The 40-Year-Old Vegan
One year ago today I stopped eating meat, and I took some time to outline what I‘ve learned. Let me be clear: I am not looking to convince anyone to become vegetarian; I just want to share some of my insights.
And before you object I can confirm that the title of this piece is wildly incorrect; I am in my forties and I have a preference for a vegan cuisine, I do not always stick to it — as some of my foodstuffs can contain milk or eggs. So one of these attributes I have already left behind and the other I am approaching slowly. I ask you to overlook my faiblesse for movie title puns.
I am in this for my own well-being
Two years ago (yes, actually when I was 40 years old) I wrote an article about eating less meat. I mentioned — as you would expect — the environment, animal welfare and health benefits.
The thing is, although I may look at this choice as born out of compassion, I am confident that my choice is actually more egocentric in nature than you may expect.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance describes the mental discomfort experienced by someone who holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. For example: if I value the well-being of all animals but behave in a way that hurts animals, I will experience mental stress. This can hold true even if I am not fully aware of the conflict between beliefs and actions.
At one point I expressed how it feels like I have always been vegetarian but it’s not until now that I have let this side of me “come out”. That may sound overly declamatory, but in this sense the whole transition has in fact been somewhat of a relief.
Finding that balance between my true beliefs and my own actions helps me lower that cognitive dissonance and puts me in a mental state that allows me to feel more at ease and more content with everyday life.
So you see, I have made this choice for me.
I feel uneasy when I get the questions
“So, why are you a vegetarian?” and “How do you get your protein?” are most commonly the questions.
The first question can of course be one of genuine interest, but too often for comfort it is posed with an air of skepticism — the person locked and loaded with their next array of statements: “Humans have always eaten meat.”, “Our teeth are made for eating meat.”, “We need hill farming to preserve the landscape.”, “Vegetarian food can hurt the environment too.”
I wince at the questions because they are often not about listening to the response, but rather about poking holes and trying to find fallacies in your reasoning. It’s not so much a conversation as an inquisition, where the questioner takes an offensive stance and corners the respondent who reacts by going into a defensive, often incoherent, rant. Nobody benefits; nobody feels better.
I certainly plead guilty to reacting too emotionally in cases where it is not warranted. Being regularly questioned about food preferences can, however, over time feel exhausting and is something we need to handle in a better way. Perhaps we need better ways to talk about it?
I know I am trying to find better ways to answer questions in an inclusive manner, rather than in a manner that widens the gap.
I find that the best, and truest, response is: “Being vegetarian makes me feel more fit both physically and mentally.” It opens up the playing field to talk about how one feels better, rather than specifics of vitamins and food items.
Are you the one asking questions? I believe a good question to start with is: “How do you feel about being a vegetarian?” and then listen without an intention to quickly respond. By offering information about yourself on why you follow a non-vegetarian diet you are also asking the question in a way that can lead to a real conversation about what both of you are doing to accommodate your own needs and well-being.
When vegans pick the wrong fight
One reason the discussions about vegetarianism and veganism can feel uncomfortable is perhaps because of the strongest voices on the debate spectrum. The ones most likely to reach your eyes or ears.
There are activists within the vegan community who employ doubtful tactics in their critique of meat-eaters. They use name-calling and graphic images to add fuel to the debate. Many on the other side of the spectrum, who instead love to promote animal protein, are well aware of this and with equal force return the fierce attacks.
When it comes to the word vegan it is often the bitterness that people remember most in their sampling of news sources across a day full of work, activities and sleep in a world of information where they retain 10% of written content. Hence the very word vegan tends to stir up emotions.
But most people (vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike), of course, are somewhere in the middle. Not really mad at anyone and just trying to cope with their lives doing what feels right for them.
What can sometimes confuse me, though, is how a handful of vegans also attack people who are trying out a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, saying they are not doing enough or are not a “real vegan”. Not only does this, in my mind, completely counteract the supposed goal but also exemplifies behavior far from the compassionate individuals they proclaim to be. These people are of course few in number, but again: very visible in media and online forums.
If we can agree that most of us are able to get along without having to polarize the issue of eating meat or not, then I believe we can make it easier to allow introspection as a tool for guiding food choices.
Let’s have compassion enough for all humans, whether they eat meat or not.
Vegetarian food is not automatically healthy
When you think about it, vegetarians have the exact same challenges as non-vegetarians in pursuing a nutritionally balanced diet. I find that many vegans love their desserts and high-fat snacks, which of course is okay as long as they’re not balanced out with french fries and pizza.
Contrary to what many people think, as a vegetarian I have no problem getting all the vitamins, calcium and protein I need. Something that does tend to come up in discussions is vitamin B12. I have my morning cereal with soy milk fortified with B12. But being in my 40s, developing a vitamin B-12 deficiency is not really on the table; The liver stores so much B-12 that it would take years to become deficient in this vitamin.
It’s not easy; but it doesn’t have to feel hard
The first thing I wondered about was: “How will I get my nutrients?”. When I quickly got past that one I asked myself: “How boring will eating be?” and then maybe: “What will I eat when my friends ask me to dinner?”
My message to anyone entertaining the idea of cutting down on meat would be to not make a big deal of it. Don’t make it an overnight decision. Nobody says that you either have to be vegetarian or non-vegetarian — flexitarian is a thing too. It’s not black or white. You are entitled to finding the balance that works for you.
Experiment. Learn as you go along. Order veggie meals when you’re out to get inspiration. It took me more than a year from cutting down on meat to actually giving it up.
I find that vegetarians are often expected to have done tons of research on how to eat to fulfill their dietary needs. The same is not typically expected of non-vegetarians. My tip: do the research as you go along and as you learn what questions you are expected to answer. Naturally, non-vegetarian consumers not pursuing a vegetarian diet should in all fairness be doing the same.
What I would hope is for more people to realize that there is no right or wrong way to move towards a lifestyle with less, or no, meat. All individuals must be able to approach this in their own manner, and at their own pace, without critics coming down on them from both sides(!)
Changing what you eat can be a tough endeavor, and there are a multitude of reasons for doing it. What you can be sure of is that it’s generally not an easy decision. And friends need support, not questioning. If you can’t say something nice, better to bite your tongue.
The trick — whatever your stake is in all of this — is to love people even when you do not necessarily love their opinions.
My choice affects friends and family
Moving into a vegan lifestyle past the age of 40 is going to have repercussions. In my family I am the only one following a vegetarian diet and this often means cooking meals with two different protein alternatives.
In fact, when I realized that vegetarianism was the way ahead for me to feel at ease I had a bit of an identity crisis. My identity as a teenager and adult had been that I ate everything. I love food and I love trying new stuff. Almost nothing was too strange for me to try. Now I had to change how I speak about myself. I had to remember to order the vegetarian option at a conference; to tell people we were visiting that I no longer eat meat. From being the easiest guy to please I was the one causing inconvenience.
Today I’ve realized I can choose to see this as a strength: wanting to try new things is of course very beneficial when making diet changes.
More importantly, to make this work I’ve not distanced myself from the meat-related activities necessary for me to stay close to the people I love. When I shop for groceries I have no trouble handling meat and I’m also still in charge of the barbecue in the summertime. I cook all kinds of meat for my friends and family, and I’m pretty darn good at it they say, even if you won’t catch me devouring it myself.
I cook vegan steak and meatless chicken alongside their meat counterparts and serve the same condiments. I am not at war with meat-eaters and I do not shy away from doing what it takes to be a pleasant dinner companion. I’ve spent just over 2% of my life being a vegetarian, this does not give me any reason to limit my engagement with people who I love and respect for so many reasons.
I am not a better person for giving up meat; I am a better person for loving myself and loving those who are close to me.
But does this clash with my values? No, not with the realization that I prioritize my loved ones and I would not want to force upon them anything that they themselves do not want. Going vegetarian is a choice for my own well-being. I believe that my well-being and calmer state of mind will benefit people around me as well.
And, in the spirit of the camaraderie that is born out of mutual respect, my awesome friends do make the effort to accommodate my choice as well. There may be a lot of veggies on my plate in the beginning (I’m not really a vegetable person, believe it or not) but the more I introduce more “meaty” veggies we all learn together.
Having a close supporter is key
Those you love the most tend to take the hardest hit. Going down this path relatively late in life naturally affects my family and most of all my wife.
Although the vegetarian side of me may have grown gradually, there is that point in time (one year ago today) when I realized that to feel good about myself I had to commit to it fully. This of course immediately changed how the food situation works at home, how we rarely enjoy the same exact meal anymore and how it makes grocery shopping a bit more strenuous.
You have to realize that we’ve been together 20 years and have enjoyed many rare steaks together, as well as the occasional lobster.
To say the least, my wife has been amazing. She’s bought me literature that helps me learn more about my choices. She’s stopped me from mistakenly eating meat-filled food items. She’s argued my side in conversations. She’s gone all the way to support me in this choice without necessarily having to follow suit. And I know — I have gathered as much — that this has been a really tough trial and turn of events. It’s not a choice she made or would have made at this stage in life. I am eternally grateful for her stance and love her intensely for all her fantastic support.*
Setting an example
So how do I believe I am making a difference by writing this? I hope to be an inspiration for others. Not necessarily in the sense that you opt for a diet with less meat. What I would hope for you to do is to think more about your own internal value system and how your actions support that value system. Maybe there are things you can do, whatever part of life you may be thinking about, that will align better with what you believe.
And if you have friends enjoying, or considering, a vegetarian lifestyle, my wish is that you offer them your support — not a lecture.
*She also did a hell of a job editing this text! ❤️