Failing at Vegetarianism // A Dietitian's Perspective

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When I heard August’s theme was “failure,” I thought of my experience attempting to go vegetarian in my early twenties, when I was just beginning my nutrition studies. As a dietitian, I like to think that I know what I’m doing when it comes to meeting my needs, but even I’ve had my struggles along the way. Though a meatless diet can absolutely be healthy, my approach was a crash-course in Doing It Wrong. That said, it’s made me a better counselor to clients following plant-based diets because I have first-hand knowledge of factors to pay extra attention to. Spoiler alert: It’s not all about protein.

My first mistake was starting for the wrong reasons. At 22, I tried giving up meat because I thought it would make my lacto-ovo (but egg-hating) boyfriend love me more. Without him actually saying, “Go vegetarian or else,” it was pretty clear he disapproved of my omnivorous ways. To keep the peace and avoid the mealtime lectures, I resolved to adopt his meatless diet as my own. In thinking I could simply give up meat and swap in beans, nuts, tofu, and the occasional fake meat product, I had neglected to consider some key nutrients beyond protein, such as:

Iron is a mineral needed for red blood cell formation and transportation plus the formation of various proteins and enzymes in the body involved. Getting enough is especially important for women, as they lose iron in the blood every month during menstruation. It’s found in red meat and in smaller amounts are in beans, lentils, leafy greens, nuts, and some grains.

Vitamin D is found in fatty fish, eggs, mushrooms, and fortified dairy products. It helps the body absorb calcium to support strong and healthy bones and plays a role in nerve, muscle, and immune system function.

Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. A key factor in many metabolic processes, it aids in the formation of red blood cells and maintenance of central nervous system function.

A couple years in, I felt brittle, shaky, and subdued, prone to low blood sugar meltdowns. Convinced I was dying a slow, exhausting death, I finally saw my doctor about the dull ache in my limbs, complete with headaches, lightheadedness, and a general sense of fogginess. I’d been crying almost every day for a couple years, but my 24-year-old self reasoned that was just because relationships were hard. As it turned out, my boyfriend’s diet was what my problem. A blood test revealed vitamin D and B12 deficiencies. My symptoms were almost hilariously obvious. Supplements helped, but what I really wanted was to just eat without his voice in my head. Even when he wasn’t physically present, I had major menu anxiety.

I’ve worked with many people who’ve changed their habits to bend to a partner’s demands (vocalized or perceived demands—not sure how much it matters). This can have a positive effect (for example, reducing alcohol intake may improve productivity and sleep), but we often grow to resent restrictions that start outside ourselves. In my professional and personal experience, a dietary choice made to please someone else is rarely healthy or sustainable.

Plus: I learned a bunch of tasty vegetarian recipes.

Minus: I learned that changing for someone else doesn’t guarantee they’ll be kinder—or even notice how hard you’re working to make them happy.

I joke that the eggs were the beginning of the end. I started with a timid half-dozen—a sort-of 25th birthday present to myself. They took up little space in the otherwise meat-free fridge, but I was sick with anxiety over what he would say. I couldn’t help rushing to reassure him it was for health reasons, that technically, eggs were still vegetarian-friendly. Nothing would change.

But of course, things did change. Pathetic as it seemed that buying eggs became a tipping point in my journey towards self-assertion, the year brought many shifts that caused us to grow apart. A few days shy of my 26th birthday, he moved out. The brightest sensation in my bones was relief. People with different eating styles can coexist peacefully—it just requires communication, acceptance, and some creativity. Find your culinary common ground and customize from there. Maybe one of you wants (gasp) an egg on your stir-fry—you want chickpeas in your salad and they want chicken. Whatever works.

It’s also important to check in with yourself to make sure the relationship, like your diet, is the right fit. And for f***’s sake, if your “Happy Birthday to Me” gift is buying eggs, then something is not okay. The right person will want you to feel like your best self, no matter what you put on your plate.

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Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and writer in New York City. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food and is a contributor to various print and media outlets.