Health and wellness touch everyone’s life differently. This is one person’s story.

These days, lifestyle trends are a dime a dozen. Way back at the turn of the century, though, vegetarianism was still reserved mostly for hippies, health nuts, or other “extremists.”

Those were all my favorite people, so I latched on.

All of my older, wiser, more revolutionary friends assured me that being vegetarian was “healthier.” They said I’d feel dramatic physical, mental, and spiritual benefits after making the switch to meatless living. At the time, I was 17 years old and easily convinced.

It wasn’t until I attended college that my meatless path took an unexpected turn. Faced with having to make food choices that were no longer just philosophical, but tangible, I made some grave mistakes.

So in 2001, during my junior year of high school, I announced to my parents that I was giving up on eating animals.

They laughed. Nevertheless, I persisted, rebel that I am.

And the start of my lacto-vegetarian adventure was decent. Did I gain tons of energy, develop laserlike focus, or levitate during meditation? No. My skin cleared a little, though, so I counted it as a win.

The mistake I made, which caused me to gain 15 pounds

It wasn’t until I attended college that my meatless path took an unexpected turn. Faced with having to make food choices that were no longer just philosophical, but tangible, I made some grave mistakes.

All of a sudden, refined carbs were my new staple, usually paired with dairy. At home, I ate the same meals my mother had always made, just sans the meat and heavier on the veggies.

Life at school was a different story.

Think pasta with alfredo sauce, or cereal with milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The packaged vegetarian foods I sometimes bought from the grocery store turned out to be just as heavily processed.

It wasn’t until my second foray into lacto-vegetarianism (about six years later) that I was able to close some of the gaps in the advice of my old meat-free friends.

I was still dedicated to a meat-free lifestyle and exercised regularly, but by the end of my first semester, I gained more than 15 pounds.

And this wasn’t your average freshman 15. It wasn’t a “filling out” of my body type. Instead, it was a noticeable bloating and tightness around my belly. The weight was accompanied by a drop in my energy level and mood — both things I was led to believe only those dastardly meat eaters had to deal with.

So I quit being vegetarian, but then I went back…

My older, wiser friends must have left out a few details about vegetarianism. This weight gain was obviously not what I had expected.

Halfway through my sophomore year, I opted out. I wasn’t experiencing any of the benefits I thought I’d feel. In fact, I often felt physically, emotionally, and mentally worse than I did before.

It wasn’t until six years later, into my second foray into lacto-vegetarianism, that I was able to close some of the gaps in the advice of my old meat-free friends.

With more information and a deeper connection with my body, I had a much better experience the second time around.

Here’s what I wish I had known before my first ride on the vegetarian bandwagon:

1. Do your research

Going vegetarian isn’t something you do just because your friends are doing it. It’s a lifestyle change that can have a major impact on your body, for better or for worse. Do some research to figure out what form of meatless living will work best for you.

There are lots of ways to be vegetarian without the negative side effects. Types of vegetarianism include the following:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians don’t eat red meat, fish, or poultry, but do eat dairy and eggs.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs.
  • Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy.
  • Vegans eat no red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, or other animal products, like honey.

Some people also include the following under the vegetarian umbrella:

  • Pescatarians eat fish, but no red meat or poultry.
  • Flexitarians have a mostly plant-based diet, but sometimes eat red meat, poultry, or fish.

All these diets can lead to several reduced health risks when done right.

Benefits of vegetarian diets
  • improved heart health
  • lower blood pressure
  • prevention of type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses

Still, this is a choice you need to think about. Consulting with your doctor can help. Also, think about what will make the practice sustainable for you. Budget, schedule your time, and talk to other vegetarians for tips.

Thinking of becoming vegetarian? Here’s where to start your research:

Resources

2. Know your body

Even after doing your due diligence, it’s important to pay attention to your own experience. What works for someone else may not work the same way for you.

Luckily, our bodies have mechanisms to help us understand what’s best. If I had chosen to pay attention to the extra bloating, gas, and fatigue I was experiencing early on, I probably could’ve reassessed my diet and found foods that were better for my constitution.

You may have no trouble recognizing the causes of certain changes in your body. However, if you need assistance, a food journal or good nutrition app can help you easily recognize what works and what doesn’t.

Tools to help your journey

  • The Wholesome Healthy Eating app helps you keep track of overall nutrition. CRON-O-Meter is comparable, but it helps you track exercise and other health-related info as well.
  • If your style is a little more analog, head to your local bookstore to leaf through the guided food journals they have on the shelf. Or, print your own. There are tons of templates online.

3. Vegetables: Get into them (and learn to cook!)

When I went vegetarian, I didn’t dare tell anyone that I missed the savory chewiness of meat. So without the know-how or the various culinary gizmos needed to recreate my own flavors, I opted for prepackaged meat substitutes.

Bad idea.

While the (somewhat) familiar taste was comforting, it wasn’t good for my body.

I could’ve skipped the sodium, soy, and other chemical components these vegan hot dogs, veggie burgers, and mock chicken contained. (And I suspect that they were the main culprits concerning my weight gain and discomfort.)

Several years later, I learned my way around the kitchen and developed a more adventurous palette. It was then that I discovered something truly shocking: Vegetables taste good as vegetables!

They don’t have to be pounded, pulverized, and chemically processed into something masquerading as meat to be enjoyed. I found that I often like well-prepared meatless meals better than the standard meat-centric meals I was used to.

This was a game changer for me.

By the time I decided to go vegetarian again, I had already incorporated a lot more veggies, as well as legumes, fruits, and whole grains, into my diet. It was a much easier switch, with none of the unpleasantness from before.

My favorite vegetarian bloggers

  • Naturally Ella features vegetarian recipes that are simple enough to make without much experience, while still being 100 percent delicious.
  • If you’re cooking a vegetarian meal for skeptics, try Cookie & Kate. This amazing blog has tons of recipes that anyone will love.
  • Sweet Potato Soul by Jenne Claiborne is a blog featuring nourishing vegan recipes with distinct Southern flavors. Keep her cookbook in your kitchen for the days that you’re craving comfort food.

4. Learn to speak ‘labelese’

Eating “clean” (real, chemical-free food) is always the goal. But let’s be honest: Sometimes a quick and dirty meal is all you can manage.

To make sure you pick the best of what’s out there when you do opt for something processed, you’ll have to decipher what I call “labelese.”

Speaking labelese is helpful for everyone Even if your goal isn’t to stop eating meat, developing this ability can be helpful. Check out this comprehensive guide on reading nutrition labels for a crash course in “labelese” that will help you protect your health.

The scientific verbiage and minuscule font size used on most nutrition labels can make this code seemingly impossible to crack, but even a little basic knowledge can give you the power to make better choices. Knowing the terms used for sugars, soy, and other additives can help you avoid consuming them in excess.

Top 5 ingredients to avoid

What I learned from my vegetarian adventures

My second experience with vegetarianism was far better than the first. Most notably, I had increased energy and less dramatic mood shifts.

But the best benefit I received had little to do with the choice to stop eating meat: It was about the journey.

When I learned how to find the facts, listen to my body, and prepare my own (objectively delicious) meals, I gained more confidence. I found out that I can live a good life in almost any way that I want, as long as I put in the effort and develop a plan.

Although I’ve since added fish and the occasional steak back into my diet, I regard my five plant-based years as a rite of passage.

It was also an amazing way to learn to take responsibility for my own health and wellness.


Carmen R. H. Chandler is a writer, wellness practitioner, dancer, and educator. As the creator of The Body Temple, she blends these gifts to provide innovative, culturally relevant health solutions for the Black DAEUS (Descendants of Africans Enslaved in the United States) community. In all of her work, Carmen is committed to envisioning a new age of Black wholeness, freedom, joy, and justice. Visit her blog.

 

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