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So...what do you eat?

How my switch to a plant-based diet has confused everyone around me

So...what do you eat? That's a question I've be getting a lot lately. It seems that my switch to a mostly plant-based diet has confused everyone around me. My dad tells his girlfriend that I must still eat chicken, while my wife's aunt actually does serve us chicken because, she says, “some vegetarians eat chicken”. My co-workers scan my lunch tray to see what foods remain as part of my new diet. Dinner hosts panic when I'm a guest as they rack their brains in trying to figure out what to serve.

It all started about a year ago when I decided to eschew meat completely. This past November was my first Thanksgiving without a single bite of turkey. What began as a game I'd play at lunch turned into an entire lifestyle change. One day, I noticed that I had filled up my tray with everything but a meat-based entrée. I continued each day, making a game of whether or not I could find enough foods that I liked so that I could have a meatless meal. As the days went by, I realized that I could actually do it. The interesting part was that I found that I liked more fruits and vegetables than I realized. The squash that scared me as a kid was something I now took a double portion of, the bananas I avoided in my youth have become a regular on my lunch tray, and I never even knew what parsnips were but they seem to go down nicely with the roasted carrots they frequently are paired with.

I began to question why I was even eating meat. My wife and I had stopped eating pork a few years earlier as part of a better attempt at following Jewish dietary laws. Next off the menu was veal. The pleasure I derived from eating the tender meat was outweighed by my guilt over the fact that the animals weren't allowed to move so that their muscles could atrophy. Red meat began to find itself unwelcome at our family's dinner table, although it would still make its way into my gullet when dining out. A short while later, I began reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. The section of the book on slaughterhouses was enough to make seafood the only “animal with a face” left in my diet. I began to describe myself as a lacto-ovo-pesco-vegetarian, which is a vegetarian that still eats dairy, eggs, and seafood.

A year later, my dairy intake is down to the occasional pat of butter or dab of cream cheese when their vegan knock-offs are not available. Living in Wisconsin, nicknamed “America's Dairyland”, has not made the break from dairy easy. Cheese is served on or in nearly everything, right up to and including dessert. The seafood I do eat is limited to the lox I find to be the proper partner for my Sunday-morning bagel. I've given up using “vegetarian” or “semi-vegan” as a label because of the hippie images conjured up in people's minds. Nowadays, I just say that I “eat a plant-based diet”.

When I talk to others about my awakening to a healthier diet, they talk about how hard it must be to give up juicy steaks. I tell them that at first, it was “like Lent, but every day” for me. I even had dreams about eating meat! As each day went by, I began to feel less like I was giving up something and more like I was gaining something. I gained more energy, improved digestion, an inner satisfaction with my accomplishment, and an increased sense of my own willpower.

While I've been happy to talk about my new diet, I've tried not to proselytize. Still, it's upsetting that the joy I take in this change is diminished when my dining companions go on the defensive almost immediately. It is as if my lifestyle choice has called theirs into question, and it may even be that they suspect that I am doing something that they feel that they should be doing, too.

Others throw a few myths my way, concerned that if I don't eat meat, I won't get enough protein and will become weak. I remind them that gorillas don't eat meat, and no one ever had an image of a gorilla as being weak. A few go so far as to tell me of friends who have gotten sick from giving up meat or dairy and were advised to start ingesting them again. Some doubt my resolve. “I went through that phase for about six months. You'll grow out of it.” a co-worker informs me.

Still, I hold steadfast to my new doctrine. I feel healthier and have the numbers to prove it (my pre-vegetarian cholesterol level was a respectable 186 but has now sunk to an impressive 133). So I tell my friends to cast aside their myths and their doubts. I tell dinner hosts not to panic and I offer to bring a dish of my own to contribute. And, lastly, I tell my relatives that no, I do not eat chicken.

By Scott Yanoff, December 2006.