so grab a cup of tea and have a seat, because I have a lot to say.

The idea of being a vegetarian was first put into my head by an amazing teacher I had in Junior College. I took an environmental science class in the fall semester of my sophomore year, and to say that it changed my life would be… well, completely true. Mostly, I learned a bunch of stuff about our environment, and how wasteful and ridiculous we are as consumers. We discussed all of the small changes that we could make in our own lives to do our part, and it really got me thinking about the simply stupid things I did—like use a different plastic water bottle every day. There were some things that I actually did just turn my nose up at, such as taking shorter showers (long, hot showers are my favorite) or getting a more fuel efficient car (news flash—college kids have no money).

One day, we discussed the effects that consuming meat can have on the environment, and I thought, “Wow, that’s really terrible. I never knew any of that, but it makes perfect sense.”

Then said amazing professor asked, “Now, who would consider not eating meat, or even eating less meat?”

And I laughed in his face.

In a crazy and unexpected turn of events, I actually jetted off mid-semester to spend some time in the beautiful African country of Uganda. I have written multiple blog posts about this, and you should definitely check them out, but basically, I just saw the country and spent time with the people. And both were wonderful.

But you know what was in the back of my head the whole time? All of these facts about what meat consumption does to our environment and the world’s economy.

I would see things and associate them with a fact. Here are a few examples:

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Me: See’s lots of barren land and has to change clothes three times a day because it’s a million degrees and I am sweating through everything in this heat.

My brain: Deforestation for agricultural use releases around seven billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, which attributes to the global warming crisis.

*******

Me: See’s livestock roaming in the street—literally goats, chickens, even some giant long-horned monster thing (see above).

My brain: If releases of methane gas from the way we keep cattle and other livestock continue at the same rate, we look to add 615 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050.

*******

Me: See’s starving children with swollen little bellies and soft sweet smiles who have no food and did nothing to deserve their circumstances and misfortune.

My brain: Forty percent of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock, instead of the world’s people.

You get the point.  (All stats are from the Post Carbon Reader– a wonderful collection of essays about scientists and sustainability experts across the globe.)

I returned from Uganda and continued to allow these things to fill my mind. I did a whole lot of research, contemplating, and praying on my knees for there to be another way, but I didn’t see one.

I wanted to help the people I had met and loved and grown close to, even if I couldn’t be there to hold them, or talk with them; I wanted to love them from afar. I wanted to keep them safe, and give them hope for a future.

When I look at, think about, or contemplate eating a piece of meat, this is what I see in my mind:

I see the most generous and kind and loving little girls with paint on their faces and dirt caked on their bare feet, giggling and dancing around in their yard completely content and joyful just to be alive and loved by a God who they fear so much despite the insane hardships they face every day. I see innocent children who know that meat is a delicacy—only for when the Mzungu’s (whites) come to visit. Eating meat is such a privilege; it is for people who have money. Living in the US, it can be difficult to believe, but I have seen first-hand the effects living my “comfortable” life style can have, and I don’t like them.

At many of the places I visited in Uganda, water was sparse. I remember seeing a sign in one restroom that asked people not to flush the toilet because they were having to truck in water. I can go to the sink or the refrigerator any time I want to and have a drink of water. Some of the children in Uganda have to walk barefoot with an infant strapped to their back for miles and miles to get a pail of water from the nearest well—if there even is one.

It takes about 660 gallons of water to produce one hamburger. 660. If someone stood in front of me and gave me the option of eating a hamburger or donating 660 gallons of water to malnourished, poor, dehydrated, and completely beautiful little people, I know what I would do. And I have decided to do just that. Water is necessary for survival, but it does not come in endless supply, as with most of our resources. Meat is not necessary for survival, and the over-consumption in our society has left a depletion in a life-sustaining resource.

I am a vegetarian for the simple reason that consuming meat is not sustainable. You may think that the effects of eating meat will not show up until many years later, but that is just not true; they are plain to see all around the world.

When someone asks me why I make this sacrifice, I want to show them the pictures and tell them about the beautifully innocent people who are hungry and thirsty, and explain that I don’t eat meat so that poverty and starvation don’t have to be a reality any longer and so those who are less fortunate can have a chance to live, because we should all have that.

It may seem dumb at first, but it is literally a matter of life and death. I take it seriously, because it is serious.

 

In addition to learning about how not eating meat can help others, I have learned a little about how it is helpful to me too. Our bodies weren’t designed to eat the abscess amounts of meat that we do. Somewhere along the line, our portion sizes became completely out of whack. We need nutrients and water, first and foremost, and those come in the form of fruits and vegetables. I know I am preaching to the choir here so I won’t spend too much time on this one, but we are so unhealthy as a society. Food is fuel, and the vast majority of Americans eat way more than what their body needs.

Being a vegetarian has not only made me incredibly aware of what I am putting into my body, but also how much I am consuming and how those foods in certain amounts make me feel. I love fruit, but sugar clouds my mind and literally makes me feel so sluggish and disgusting, so I eat it in smaller portions at certain times of the day. If I eat until I am full, I feel miserable for the next few hours and I just want to stay in one place and not move. Food is not supposed to make you feel tired and sluggish, it is supposed to propel you forward. If it is not, you aren’t using it right.

I have hypothyroidism and I have been able to make changes in my diet that work for my body and its needs. For instance, I try to stay away from soy, uncooked broccoli, and wheat/gluten, because they are all things that make me feel like I swallowed a rock, thanks to my under-active thyroid.

Changing how you eat changes everything. I won’t lie to you, I still face the struggle of wanting to eat a brownie when everyone else does, or wanting to have fried foods instead of a salad when I am out to eat because I love the notion of “treat yo self”. But I can treat myself in other and better ways. I never feel like I am missing out when I don’t eat meat, because I can literally have everything that anyone who eats meat can have. Veggie lasagna, veggie and bean tacos, baked tofu hot wings, veggie pizza, veggie quesadilla—the possibilities are endless. I have yet to find something that I cannot come up with a delicious alternative for.

 

One of the main flaws of my person is self-control. I hated admitting that and accepting it in the first place, but becoming a vegetarian truly forced me to confront that problem, because I was placing such a large restriction on myself. I have always been one to do things without thinking: popping another cracker into my mouth, watching another episode of that TV show because I didn’t get up to turn it off in the ten seconds between, and – if you know me at all—always, always, always having a snappy comeback for every situation.

I started to notice all the other self-control issues I was having immediately, because when you are focused on something, you see it everywhere.

Thankfully, I had already made one right change, and it opened my mind to the idea of making more right changes and being flexible to the right things.

Becoming a vegetarian has allowed me to examine myself in a vulnerable and honest way. I can identify my own personal strengths and weaknesses, and accept them so that I may begin addressing those areas that need work in my life.

My mental health has always been a struggle for me. Its cliché and I know I just sound like another millennial with a billion problems that didn’t exist before 2010, but handling the negative talk inside my own head has been a battle I get up and fight every day. It hurts my mind that I never really know what is coming next, and whether it will be bad or good. It drives me crazy that I run myself ragged trying and trying and trying some more to get everything in my life together and to be at least half way successful at all the things, only to be left feeling exhausted and never good enough. I am so overly aware of the bad things on this earth that I can do nothing about, but having made the choice to be a vegetarian, I feel like it is the one earthly constant—the one thing I can count on to be a good thing and to not change. I rely on that constant, and it helps me to have something that I know is mine and that my head won’t try to mess up.

I have learned a lot in the past year, but it is because I wanted to.

I love listening to the Armchair Expert podcast by Dax Shepard, and on that podcast, he often throws out quotes. One of my favorites is this:

“It is easier to act your way into changing your thinking than to think your way into changing your actions.”

Being a vegetarian was only supposed to be a one week thing for me.

Now it is a life thing for me.

I researched a little beforehand, but mostly I went off of a gut feeling. My best advice, reflecting on the past year, is to just start. Try it, and then learn along the way.

The more I researched and found out, the more I found myself wanting more. I wanted so much more that I had to actually sit down and write out what exactly it was that I wanted. It seems simple, but I challenge you to try it for yourself. It may be harder than you think.

For a long time, I did not know what I wanted, but when I took a step back, and looked at things with fresh eyes, I was able to come up with a few things I knew I wanted regardless of circumstances, ego, or ability.

The next step is the most important. Ask yourself why you want those things, how you will get them, and the potential outcomes of you receiving them.

You may find, like I did, that you don’t actually want those things you thought you wanted the most. Maybe you don’t like what is required of you to receive them. Maybe you don’t like the consequences they will have.

If what you want is to eat a burger, because it is what you desire, and what sounds good to you, and what you think will satisfy the hunger you feel, then it seems like the right choice. But when you consider that eating that one burger may prevent other parts of the population from eating or drinking or living at all, you may realize that you don’t want that burger after all.

Changing your thinking is the key to changing the world. I changed one thing, and it led to a ton of other changes. I stopped using plastic bottles and invested in a reusable, stainless steel water bottle. I don’t leave the lights on, or the refrigerator door open, because it wastes energy. I spend more money on products that I know were ethically made by companies who care about their employees enough to pay them a living wage. I got another job so that I could afford the costly health food that my body needs (organic kale isn’t cheap) and could invest in a vehicle that releases zero evaporative emissions from its fuel system. I take my lunch in reusable containers and bring my own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. I bought a set of stainless steel straws and I take them into Starbucks proudly. And I still shop the Goodwill, because reusing is cool and thrift is in.

I will leave you with one final thought.

People love telling us who they are—or who they think they are. The reality is, we are who we are, and not who we think we are. If we say and even believe we are one thing, but act like another, then we aren’t who we say we are. And we cannot be surprised or upset when people see us as our actions. If we act mean, but our intention was to be kind, we are still just mean. If you intend to make sustainable changes and be environmentally friendly, but you continue to live in the same ways you always have, then you aren’t a sustainable person. If you intend to be a responsible citizen of earth, but you don’t educate yourself on issues such as climate change and world hunger, then you aren’t a responsible citizen. If you intend to love and care for the poor children in Africa and South America, but you don’t do anything to help them or show that love, then you aren’t providing them care and you aren’t providing them with love.

Being a vegetarian is the easiest thing I have ever done, and it becomes easier each and every day. This choice makes me better in every sense. It teaches me new things and it makes me the person I say I am, because my actions are aligned with my intentions. That is why I not only do it, but am happy and proud to do it.

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