[Epistemic effort: I thought for five minutes about aspects of my life that make vegetarianism easy for me.]
[Linguistic note: I am using ‘vegetarianism’ inclusively to refer to both vegetarianism and veganism.]
A lot of people who care about animals aren’t vegetarian because they believe that being vegetarian is very hard or will otherwise harm their quality of life. A lot of other people are vegetarian, but find that it’s really hard: they’re sick, they’re struggling with temptation, and if they eat another fucking piece of tofu they will stick someone in the eye with a fork.
I think this is a mistake!
I became pescetarian when I was three years old. Since age twelve, I’ve bounced around from pescetarianism to veganism, and have currently settled on lacto vegetarianism. While vegetarianism has been difficult for me in the past, it’s really easy now! And it’s my opinion that for many people, after a few months of effort, vegetarianism can be easy too.
Should You Be Vegetarian At All?
Some people are ill-suited to vegetarianism. The well-being of animals does not outweigh the well-being of human beings, and if eating meat is necessary for your physical or mental health then there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating meat.
If you are vegetarian, you are leaving out most of one of the five major food groups (protein food). If you are vegan, you’re leaving out another one (dairy). It is perfectly possible to have a healthy diet without a major food group, with a little thought. However, the more limited your diet is, the more likely it is that you’ll have some kind of nutritional deficiency. Therefore, medical conditions that limit your diet will tend to make being vegetarian more difficult. If you can’t have vegetables, fruits, or grains, consider not becoming vegetarian. If you can’t eat soy, nuts, or beans– particularly if you can’t eat any of those three things– also consider not becoming vegetarian, since these are the primary sources of protein for vegetarians. If you have other major dietary constraints, consider not becoming vegetarian. If you decide you want to be vegetarian anyway, please see a nutritionist first; this is well beyond my advice-giving pay grade.
If you are a very picky eater, consider not becoming vegetarian. If your pickiness rules out fruit, vegetables, grains, soy, nuts, or beans, then healthy vegetarianism may be much harder for you than it is for other people. If you want to, you might try expanding your culinary horizons. Maybe you’ll like roasted vegetables? Maybe tofu’s not your thing, but edamame is great? Once your diet has expanded, you’ll be able to be vegetarian safely and healthfully.
If you have any sort of history of an eating disorder, please be thoughtful about whether vegetarianism is the right choice for you. Many people in recovery from eating disorders are vegetarian. But for some people, adopting a restricted diet can trigger more eating-disordered behavior. So know yourself.
Being Vegetarian Healthfully
On nutrition, I basically come from the Michael Pollan school: eat food that tastes good; eat a varied diet; eat lots of plants; eat packaged food and restaurant food in moderation; avoid becoming too hungry or too full; otherwise, don’t worry about it. If you happen to come from a different line of thought on nutrition, you may find my advice misguided. I am also not any sort of doctor, and this is not medical advice.
So the bad news about vegetarianism is that you can’t do the pure Michael Pollan thing. You are going to have to think about nutrients at least a little bit. The best resource I’ve found for vegetarian health is veganhealth.org.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re looking at that website and thinking to yourself “aaaaaaaa! Healthy vegetarianism is impossible! This is so complicated!” Relax. If you sat there balancing all your micronutrients for an omnivorous diet, it would also seem really complicated. But in reality, after a small bit of work, it is all quite simple.
Remember that it’s very possible vegetarianism will improve your health. For many people, going vegetarian means they consume more fruits and vegetables. Since desserts and processed food often contain eggs and dairy, veganism or lacto vegetarianism can be an easy way to moderate your consumption of those things. Vegetarianism is often a lot healthier than the standard American diet; it just requires a little bit of thought.
Here are the basic guidelines for being vegetarian or vegan without nutritional deficiencies:
- Take a vitamin B12 supplement.
- Consume dairy, eat calcium-fortified foods, or take a calcium supplement.
- Consume dairy, eat vitamin-D-fortified foods, spend ten to twenty minutes outside between 10pm and 2 pm each day without sunscreen on a day where sunburn is possible, or take a vitamin D supplement.
- Use iodized salt. If for health reasons you can’t have a lot of salt, eat dairy or take an iodine supplement.
- Eat multiple servings each day of dairy, legumes (beans, soybeans, peas, lentils, peanuts, and their derivatives), seitan, quinoa, amaranth, pistachios, or pumpkin seeds.
- High uncertainty: supplement 300 mg of DHA every one to three days; use oils that are low in omega-6, such as olive, avocado, peanut, or canola (cooked under low heat and for short periods); and consume three halves of a walnut, one teaspoon canola oil, one quarter teaspoon flaxseed oil, or one teaspoon ground flaxseeds daily.
- High uncertainty: supplement creatine.
I know that looks like a lot! But if you break it down it’s really easy. There’s one supplement you have to remember to take. If you’re a lacto vegetarian and only care about things that are relatively certain, then you’re covered! Otherwise, you just have to find a brand of calcium- and vitamin-D-fortified soy milk or orange juice you like, toss your non-iodized salt if you have some, and figure out some good lentil recipes. A few months into being vegetarian, you won’t even think about it.
If you experience intense cravings for animal products, something is wrong. I don’t mean thinking “mm, that smells nice” when someone is cooking bacon here– that’s perfectly normal– but a strong physical desire for animal products. Intense cravings are often your body’s way of signaling that it is missing some nutrients. Even if you’re getting all your nutritional needs met, I believe in easy-mode vegetarianism, and using all your willpower to resist the mouthwatering deliciousness of a burger definitely does not qualify as easy. If you experience a craving, I would suggest taking a multivitamin, eating some high-lysine protein (legumes, seitan, quinoa, etc.) and eating something high in fat (avocado, nuts, olives, etc.). If you continue to crave whatever it is, just have some of it; a 99% vegan diet is much better for animals than falling off the wagon entirely. If you consistently find yourself craving a particular food, consider adding it to your diet regularly.
If you feel tired or sick all the time, if you’re depressed, or if you start having weird inexplicable symptoms like being really pale or having a sore near the side of your mouth, it might be a nutritional deficiency. Google your symptoms, or just pop a multivitamin. It is possible that you have a deficiency other than the ones that are of concern for most vegans. (For instance, when I went vegan for the first time, I got a B6 deficiency instead of a B12 deficiency, because I am a vitamin deficiency hipster.)
I would strongly advise against adopting a raw food, macrobiotic, or any other kind of highly limited diet. These diets increase your risk of a nutritional deficiency and (in the case of raw food) generally do not have enough calories to support a healthy person.
After this point, I am going to be talking about why I suggested the things I suggest; if this bores you, skip ahead to the next bolded bit.
The most important thing for vegetarians is vitamin B12. There are NO reliable, unfortified plant sources of vitamin B12. Because most omnivores eat far more B12 than they need, a vegan can live for many years off their body’s stored B12; however, it will eventually run out, and in the meantime you’re increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. All vegans should supplement B12 or consume an adequate amount of B12-fortified foods. B12-fortified nutritional yeast which has been stored in a clear bin or plastic bag is not a good source of B12, because light damages B12. If you are a vegetarian who consumes bivalves, milk or eggs regularly, you may not have to supplement B12, but it is probably best to do so anyway for peace of mind. If you are not taking B12, be aware of the symptoms of mild and overt B12 deficiency. If you don’t supplement and you experience any sort of unexplained fatigue or depression, take some B12.
Vegans often do not get an adequate amount of calcium; it is difficult to get enough calcium without consuming milk or fortified foods. While it is theoretically possible to meet your calcium requirements with greens alone, that is really difficult for most people; on the other hand, drinking a calcium-fortified drink is super-easy. The vegan diet contains essentially no Vitamin D without supplementation and fortified foods. Your body can manufacture all the Vitamin D it needs from twenty minutes daily of full sun exposure; this is probably the easiest method for most people, at least during the summer. However, people who live in cloudy places, hate leaving the house, or are concerned about wrinkles should instead supplement. (Neither Vitamin D nor calcium is a concern for people who regularly drink milk.)
Iodine is typically inconsistent in plant foods. You can get it from seaweed, but sometimes seaweed give you too much iodine. Fortunately, the US has public health measures designed to combat iodine deficiency! A quarter teaspoon of iodized salt daily provides all the iodized salt you need. That is about the amount a normal person puts on their food, but if you’re my husband you can use this as an excuse to put enormous quantities of salt all over your lentils.
There are nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make itself. Since your body uses amino acids to build protein in fairly consistent ratios, a deficiency in any one amino acid can cause you to not get enough protein. (It is not necessary to ‘mix’ amino acids at a single meal, as was previously believed; you just need to make sure to get enough amino acids over the course of a few days.) The amino acid vegetarians are most likely to not get enough of is lysine. If you get enough lysine, you’re probably going to get enough protein. Therefore, be sure to eat lysine-heavy meals. If you are lazy like me, the easy way to remember this is “eat lots of legumes”, but there are other things that are also high in lysine (like pumpkin seeds, which are also delicious).
veganhealth.org considers vitamin A to be a vitamin that needs special attention in vegan diets. However, sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy green vegetables are all rich in chemicals the body can convert to vitamin A; it seems to me that consumption of a reasonable amount and variety of vegetables will cause the average person to eat sufficient vitamin A.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a complicated issue which are not very well understood; they may have a protective effect against heart disease, cognitive problems, and depression. If you’re concerned, supplement 300 mg of DHA every one to three days (depending on exactly how concerned you are); use oils that are low in omega-6, such as olive, avocado, peanut, or canola (cooked under low heat and for short periods); and consume three halves of a walnut, one teaspoon canola oil, one quarter teaspoon flaxseed oil, or one teaspoon ground flaxseeds daily.
A few small studies suggest that supplementing creatine in a vegetarian diet increases IQ, even though it does not appear to increase IQ for non-vegetarians. Creatine also helps build muscles for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The evidence is low-quality, but since IQ is of particular interest for many of my readers and creatine is cheap and safe, it might be worth adding.
These Are A Few Of My Favorite Foods
You might be thinking about becoming vegetarian, but you have no idea what to eat!
First of all, you don’t have to give up many of your favorite snacks. Know the Accidentally Vegan Food List. Love the Accidentally Vegan food list. Become one of those obnoxious people constantly telling everyone that Oreos are vegan. But honestly I think that veganism looks a lot less scary when you know you will be accompanied by Ritz crackers and Swedish Fish. (One of several species of vegan marine animals!)
But I’m not going to lie to you: eating delicious vegetarian food is going to involve a little bit of a change in how you eat. I know some people who become vegetarian by eating identical meals, except they swap out the hamburger for a vegan substance that is almost, but not entirely, quite unlike meat. Now, I’m not bashing all fake meat: some of it is absolutely delicious! But having gardenburgers all the time, in my opinion, can be best described by words like “sad” and “depressing” and “a total waste because there is so much delicious, delicious plant food that is not pretending to be meat at all.”
In my experience, vegetarian food tends to taste better if it’s food that omnivores also eat. Skip the soy ice cream and try a sorbet instead. For your protein food at a meal, try black beans and rice, microwavable bean burritos, lentil soup, hummus and pita chips, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Vegan food also tends to taste better if it’s in the same genre as the meat food you’re trying to replace, without trying to pretend to be the food. For instance, try a Portobello mushroom in your burger: it’s clearly in the genre of “savory grilled umami thing”, but no one is going to mistake a Portobello mushroom for meat. Sorbet is similar here: it’s in the genre of “sweet frozen thing”, but it’s not trying to be ice cream.
Steer clear of recipes that are like “here’s my vegan, fat-free, sugar-free, nut-free, gluten-free, paleo, macrobiotic birthday cake!” While it is sometimes true that recipes like that are good, in general, it is like “I am in awe of the effort you have put into this but also I want to go vomit.”
What about the weird vegetarian foods? It is true that no one is going to make you try any of the weird vegetarian food: I myself have had quinoa maybe five times in my life and until early last year pronounced it “kwin-oh-a”. (It’s “kween-wa.” [ETA: I have been informed it is actually “keen-wa” which I think proves my damn point.) However, it is also true that edamame with iodized salt, tofu stir-fry, and tempeh-broccoli saute are some of life’s little joys. So I’d suggest, if you like cooking, picking up a vegetarian cookbook and trying a few of the recipes that have ingredients you don’t recognize. If you’re intimidated by the weird vegetarian food, consider doing Meatless Mondays for a while before you jump into vegetarianism; it’s a lower-stakes way of figuring out how to cook tofu so it doesn’t taste like crap. (Sauce. The answer is enormous amounts of sauce.)
A word of advice: avoid overly strict veganism. Avoiding the five hundred additives that come from animals massively limits what you can eat, makes your diet way more boring and stressful, makes omnivores less likely to be vegetarian because they think it’s hard and stressful, and doesn’t actually have that much benefit for animals. The vast majority of the benefit you provide animals through being vegetarian comes from avoiding meat and eggs. (You can also flavor food with honey guilt-free.)
But I Can’t Live Without…
So you definitely want to become vegetarian, but you don’t think you could live without smoked salmon. Or sushi. Or bacon. Or macaroni and cheese. Or brie. Or baked goods.
If the thing you can’t live without is a dairy product or bivalve, you’re in luck! Bivalves are, ethically speaking, a kind of plant, and dairy cows produce an enormous amount of milk per cow, making the suffering-per-pound of dairy the best of any animal food. (All the vegans who miss cheese sigh in unison and immediately become lacto vegetarians.) Go and eat cheese and oysters with my blessing.
If the thing you can’t live without is bacon, you have more of a problem. So in my experience, favorite foods fall into one of two categories. Sometimes, people see the food they like and go “ooh! That food is delicious! I want some!” Other times, people have the thought “mm, I could really use some bacon right now” pop into their head.
So I’d suggest going two or three months without bacon. Ask your housemates to keep bacon out of the house. This is crucial! You’ll never be able to tell which category bacon is in if your housemates’ bacon is constantly prompting you with “mmmm, bacon.” In this time, of course, make absolutely certain that you’re eating enough fat and protein: you don’t want to assume that you need bacon when what you actually need is a huge serving of guacamole.
If it turns out that after two months without bacon you still, in fact, want bacon, go ahead and eat the bacon. A 99% vegetarian is a hell of a lot better than a 50% vegetarian. If an occasional Sunday breakfast with bacon improves your life, go ahead and eat the fucking bacon.
Eating Out While Vegetarian
Eating out while vegetarian is easy if you follow two simple rules. First, only eat at restaurants with an ethnicity in the name. Mexican, Greek, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian… whatever it is, it probably has much better and more filling vegetarian options than unlabeled restaurants. (The one big exception to this rule is French food, which is generally bad for vegetarians in my experience.) You might say “but Ozy! This restaurant is a vegetarian restaurant! Can’t I eat there?” While not all vegetarian restaurants are terrible, in my experience they mostly tend to cater to an audience that wants to eat soy that has, through hope and prayer, been transformed into something that vaguely resembles meat. There are some good restaurants that do this (Garden Fresh Chinese in Palo Alto is amazing) but mostly it is sad and depressing.
Second, get used to being annoying to the waiter. Even the ethnicity restaurants will often have cheese or eggs in their meals. Don’t be afraid to ask “is there any meat/cheese/egg in this?” (There is meat in the most surprising things. I myself once ordered macaroni-and-cheese at a diner and there was bacon in it, of all things.) And don’t be afraid to say “bean burrito, no sour cream, no cheese.” Finding something to eat at an American restaurant is often an exercise in creativity. For instance, if there’s a chicken quesadilla, it’s usually possible to order a quesadilla without chicken. Sometimes it even comes with veggies! Of course, if the waiter has had to put up with your nonsense, tip generously.
Finally, many people adopt a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about incidental eggs and milk in baked goods: while they don’t bake with eggs themselves and they avoid anything obviously egg-y like French toast (or, God forbid, an omelet), they also don’t question the waiter intensely about whether the bread has eggs in it. This can be a simple way to make eating out much easier. It also makes sense to adjust your level of don’t-ask-don’t-tell depending on your situation: it probably makes sense to be stricter about incidental eggs if you’re at Sweet Tomatoes than if you’re at an airport and your flight to Europe leaves in fifteen minutes and you’re ravenous.
Dealing With Unsympathetic Omnivores
In my experience, the single biggest factor affecting how easy it is to be vegetarian is whether the people around you are vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly.
The hardest way to be vegetarian is if everyone you know is incredibly defensive omnivores. You have probably heard about asshole vegetarians (and they do exist, I’ve met them). But far more common– if far less complained about, due to their innocuousness to the average person– are asshole omnivores. You might suddenly find yourself having conversations like this:
You: Excuse me, are there eggs in this? I’m vegan.
Omnivore: Why are you vegan?
You: I’m not sure that this is an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversation.
Omnivore: Come on, I want to know. Is it about your health? Or the environment?
You: (sighing) Well, there’s a lot of animal cruelty on factory farms–
Omnivore: HOW DARE YOU VEGANS KEEP RUBBING IT INTO PEOPLE’S FACES THAT THEY’RE VEGAN UUUUGH JERKS
You might discover a shocking number of people who have suddenly acquired nutrition degrees and now know that it is completely impossible to have sufficient protein without eating meat. (Bonus points if those people never appear to eat a vegetable.) You might get guilt-tripped about how Grandma will have her heart absolutely broken unless you eat her turkey at Thanksgiving and why are you being so completely unreasonable as to decide that you are in charge of what you put in your own body. There might be people who don’t serve a single thing you can eat at the entire dinner and then get mad at you for not eating. You might experience an extraordinary number of jokes about how your tomato had a home and a family and you can hear its little tomato screams. Many, many, many people may want to tell you about the wonders of bacon.
First, it is important to identify whether you are dealing with a true asshole omnivore. Some people are just dickbags, and if you are dealing with a known dickbag feel free to skip this step. But if you know your friend or family member is generally reasonable, try bringing up the subject in a nonjudgmental way first. Maybe you can explain how lysine is the most important amino acid to worry about for vegetarians and show them how you’re eating lots of beans, thus reassuring them that you’ve done your research and you’re not going to suddenly die of malnutrition on them. Maybe you can say something like “I understand we disagree about vegetarianism, but I think it’s wrong to eat animals. So when I’m having a moment of temptation about the sushi, I want you to support me and not try to get me to do something I think is wrong– just like I’d do the same for you.” Or something like “I know it means a lot to you that everyone enjoys your food, Grandma. But I can’t enjoy turkey if I’m thinking about the conditions the animal is raised in the whole time, and I know you wouldn’t want me to pretend to enjoy your cooking. Let’s look through your cookbooks and see if we can find something I can enjoy too.”
There are basically three ways you can respond to asshole omnivores. First, you can try to argue with them. I suggest picking up a copy of the Animal Activist’s Handbook if you’re planning on trying argument; the subject is too long to go into here.
Second, you can practice your best icy Miss Manners voice and say “I don’t really want to talk about this.” Or “This subject isn’t very pleasant. Let’s talk about Star Wars.” Or, in extreme circumstances when a person is behaving in a truly unconscionable way, “Wow” followed by a long and awkward silence. It can help to internalize that omnivores are being assholes to you for their own personal reasons– maybe guilt about eating meat, maybe equating food with love, maybe they’re unhappy about weird people, maybe a hippie bit them as a small child and they’ve been frightened of lentils ever since. Whatever. Point is, it’s not about you. It’s their own shit and for some reason they’ve decided to throw their own shit all over you. The person who’s throwing shit is the one who’s being rude, not you, who is just trying to get through dinner without starving to death.
Third, you can give in while you’re around them. I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing to do! If eating turkey will save you an infinite amount of grief from your relatives about upsetting Grandma and you feel like it’s not worth it to put up a fight, eat the turkey. As I always say, a 99% vegetarian is a hell of a lot better than a 100% omnivore. That said, if you try this strategy, watch for feelings of resentment and guilt– if it winds up poisoning your relationship with Grandma, it might be easier to try to explain your point of view to her.
Whatever you do, if you’re surrounded by unsupportive omnivores, it’s important to find vegetarian friends who can support you. If in a moment of weakness you’re considering eating an entire ham, you want someone who’ll say “hey, let’s go out for vegan Chinese instead”, not “oh come on, eat the ham, it’s not going to kill you, ham is delicious.”
In my experience, I’ve found being lacto vegetarian and living with people who are mostly on the vegetarian spectrum to be tremendously easier than being lacto vegetarian and living with omnivores.
I am very bad at resisting temptation. If egg-filled baked goods and delicious sushi are there to be eaten, I will probably eat them. However, if they aren’t there, prompting me with their deliciousness, I am almost certainly too lazy to bother going to seek them out.
Right now, my house has three lacto vegetarians (including me), one vegan, and two omnivores, and the only person who cooks a meaningful amount is lacto vegetarian. When people buy candy and share it with the rest of the house, it is usually something I can eat. The delicious tempting snacks on the counter are peanut butter pretzel nuggets, which are both totally vegan and 100% amazing. When the housemate who cooks makes cookies or garlic bread or pasta, they are always egg-free and meat-free. And when I open the fridge there isn’t any fish staring at me and reminding me of the deliciousness of salmon.
Therefore, particularly for novice vegetarians and vegetarians who have a low level of willpower, I recommend trying to live with other vegetarians or with people who consume a primarily plant-based diet. This is particularly important if you share meals with someone. If you share meals with an omnivore, try to convince them to adopt a plant-based diet at home or to primarily consume meat you don’t like very much. It’s possible that you and the people you share meals with have totally incompatible food needs– they might object to all vegetables on the grounds of taste, have one of the health conditions I talked about earlier, or simply believe that vegetarianism is unreasonable. In that case, being vegetarian is likely to be much harder than it would otherwise be, and I don’t have a lot of good advice.
Of course, the problem with living with vegetarians is that part of the benefit of being vegetarian is modeling vegetarianism for omnivores, and if all your friends are vegetarian you will not have this positive influence. I suggest continuing to befriend omnivores but not living with them unless they don’t cook very much.
Meat Is Not Food
My biggest tip for easy vegetarianism is to convince your brain that meat is not food.
There are a variety of interesting things I believe on a system one level. For instance, restaurants typically serve one to three dishes of actual food (and it is very strange and overwhelming when they choose to serve more). Grocery stores devote a puzzling amount of floor space to refrigerating non-food items. When people refer to eating “chicken nuggets” in conversation, they’re referring to vegan chicken nuggets.
All of this means that eating meat doesn’t even occur to me as a possible choice. It is not food. Why would I go around eating not food when there is so much delicious food available?
If you can swing it, becoming viscerally disgusted by meat can help a lot. Think about the fact that you’re eating an animal corpse. Go read Jonathan Foer’s Eating Animals, bookmark all the grossest bits, and reread them regularly. I find that naturally becoming viscerally disgusted by meat happens over time, but that it tends to take a very long time, perhaps a decade of not eating a particular thing. So trying to make it shorter can help.