The 40-day Vegetarian: What I learned about food, health and people

Let’s get theological for a moment, shall we?

I am far from a practicing Catholic. I’ve been to Mass twice in the past three years (once for a wedding, once for a funeral) despite having grown up with the church and even attending parochial school from kindergarten through eighth grade. With that being said, there are still many aspects of my faith that are important to me, even if I’m not the best at making it to church, and one of those things is the idea of sacrifice and self-control that is present throughout the 40 days of Lent. For several years now, I’ve made an attempt to give something up, with varying degrees of success (last year it was chocolate, so anyone who knows me could probably guess how that turned out).

This year was no different, but I wanted to switch things up a little bit. After considering a few different things, including social media (I literally need it for my job – oh, public relations) and chocolate again (after last year, that idea didn’t seem promising), I eventually decided to give up meat and go vegetarian for Lent.

At the risk of disappointing some fellow vegetarians, I am not morally opposed to the idea of eating meat, but I’ve also never been the type of person to constantly crave burgers, either. I was eating mostly white meat, and even that wasn’t something I ate every day, but I would make some kind of chicken often enough that I decided it was time to switch things up. I chose to give up meat because I knew it would force me to try new things that I might not have cooked or ordered before, and that’s exactly what it did.

The past 38 or so days (I’m writing this on Holy Thursday) have been filled with new recipes, minor anxiety over not seeing many meatless options on restaurant menus, and the joys of finding alternative protein sources. Here’s what I got out of all that.

First things first: “vegetarian” and “healthy” are not mutually exclusive.

After all, you could subsist on nothing but Oreos and Doritos and still be considered a vegan. Before I started this, I would subconsciously associate words like “vegetarian” and “vegan” with health, even if said foods were not the least bit nutritious. I think this might be because most of the vegetarians and vegans I know are also very healthy eaters in general, so this clouded my judgment. Just because something is meatless/dairy-free/et cetera, does not mean that it’s a healthy choice. On the flip side, there are plenty of meat/dairy/et cetera products that ARE healthy and offer nutritional benefits.

I’m a big fan of these little fruit/veggie trays: a perfect healthy vegetarian lunch and only $1.99 each! Find them near the prepackaged salads at Kroger.

Giving up meat and not wanting to eat it are two different things.

A few weeks ago, my roommate ordered Wings Over Athens. When her food arrived, we were both in the combination living/dining room (it’s a college apartment, what do you expect) when suddenly she looked at me and got all worried.

“Does it bother you that I’m eating wings? Since you’re doing the vegetarian thing…I can go eat somewhere else.”

Nah, girl, you’re good. It doesn’t bother me at all. If anything, they smell heavenly and I wish I could have some. You do you.

The best veggie dishes won't make you miss the meat at all. This butternut squash and kale tart is hands down my favorite thing I made in the past 40 days.
The best veggie dishes won’t make you miss the meat at all. This butternut squash and kale tart is hands down my favorite thing I made in the past 40 days.

Meatless fast food options are actually delicious.

I’m not much of a McDonalds person, so I didn’t necessarily miss burgers and whatnot. I was a bit nervous the first time I went to Subway during Lent because I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a vegetable sandwich. My former Subway order was possibly the most boring sandwich combination known to man: ham, lettuce, tomato (“That’s it?” the person making my sub always asks). I’d never considered the variety of veggies available there: other than my usual lettuce and tomato, I knew they had olives and onion (which: no, the latter makes me barf), but because I’d never really paid attention, that was all I ever saw.

That was before I discovered the wonder of the Veggie Delite, which lives up to its name and is in fact very delightful. Both times I had it, I got it on nine-grain wheat with provolone, spinach, lettuce, tomato, peppers and pickles, topped off with chipotle mayo (AKA the only type of mayo I will ever willingly put on a sandwich). It was so delicious and flavorful that I didn’t even miss the meat! I think I found a new Subway order.

I’m also a big fan of Chipotle and became an instant fan of their sofritas tofu option the first time I tried it. The texture is slightly softer than meat, but it’s seasoned exactly the same as their chicken, which was my old standby. The sofritas blended seamlessly into my usual order and I personally think it tasted even better than with chicken.

Brown rice, sofritas, both kinds of beans and lettuce on top.
Brown rice, sofritas (protein!!), both kinds of beans (protein!!) and lettuce on top.

A lot of people will suddenly be very concerned about your protein intake

I didn’t go around openly broadcasting that ~*I AM A VEGETARIAN*~ over the past few months. If appropriate/necessary, I would bring it up, but I saw no need to make a big deal about it. When I did mention it, I got a lot of reactions, ranging from “Good for you!” to “I could never do that!” to the most common: “Are you getting enough protein?”

This is a question that someone who eats meat would never hear, despite the fact that 1 in 4 adults over 20 (and 40 percent of adults over 70) don’t get the recommended daily allowance of protein. Only 3.2 percent of American adults follow a vegetarian diet. I’ve always been terrible at math, but even I can figure out from these stats that there are a lot more people besides just vegetarians who need to worry about their protein.

There are plenty of ways to get protein without consuming meat. I’m a big believer in starting my day with a yummy cup of Greek yogurt (the brand I have in my fridge right now contains 20 percent DV of protein) and have rediscovered my love of dipping apple slices in peanut butter. For a more savory source of protein, I made vegetarian chili with lots of beans and it was honestly the best chili I’ve ever had.

Who says chili needs meat?
Who says chili needs meat?

In fact, people will feel the need to voice their unsolicited opinions on your diet in general.

Protein intake concerns aside, these past few months have really opened my eyes to how people who follow alternative diets are perceived. By “alternative diet,” I’m referring to vegetarianism, veganism, gluten-free, paleo, whatever. I wouldn’t necessarily call these “fad” diets, but in most cases they’re not traditional.

I’ll admit that I used to be one of those people who would jokingly be like “lol what do vegans even eat” (even if I would never say it to a vegan’s face). If anything, this experience has taught me not to judge someone’s choices until I’ve walked a mile in their shoes. People who follow alternative diets have plenty of options for delicious and nutritious food.

A few days into it, I started to see a lot of social media posts bashing people who follow certain kinds of alternative diet. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe people have always been posting stuff like that and I just hadn’t paid attention before. I wouldn’t say that I was outright offended by them, but I can’t say it didn’t bother me. These people were spouting off nonsense without ever having tried that particular diet and it just came off as ignorant.

If someone doesn’t want to eat meat, or dairy, or gluten*, or any and all of the above, that is their choice. And this is a two way street: if someone does want to eat meat, or dairy, or gluten, or any and all of the above, that is also their choice. If someone thinks that following (or not following) a particular alternative diet is the best choice for their personal health and lifestyle, that’s entirely up to them. Nobody has the right to tell anyone else what they should eat (or not eat).**

*Sidebar 1: I’m not going to judge anyone who follows a gluten-free diet despite not having Celiac disease or a related condition.  I WILL say that you should not claim you have a gluten (or any type of food) allergy unless you actually do. I used to work as a server and if someone tells us that they’re allergic to a particular item, the kitchen has to go through this crazy intense sterilization and sanitation process that involves washing any utensils and equipment that may have touched the offending item before preparing that person’s food. It’s absolutely not a problem for people who are genuinely allergic to something, but it’s a waste of time if that person is lying about the allergy to avoid getting a certain type of food. Just ask for no bread/pasta/whatever and keep doing your gluten-free thing.

**Sidebar 2: Except for extreme situations, like if you notice that a family member or close friend is eating 5 Big Macs a day or, on the flip side, subsisting on nothing but water and sunlight. If you’re concerned that a loved one has an eating disorder, please get them help.

And finally…

Butternut squash is really hard to cut.

True life: I do strength training and I struggled at cutting a particular vegetable.

How anyone has the stamina or the patience to get this into the perfect little cubes I always see, I have no idea.
How anyone has the stamina or the patience to get this into the perfect little cubes I always see, I have no idea. At least these ugly little chunks still tasted delicious.

I knew going into this that it would probably not be a permanent thing (again, sorry to disappoint). Even though I do plan to go back to eating meat eventually, the past few months have shown me that I don’t need it to make a healthy, delicious and substantial meal. I’ve also learned that someone’s choice of alternative diet doesn’t define them as a person. While I do believe in the phrase “you are what you eat,” I don’t think that the opposite is true. Let’s stop worrying about other people and focus on living our best and healthiest lives for ourselves.

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