Posted on: by Alistair
I often get approached by people who are interested in eating a more healthy diet and have made several efforts to become vegetarian or vegan. The reason behind this choice relates to the significant health benefits offered by a diet free of animal products and according to Wikipedia, a vegetarian diet has been shown to have benefits such as:
lower body mass index, lower levels of cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and less incidence of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, renal disease, metabolic syndrome, dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders.
In the case of any doubt, Ayurveda is clear that a diet free from animal products is strongly indicated for long term health and only ever prescribed in cases of severe emaciation or weakness. Having said that, this post is not a debate around whether or not a vegetarian/vegan diet has health benefits. What I am going to discuss is my experiences of becoming and being a vegetarian/vegan.
What is often not mentioned when a person attempts the switch from meat to not-meat is how fraught and difficult this process can be. And not for the reasons you might think. You see, omnivores have a generally adopted logic when putting together a meal plan. Even if the meal is a light snack the first question they pose is:
What should I have?
That might seem obvious, don’t vegetarians do the same thing? The difference is in how the question is, somewhat unconsciously, answered. Omnivores almost always follow this logic:
Meat, sauce, side, vegetables.
The Meat. It’s the epicenter of the meal and all accoutrements extend from that decision. What type of meat? How will it be cooked? What goes well with it? The most difficult transition that an omnivore must make when attempting the vegetarian route is to change what has become an ingrained way of thinking when planning meals. Trying to follow the same logic as a vegetarian will result in stumbling at the first hurdle, leading to:
Sauce, side, vegetables.
Perhaps appetizing but for how long? One meal, perhaps three or four and then it’s going to get old. With meat you can forgo the subtlety as the flavor and texture can vary greatly on that single ingredient. You can eat the same sides/sauces/vegetables and just by changing the meat you have discovered a whole new meal.
I say this from experience.
With vegetables things get complicated. Steamed vegetables were an edible side with a steak but on their own they can look a little sad (go to any restaurant that “caters” to vegetarians). Spaghetti bolognese with no meat is just pasta with tomato sauce. Yes, these are fine but you will get bored quickly and then succumb to the cravings of meat. Understand that these cravings are not for meat but for variety.
Variety of flavors and textures are the cornerstone of every meal and it’s important start to think in a different way when it comes to vegetarian food. For example, the way of the vegetarian might be:
Texture, sauce, side.
Flavour, texture, side.
So if I were to make a decision to eat chapattis and dahl the choice may have centered around the softness of the bread along with the spices and heaviness of the dahl. Even the ingredients of the dahl would have been considered along the same lines – lots of ghee and mung beans is heavier and more unctuous than perhaps adding summer squash, zucchinis and carrots.
So how do you get around this strange, often subconscious obstacle? The advice I often give is to prepare to spend the next 12 to 18 months becoming a vegetarian. Think of it as a process that you undertake to change habits that you have lived with for an extended period of time.
A practical way to achieve this is to begin by becoming a vegetarian for one meal a week. The following week add another meal. After seven weeks you will find yourself eating vegetarian for 7 of the 21 weekly meals.
Breakfast, with so many options, is a good place to start. It’s also a simple meal that requires little preparation and has a variety of animal substitutes (rice milk, soy milk, etc).
After 7 weeks the process slows a little. There’s no reason to rush and you’re doing exceptionally well, eating vegetarian food for 1/3 of all meals.
For the next step we work to remove meat from a meal every two weeks. The reason behind changing every two weeks is that you’re going to start altering lunches or dinners and this will be far more daunting and complicated than you might imagine. So plan ahead, pick the meal that you’re going to change and then buy specifically for that meal. Two weeks later add another vegetarian meal to your routine. And so on.
Another reason to slow down is that you’re going to need to think more carefully about your meals – how to cook vegetables so that you have variety and taste. You’re going to get into stews, soups, pastas and bakes. It will get tiring and you may find yourself drawn to faux meats and prepared meals – do you best to avoid this slippery slope because it will negatively impact your health and with all the strange ingredients in those you may well be better off eating meat.
But you’re getting there and at the end of the 21 weeks you will be eating the majority of your meals as a vegetarian. You will begin to notice changes to your way of preparing meals and your taste buds – vegetables that you used to dismiss as bland are now much less so. You will also notice how much more you are having to plan ahead while also realising that this is becoming oddly second-nature.
Depending on where you live and the habits of your close friends you have also noticed how difficult it is to eat out. Choices are often poor and the vegetarian dish on offer is what I like to call the “lowest common denominator”. It contains ingredients off the meat dishes in a mixed bag of spices to create a confused and often unappetizing meal.
The last hurdle can be the most difficult – changing your habits of the final third of your meals. As you have been doing, stretch out the timeframe of the adjustments to give yourself a cushion and so you can prepare in advance. Changing one meal every three weeks might seem like slow-going so close to the finish but you’ll also realize how quickly it is to give up entirely and undo the progress that you’ve made.
At the end of an astonishing 42 weeks – just over two months shy of a year – you have switched from what now seems like an exclusively meat-based diet to a plant-based, cooking-from-scratch diet. And this is how long it takes, perhaps even longer. Even with those of us who plan well in advance and have help and support through the process.
Good luck and don’t forget to be patient. Change takes time and the slower the change the more permanent it becomes.