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Confessions of an Ex-Vegetarian

I was never a big meat eater. I preferred chicken to beef – unless it came in the form of a deliciously charred hot dog. Because of that, I guess it didn’t come as much of a surprise to my mom when, at 18, I announced that I was becoming a vegetarian.
In the beginning, being a vegetarian meant getting a salad with ranch dressing [on the side] and an order of fries at Denny’s during late night/early morning gab fests with friends. It was an exciting time, 18 and finally free of mandated education. Staying out all night. Dreaming about the future. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect it felt more “adult” turning 18 in the early 90’s than it does today. Sure, most kids went right into college, but it didn’t seem like as much of an extension of high school as it does now. More was expected of young adults then. I see kids in their 20’s today that might as well still be in Jr. High. The maturation level just isn’t there and personal growth doesn’t seem to exist.
But, I digress..
I became a vegetarian based on purely ethical reasons. “Meat is Murder” was my anthem and Morrissey my hero. I didn’t give a shit about the health benefits and I really didn’t have the time [or interest] for cooking. I ate a lot of pasta, A LOT of pasta. It was cheap and quick. Concerned about my health, my mom put together a binder full of vegetarian recipes that she had adapted or found in magazines for me. It was my first cookbook, and although my collection has grown considerably, it’s still the first one I reach for. Of course, she managed to slip in directions for boiling chicken – just in case I caved.
My mom was always concerned about me getting adequate nutrition, not because she didn’t believe in vegetarianism, but because she knew I wasn’t taking the time to eat a balanced diet. My mom raised me to eat very healthy and to always read the ingredients on food labels. She had diabetes, Type 1 – the rare kind where the body can not produce insulin, not Type 2. You know Type 2, the kind you can develop from eating crap and never getting off the couch. I was obsessed with reading food packaging from an early age, I still am. But, the labels have gotten a whole lot longer.
As I got older, I became more interested in cooking. I discovered Tofu and by watching the chefs at the vegetarian restaurant I worked at, I learned how to cook the shit out of it. I even became a Vegan for a year, but I like cheese too much. Soy based meat and cheese substitutions weren’t nearly as common as they are today. You had your Gardenburger, Ricedream dairy treat and some disgusting hemp or soy cheese. That was about it.
For Thanksgiving one year, my mom and I made a Seitan Roast with all the trimmings. This was before you could go buy a processed Tofurkey at Trader Joe’s and pretend like you were some sort of committed animal activist. The feast was completely vegan, from scratch – and pretty damn good. I think my mom was secretly proud of me for sticking with it for so long. Why else would a meat eater go vegan on turkey day?
As the years passed, I learned how to cook more complex and nutritionally complete dishes. But, I also started to rely more heavily on processed soy products. When my husband and I started living together, he kind of became a vegetarian by proximity. That’s when I really started hitting the Morningstar line hard and heavy. It was tougher to cook for two and I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel like he was missing out on anything by going veggie. How could I not? He was descended from a long line of Kansas beef farmers.
Gradually, I eased up on the meat substitutes. They start to get expensive and I was beginning to realize they are just a crutch –super processed and full of fillers. I still cooked with tofu and tempeh, but really began to focus on creating complete proteins with legumes and grains.
In spite of my efforts to eat a balanced vegetarian diet with sufficient complete proteins and plenty of fresh fruit and veggies – I was still feeling bloated, gaining weight and feeling exhausted. I was also having, how should I say this???? Bathroom problems, and not the kind where the stock price of Quilted Northern goes thru the roof! This problem persisted no matter now much water, fiber or laxatives I ingested.
I was also sick all the time. Over the course of 3 months, I had a plethora of colds and severe sinus infections. I gave in and went to a doctor who gave me antibiotics and steroids. They helped for about a week before I got sick again.  I was desperate, depressed, sick  and confused. Usually very healthy, I felt like I was spiraling into a pit of misery I would never crawl out of.
I finally gave in and went to a nutritionist.
On a gray November morning, I drove out to the suburbs with a new client information sheet that chronicled one weeks worth of my food, water and vitamin/supplement intake. The nutritionist looked it over, did some tests and asked me more questions. I felt smug and assured that she would be dumbfounded by my maladies. Surely I was a picture of vegetarian health with some horrible disease causing me to feel this way.
Two hours later, I arrived home. In shock and with a bag full of new vitamins and supplement, I sat down at the kitchen table with my fiancé and started to cry.
According to the nutritionist, not only did I have a wheat allergy that was disrupting normal digestion, but the soy in my diet was interfering with the proper functioning of my thyroid. My body was overloaded with wheat, carbohydrates and soy.
She instructed me to stop eating all wheat, cut out soy and limit any other carbohydrates to the late afternoon/early evening hours. Then, the other shoe dropped. She wanted me to eat meat, I needed lean protein. I was completely blown away. No to bread, but yes to meat?!? Was this some kind of cruel joke?
I didn’t feel like I had a choice – I was desperate and would have tried anything.
I had been a vegetarian for close to 17 years and now I had to at least try another way of living. I had been a vegetarian longer than I had ever “been” anything else. Becoming a vegetarian was my declaration of independence; it was part of how I defined myself and my beliefs. It had been the first step I had taken on the painful road to adulthood.
I started immediately, like I said, I was desperate. It was lunch time and I was at a loss. A sandwich? Nope. Leftover spaghetti? Uh, nope. I can’t even remember what I had. I know there was no bread involved and it didn’t feel like a meal at all. My new religion revolved around eating a protein and a vegetable  for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was the same, but with the addition of a carbohydrate like rice or corn tortillas.
It was hell.
Then, something amazing started to happen. I actually felt better. It felt like my body was waking up, my mind felt sharp and I even got some relief – if you know what I mean. All of this within the first 2 days of my new regimen.
It took a while for me to work up the nerve to actually eat meat, I think it was turkey. I’m still not much of a meat eater and it can still gross me out.  I never touch beef, pork or veal. The meat I do eat is usually just small amounts of turkey or chicken – antibiotic and free-range, or so they claim. I do eat some seafood too, but I’m still developing a palate for that flavor.
The change has been good, actually it has been great. Physically and mentally, I feel better than I ever have. It’s amazing how you can convince yourself that a particular state of being is normal. That pain or discomfort is just part of life and it has nothing to do with what you are putting in your body.
Maybe one day I will go back to a vegetarian diet, but you better believe soy won’t be part of it. Maybe fermented soy, but not the common processed soy products sold at the local store. I wish I had been turned on to some of the information I later came to read in “The Whole Soy Story”. It isn’t light reading, but it certainly is eye opening.
Now, before you get defensive and start sending me hate mail, realize that I’m not preaching, or saying one lifestyle choice is better than another. What I am saying is that we all need to be more aware of what is going into our food, air and water.
I mean the FDA? The same organization regulating food and drugs?
Come on!

2 responses to “Confessions of an Ex-Vegetarian”

  1. paypar paypar says:

    Wow…one of my friends is a celiac and I remember thinking to myself, gosh if I ever had a wheat allergy, I'd just have to give up food! Good for you for trying to stick with being a vegetarian, but you have to look out for your self first.
    If you're interested in some other types of protein, I can give some recipes for indian daals or bean dishes.

    • Avatar Emilybb says:

      Thanks Paypar, yeah I was definitely a bread/pasta junky. It is amazing how radically you can change your "normal". Thanks for the recipe offer, I'm pretty skilled at the beans/legumes and indian inspired dishes. I tend to eat those sparingly too – pretty major carbohydrates for the amount of protein. I do make a mean lentil soup though!

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Emily Billings About Emily Billings

Emily Billings is a freelance writer and reluctant marketing director living in South Florida. She doesn't like liars, fakes or phoneys but loves cheese. She spends most of her time at the beach either being lazy or participating in beachy activities like body-boarding and snorkeling. She also enjoys hitting lobs or high backhands that her husband can't return on the tennis court. After a long day, there isn't anything Emily enjoys more than spending time with her husband and cats hypothesizing about the collapse of modern civilization and planning their survival.

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