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
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, as the rebel that I am.
The start of my lacto-vegetarian adventure was decent. Did I gain tons of energy, develop laser-like focus, or levitate during meditation? No. My skin cleared a little, though, so I counted it as a win.
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.
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:
Going vegetarian isn’t something you do just because your friends are doing it. It’s a lifestyle change that can have a major effect 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.
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:
eat fish, but no red meat or poultry.
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. Set a budget, schedule your time, and talk to other vegetarians for tips.
Thinking of becoming vegetarian? Here’s where to start your research:
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.
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.
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.
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,” which will help you protect your
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 controversial additives can help you avoid consuming them in excess.
My second experience with vegetarianism was far better than the first. Most notably, I had increased energy and less dramatic mood shifts.
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.