Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Diet Mission: Vegetarian

This month's diet mission is a fairly simple one. I just have to avoid eating meat for seven days, eating three meals per day.

I've done this diet before, but as a pescetarian which is slightly different, so it's not something I'm entirely unfamiliar with. A pescetarian eats fish, or more accurately, seafood, but not any other types of meat. In other words, no mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians. (Those last two are pretty easy to avoid!)

Because I'm giving up meat for experimental purposes, I fully expect to miss meat, which is why I ate a bunch of wings on Saturday night before beginning my new diet. However, that doesn't mean the week will be bland; I'll be able to have all the candy I want! Hooray!

Plus, I really like mushrooms, which are sort of like a vegetarian's meat. I know many people assume that's the role of tofu, but the notoriously tasty fungus is actually a more suitable meat alternative.

Vegetarian Philosophy

To live on a meatless diet, or rather one that does not directly lead to the death of any animal. (This includes any creature in the animal kingdom.)

Why the Vegetarian Diet?

There are three main reasons why someone would choose a meatless diet, and any vegetarian may be personally motivated by one or more of the following reasons:
  1. Health. To avoid red meat, or meats in general and their high propensity for food-borne illness and the potential threats to cholesterol and other health factors. Usually, someone who avoids meat purely for health reasons will follow a pescetarian diet, which includes high protein and omega-3 fatty acid levels.
  2. Personal taste. Some people just don't find meat appealing. This was the main cause of my previous meat avoidance. For some reason, I just couldn't look at meat without thinking about it being a dead body, leading me to imagining it analogous to eating roadkill, which made me want to throw up. I had nothing against others eating meat; it was just a matter of personal taste.
  3. Political beliefs. A vegetarian is often motivated to give up meat because of their intention to not create demand that leads to animal slaughter. There are many, many differing beliefs in this category that range from abstinence for a clear conscience to a pursuit of the universal banning of meat production.


By day two, like any good withdrawal, I was beginning to truly lament my new diet. After more than 24 hours of eating nothing but mushrooms and candy, I was craving bacon. Steak. A hamburger. It was time to get the next best thing: A veggie burger.

This also allowed me the chance to explore the vegetarian options at a typical fast food restaurant. One thing that's great about this diet is that it encourages you to avoid eating fast food, because you can pretty much only order the fries. (Although, now that I think about it, I wonder if the meat at a fast food restaurant is so far removed from nature that it could be considered meatless…)

Never mind that. I went to Burger King to order a veggie burger, which is not listed anywhere on their menu. After all, if anyone was going to do a vegetable-only variation on the classic burger, it would have to be the King, right?

I had ordered this item a few weeks ago—with bacon, as a joke—and it ended up being pretty good. As it turns out, it was without a doubt the bacon that lent it that flavor. This thing tasted like a bunch of beans, corn, and carrots smashed flat, which is exactly what it was. It sucked. And it wasn't Burger King's fault, either. Veggie burgers just have nothing on the real thing.

Veggie foods in denial
Vegetarians in transition, and some who like to amuse themselves, will buy products from the grocery store that emulate things like ground beef, turkey slices, and chicken wings. It could be denial. It could be nostalgia. It could be the irony. Whatever the motive, meat-emulating products are relatively popular, and they're all terrible.

There's good news, though. After a while, the memories of the sweet, savory taste of bacon and steak fade away. You begin to honestly believe that the occasional veggie burger tastes "just as good as the real thing." You're so used to eating handfuls of nuts all day that you no longer feel the need to eat soybean hot wings anymore. Yep, eventually the only meat substitutions you truly need are mushrooms and beans.


Aside from the aforementioned avoidance of fast foods, the reduction in cholesterol and saturated fats supplied by red meat, and the clear conscience of knowing that you didn't throw money at presumed animal cruelty, there's one very obvious and immediate benefit.

I rediscovered this as I did a round of grocery shopping at the end of day three. An entire cart of groceries that would normally cost well over $100 came out to just under $80. I had reduced my grocery bill by more than 20% just by not buying meat. How was this possible?

Rather than buying chicken, ground beef, pork chops, and steak, I was buying mushrooms, potatoes, and tomatoes—all significantly cheaper. I didn't need to buy any candy because I still had a ton left over from Halloween when no kids came to see the elaborate haunted house on my porch.

Why People Hate Vegetarians

On day four of my veggie excursion, my office ordered pizza for everyone. I always appreciate free lunch, but I had to consider my diet and realized that if I didn't speak up, every pizza would have pepperoni on it. I'd need to put in my request before the order was made. A special request—just for me.

"Can we get one that's just cheese? I can't have—" I stopped myself. Saying "can't" was a big pet peeve of mine last time I went down this road. On a voluntary diet, it's not that you can't have meat; you choose not to. If your throat swelled up like someone with a shellfish or peanut allergy, then yes, you could say that you can't have those items. So how to phrase the fact that I was making free lunch difficult merely to accommodate myself?

"I—I'm not eating meat right now," I said. I had figured the plain cheese pizza would be a decent compromise, since not everyone likes a massive pile of vegetables. However, the bean dip was out of the bag. I now had to explain the motivation for changing my diet.

My experiment offered me a great excuse. But when a long-term vegetarian describes their motives, it comes off a bit holier-than-thou. No matter how it's explained, a meat-eater hears this:

Health-seeking vegetarian: I don't eat meat because it's bad for you, and that's why you feel tired all the time and you're going to die before me.

Meat-taste-hating vegetarian: Meat makes me gag for some reason. Yes, I know this makes me completely insane.

Politically motivated vegetarian: I don't eat meat because I don't support vicious murder, like YOU, you MURDERER.

In the past, I found it easier to just avoid this situation altogether by not mentioning my diet. I don't ask someone why they don't eat the crust of their pizza, and I expect them to not question why I'm shunning pepperoni.

Dining Out

On day six, I went out to eat with my wife, son, brother, and sister-in-law. I picked a Thai restaurant because they tend to make meat-free food taste really, really good. There are a handful of dedicated vegetarian restaurants around town that we could have gone to, but that would have forced everyone into my diet for the evening. Plus, many of those restaurants tend to do wacky things like serving only room temperature water.

It's surprisingly hard to find restaurants that feature flavorful vegetarian food. Many places will have an obligatory option like a "veggie wrap" (which is about 90% bean sprouts) while others just don't grasp the concept at all. However, it's not their burden to provide you an option, just as they don't have to put diaper stations in the bathrooms. It's entirely up to them to determine whose repeat business they want.

But again, Thai restaurants are especially good at meaty and meatless options, and asian food in general is a pescetarian's paradise. However, no matter where you dine, there's always the chance that something will go wrong.

The Polite Vegetarian

On day seven, the last day of my diet mission, I went out to dinner with my wife's family at an Italian restaurant. Italian is great for a vegetarian, because there are plenty of tasty options that are meatless, consisting of pasta, sauces, garlic, and tons of butter. I ordered the baked cheese ravioli and enjoyed an endless stream of garlic rolls and vinaigrette-covered salad until the food arrived.

It was utterly and completely drenched in ground beef in a way that would make it impossible to just eat around it. There must have been a whole pound of it. I was excited, because I really wanted to eat meat but wasn't supposed to, according to the rules of my mission. I ate it anyway.

What were my other options? I could have asked them to take it back and make it again with no meat, or I could have just not eaten it, wasting my in-laws' money. Should I have known this menu item would have meat in it? It wasn't listed anywhere. Ravioli isn't a meat-covered dish unless it's specifically ordered that way, and there was a ravioli with meat sauce just underneath it. Either the menu didn't list it correctly or the server brought me the wrong thing.

The polite vegetarian breaks their diet and eats it anyway so they don't aggravate anyone with the nuances of their adamant chosen diet, and this is the approach I'd take every Thanksgiving when I'd be around ham and turkey, any time I'd go to someone's house and they'd serve me a roast or salad covered in bacon bits. I would be eating something I didn't really like just to appease the people providing it for me.


This was a pretty simple diet to get used to, compared to some of the others that have been proposed to me. If you can get past the initial meat withdrawal and find accommodations for yourself without aggravating those around you, there's really no problem. You may have to cook two meals for your family, but it's not too much of a burden.

Over the week, my weight didn't change at all. Any saturated fats I was avoiding from meat were supplemented by the saturated fats I was gaining in cookies. I didn't feel weak or lacking in any way.

I would say that this diet is highly sustainable if you make sure you're getting the proper nutrients and not just eating candy. Just try not to be too smug about it.

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