My one month vegetarian challenge began like most of my challenges do –with me running off my mouth.
I was chatting with a coworker/friend at a work mixer. He was a nose-ring-and-visible-tattoo-having, former-vegan-turned-vegetarian, and the topic was food. We joked that vegans and vegetarians had a look, and he pointed out that I also fit the bill. At that point, my friend said, “Come to think of it, why aren’t you vegetarian?” and I half-jokingly responded that I was as close to a vegetarian as you could get as a meat eater.
Although I hadn’t committed to veganism or vegetarianism, I was sympathetic to the cause(s). One of my closest friends is vegan. I’ve listened to her thoughts on animal rights and I don’t think arguments about the value of all sentient lives are extreme. I’m somewhat aware of the impact of the meat industry on our environment, and I am concerned about how meat is processed and what that means for the body that ingests it. So after my coworker asked why I wasn’t vegetarian, I asked myself the same question out loud.
This is how I talked myself into my one-month vegetarian challenge, starting September 1st.
It was a challenge, but it wasn’t like I was stuck. My American friend wasn’t tracking me or my meals, so I could have just pretended it didn’t happen — and honestly, I considered that before September hit, because I knew that I wouldn’t want to quit after I had started. So as September approached, I thought about it more seriously. Did I really want to do this, and why?
The answer came pretty quickly: If nothing else, it would force me to pay closer attention to what I ate.
As a naturally thin person in a world that values thin women’s bodies over bigger ones, I’ve never had to worry about what I ate. I probably should have, for health’s sake, but gaining weight was never my concern. In fact, for years I worked hard to intentionally put on weight because bigger, curvier bodies were generally seen as more desirable in my family and cultural community. Since gaining weight was hard for me, I was never worried about getting fat. This meant I didn’t ever really exercise discipline in my diet. Even though I still believe in breakfast dessert, I’ve matured in thought.
So, how has it been? Here’s a week by week rundown.
Week One: Hunger Pains
As was to be expected, week one was the toughest. I was always hungry. I kept saying, “It’s hard to be a vegetarian in Colombia.” It became my mantra. Truthfully, it might be easier in Bogota (big city, the capital) or Medellin (cosmopolitan, more touristy). But in Cali, “protein” must be meat and it’s at the center of most meals.
That being said, the vegans I know in the city haven’t starved to death, so I knew I wouldn’t either. A meat-free existence wasn’t impossible in Cali, I just needed to plan better and eat more.
Week Two: Regularity
I decided to try dragonfruit after seeing my vegetarian coworker eat one while on a team outing. In my 5 years in Colombia I had avoided it because I was warned it had a laxative effect. In fact, a foreign friend of mine ate one, not realizing this, and he was on the toilet for days. On the other hand, my coworker said it had no effect on him. So while out grocery shopping and scanning the aisles for new ideas, I decided to try one and found that dragonfruit had no effect on me either. Maybe it only affected hardcore meat eaters? Maybe it only cleaned you out if you needed to be cleaned out? I was finding vegetarianism to be its own kind of laxative, anyway.
Also, dragonfruit is delicious.
Week Three: Cheat Meals
People don’t realize that being vegetarian isn’t necessarily a healthier option –I could live on veggie pizza, and it felt like I had been. I still wasn’t eating enough, and pizza made me feel full in a way I was used to. I realized that simply removing meat didn’t mean I was eating well. I was succeeding in my vegetarianism but failing my body and missing the point.
In an effort to eat more fruits and veggies, I got into the habit of having salad for lunch. One day, I was faced with the choice of a salad with chicken in it, or plain white rice. I considered eating around the chicken but thought that would be wasteful and extra. So I ate the salad, chicken and all.
Week Four: Lessons
I’m writing this on the last day of my challenge, and while it never really got easy, it doesn’t feel as hard. I’ve adjusted to eating less calories and no longer feel hungry all the time. I also feel lighter, as if I had been living in a perpetually bloated state but wasn’t aware until I was relieved of it. I’m still working on getting in much more of the good stuff, which on some days means packing a ton of fruits and veggies so hunger can’t be used as a good excuse to buy my daily jumbo cookie from the cafeteria.
Even though I did “cheat” a few times by eating chicken (there as also the time I ate a meat empanada out of habit), I have become more mindful of my food choices. Noticing how little fruits and veggies I was getting in moved me to actively work on balancing my diet.
One of my biggest surprises was how understanding and supportive my vegetarian and vegan friends were during this process. Let’s be honest, the rest of us fear them and their judgement like we fear Crossfitters and Evangelicals. I didn’t tell my veggie friends about the challenge at first because I was worried it would be too much pressure. Turns out, it was the opposite.
When my guilt forced me to confess about “cheating,” my vegan friend simply said, “It’s ok, just try again tomorrow.” She also started bringing enough of her vegan meals to share with me when we had lunch together. Another vegetarian friend gave me this loving advice, “Just eat what you want, fam. You know what they say, moderation and all that.”
Who knows –maybe I’ll try a proper plant-based October.