“What do you eat?” The typical question I get when I tell people I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years. I think part of it is because it seems so rare to have not eaten meat for over half of my life but the hidden curiosity behind that question is in part due to the fact that I’m black.
People see a black person and automatically think beans greens potatoes… that Mahalia Jackson song. Or the Popeyes theme song strikes up and they see eleven herbs and spices floating around their head. I giggle watching their pupils dilate and their jaws drop ever so slightly in awe.
After the initial shock wears off they ask again a bit more quizzically, “So, really, what do you eat? I’ve been thinking about making the transition for years. I’ve tried ‘x’ number of times and I can’t stick with it.”
We all have our different reasons for making bold lifestyle changes. Spiritual, health, financial, etc. Whatever your reason is, it is important, if to no one other than yourself. I won’t lie, my transition took close to 2 years. Mostly because I started when I was 15 and was still at the mercy of the rules of my house. I have an “ol school” mamma. Y’all know the type. If a plate is placed in front of you on the table you better eat every last drop and you ain’t leaving the table until you do. It wasn’t until I was 17 and went off to college that I was afforded the freedom to eat the way I wanted to (even though I was broke and ate extremely insufficiently and was probably nutrient deficient for the 1st year). This was the early 2000’s. Not many people in my tribe knew about being a vegetarian, especially not many people of color, so my resources were limited and vast and sometimes inaccessible. Forget that fact that I went to a mostly white university and was victim to cafeteria food.
While on campus, I ate, no doubt, canned sides from the cafeteria and starches. On the rare occasions I could afford to go to the grocery store is when my body and mind would rejoice at the ability to eat fresh (not locally sourced) foods.
When I went home for family gatherings, I ate canned sides and starches. It took my family years to get accustomed to my new eating habits. In the beginning it was frustrating. They were well intentioned, don’t get me wrong. They always made sure to have double the amount of collards (brewed in pork fat) and mac-n-cheese (made with butter and cows milk) and mashed potatoes (with pork gravy). After a while it became comical, until I decided to start bringing scrumptious vegetarian dishes and recipes to share with my family. Over time their eating habits changed and they started to beg me to bring certain dishes.
Now-a-days, I eat a balanced diet but I also have fun with it. I don’t beat myself up for eating sweets — b/c well, I have a sweet tooth. I will murder a fresh baked pie. lol. Stressing over what you eat only increases your chances of abandoning the change. The difference between my present and past self is now I know how to create the meals that aren’t just yummy but healthy and best of all — fitting for me.
For those of you who are tempted to drop the omni’s for the herbi’s, I have some bite sized tips and tricks to making this sort of lifestyle change easy peasy.
- First things first, be confident in your decision. The number one reason why we stray from committing to changes in our lives is because we are not confident in ourselves. Believe that you are doing this to better yourself and believe that it will be worthwhile. You will get nimbeciles (naysaying imbeciles) but this change is for you, not them.
2. Second, don’t over do it. I advise newcomers to the herbivore life to start simple by eating what you normally eat in a week. The caveat is to keep track of what you eat in a week. I don’t mean calorie count or fret over the fact that you ate a big steak. I simply mean keep track.. keep the receipts.. keep a list. If you stopped by McDonalds for breakfast, went out to lunch with coworkers for tacos and ended the day with ribs and macaroni and cheese with a slice of cake— enjoy it and be real about it.
3. The next step is bit more intentional. Now it’s time to get your hands dirty with research and planning. A huge lifestyle change doesn’t come without challenges. And we want to be prepared for them when they rear. Before you go ‘cold tofu’ understand the shift you are comfortable making. There are so many variations on the vegetarian/vegan existence. Where do you want to chomp down on the spectrum? There’s the ‘vegetarian’, there’s the ‘pescatarian’, there’s the ‘lacto-vegetarian’, there’s the ‘vegan’, there’s the ‘freegan’, there’s the ‘freegan vegan’, and so many others.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the labels. Read up on them and identify the eating habit that is most appealing to you. You know yourself. Are you type A, are you a slow decision maker, are you picky, are you relaxed and laid back? Set a plan for how quickly you want to make this transition. A day for the type A’s. A week, a month or a year. Write it out and don’t trip if you slip. Your mental attitude will play a large role in how seamless and enjoyable your transition will be.
After a lifetime of eating a traditional western diet our bodies have become accustomed to certain chemicals, proteins, and minerals (or the lack thereof). Introducing our systems to new treatment is a lot like working out. For the first couple of rounds we feel weak and sore and cranky but after the ease of repetition kicks in our bodies adjust; with weakness being replaced by strength and energy. Who doesn’t love to eat? Eating is fun, but eating is also essential, balanced in a perfect triad with breathing and drinking (other lost arts of life but I digress). Unfortunately most of the world has replaced the necessity of eating with foodie ‘grammed food porn and forgotten how to simply enjoy eating real, unfiltered, straight from the earth, food.
The research I advise at this stage is to read books, read blogs, get a physical, get a blood exam, and lastly, take notes about your truth. Track how you feel mentally, spiritually and physically with your current digestive lifestyle and keep this practice going throughout the journey. You will find that your energy shifts and your temperament changes (if you pick the eating style that is right for your body type).
Getting tested is a great way to caliber your health and can be a wonderful marker to see internal progress. Your blood is the river Nile, removing toxins and transporting oxygen. The healthier your blood the healthier your immune system. At the end of the day, without getting too scientific, we are composed of water, air, and blood. Having a basic understanding of the functions of the body will be helpful along the way. Remember that we are an evolutionary species. The books and blogs you read are stating a present and often personal truth of the author and are subject to change over time, as it well should. Don’t let that deter you from the quest.
I recommend books like ‘Thug Kitchen’, ‘Eating for your Blood Type’, ‘Dieting for a New America’, ‘Eating Animals’, ‘Kemetic Diet’, ‘Sick & Tired, Reclaim Your Inner Terrain’, ‘Eat Your Colors’, ‘The Zen of Eating’, and ‘Afro-Vegan’, to name a few. Not to push any one agenda, but rather to showcase the variety in eating habits.
While you’re in the reading phase you may come across recipes, vegetables, fruits, and proteins that look appealing. Make copies of the recipes and keep a running list of produce that you’d like to try. If you find yourself perusing the farmer’s market or grocery store and stumble upon a new fruit/vegetable, buy one and bite into it. You’re researching the landscape of your tastebuds too. Fresh fruits and vegetables will have much different textures and often times more subtle or robust flavors that take some mental and physical detoxing to pick up on and appreciate but once you do — your eyes wide shut life will be no more.
4. The fourth and most crucial step is to find a mentor(s). Having someone around who understands your path is paramount.
These are the ones who will be in your corner dabbing your brow when you feel overwhelmed. Find someone with whom you can share frustrations, with whom you can share recipes, with whom you can eat, and with whom you can cook. Eating is also social. Share this journey with kinfolk and discover a new level of insight and creativity for culinary compositions.
5. Step # 5 harkens back to step # 2 (keeping track of what you normally eat in a week). Now we want to find replacement recipes.
For that breakfast sandwich you had at Mickey D’s, try this recipe instead.
Sub that taco you had with the co-workers for one of these recipes.
Having replacement recipes helps take the edge off. Most of us are creatures of habit in some form or another. Don’t deny yourself what you want just find ways to start sampling alternatives.
6. Finally, the last step, head to the grocer/farmers market and buy ingredients for a week's worth of meals and snacks. The key here is ensure that you have enough edibles around during the first week so you don’t get distracted or bored. Be mindful to buy snack items that won’t go bad fast like nuts, dried fruit or buy items that if not completely consumed can be made into other dishes, ie: the remains of a fresh head of kale can become kale chips.
Happy eating! Welcome to the club!
See, you’ve already stuck with this reading. You got this!