Going Vegetarian: Reflections of a Veggie R.D.
October 29, 2013
Alina Zolotareva, R.D., reflects on her vegetarianism and shares her tips on how to “go veggie.”
I was never a big meat lover growing up, so my decision to become a vegetarian eight years ago wasn’t that difficult to make. At the time, I was an overzealous high-schooler reading a lot about health and the environmental impact of human diets (Colin Campbell’s China Study was practically my bible).
Since I didn’t have much of a craving for meat to start with (except for hot dogs, which I still miss along with pepperoni pizza), it was an easy decision to make. Plus, almost everyone in NYC has some sort of ethically or health-driven food restriction, so being a vegetarian made me feel sort-of cool. Family reunions were the only occasions where I was actually made fun of – my Eastern-European family are convinced that vegetarians are weaklings, and a meal without a slab of meat at the center wouldn’t even be a satisfactory snack.
Nowadays, being a dietitian and a vegetarian invites endless dialogue from almost everyone I share a meal with about why I made the switch and how. People also ask whether it’s actually better for you, healthwise, to which my response is, “It depends.” Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle can definitely lead to wellness and satisfaction, but it can also contribute to exactly the opposite. For those of you considering making the switch, here are some things to take into consideration:
Being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you will automatically lose weight
Statistically, vegetarians tend to have a lower BMI than omnivores. However, I still gained the “Freshman 15” in college as a strict ovo-lacto vegetarian. Pizza is a vegetarian option, as is ice cream, soda and the like. Remember, weight often depends on how much you eat and not always what you eat.
Don’t treat French fries as vegetables
A lot of people think that vegetarians are much healthier than non-vegetarians because their diets are full of fresh fruits, veggies and sprouts. Unfortunately, I have met too many vegetarians who rarely touch actual produce. These days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of avoiding meat and fish but loading up on processed junk foods, leaving your diet just as unbalanced and unhealthy as your non-vegetarian counterparts. Vegetarians need to take just as much, if not more, care in planning healthy, nutrient-dense meals as anyone else.
Vegetarians are not miserable, starving or impossible to please
Many folks tend to think that vegetarians are idealistic, draconian and undernourished tree-huggers. I beg to differ -- I regard myself as a cheerful, perfectly satisfied and flexible vegetarian. I’m not alone. Bill Clinton, Natalie Portman, Richard Gere and 16 million other Americans are also vegetarian.
As committed as I am to the lifestyle, even in a food mecca like NYC it isn’t always easy or fun to be a vegetarian. Annoyances include:
- When all of your friends have gone “paleo” (the “caveman” diet)
- When every hot new restaurant you’re invited to has a picture of a little pig at the top of the menu (which means that you your options for dinner are a side of coleslaw and pickles)
- When the vegetarian option is always seasonal vegetables with quinoa
- When you’re starving at food festivals and outdoor concerts full of young people chomping on giant turkey legs, sausages, meatballs on a stick and exotic meat burgers
- Bacon being in everything, including ice cream, mac ‘n cheese and even cocktails!
Eight years in, I feel healthy and happy maintaining a veggie lifestyle and have no plans to eat meat any time soon. However, I won’t deceive my readers — I’ve gotten a bit more lenient with age (after all, I’m not an idealistic 10th grader anymore). I used to obsessively dissect every ingredient on the back of packages to make sure there were no animal by-products, and anything that came anywhere near meat, poultry or fish would never make it onto my fork. Nowadays, I’m a lot more relaxed when it comes to reading food labels. Once in a while, I may even try some fish (usually when I am traveling or at a great seafood restaurant). I’m a “mostly-vegetarian,” so to speak.
Remember, vegetarians come in all different shapes and sizes. Some vegetarians do it for the animals, some do it to stay fit and others for religious reasons. There are very strict vegetarians and those who occasionally eat fish, poultry or meat. Do your best not to judge anyone by the “vegetarian” label alone!
For more information on vegetarianism: http://vegetariannutrition.net/
Are you thinking about going vegetarian? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below:
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