These days, there are a million different dieting strategies. You have your fad diets (celery, lemon water, paleo, etc.) and your tried-and-true methods, the most basic of which is general omnivore.
It may seem boring or simple, but eating an omnivorous diet is probably the most effective way for staying healthy. If you do it right.
I know this, or believe this, because although I’ve lived most of my life as an omnivore, I have also genuinely tried tons of other diets.
Like many college students, I briefly experimented with veganism. I committed to allergen and gluten free diets for months on end. I lived in another country, and experienced a very different perspective on food.
And for the past year and a half, I ate vegetarian.
Until last week.
I became a vegetarian for a host of reasons. To start, I didn’t eat meat much anyways; I never bought it at the store, I hadn’t eaten beef in ages, and I hardly touched pork. So in a lot of ways, I was living an almost vegetarian lifestyle already.
On top of that, I understand the impact of the meat industry on the environment. I’ve researched the pollution factory farms create, the unimaginable conditions in which livestock are raised, and I’ve read the staggering amounts of greenhouse gasses emitted through the production and transportation of meat.
After considering the vegetarian life for awhile, I began to wonder how much of a difference it would make to really have to avoid meat. I started to hope it would make me more creative in the kitchen. I also believed it would force me to pay more attention to nutrition. The environmentalist in me imagined a substantial reduction in my eco footprint – a figurative measure of how one’s actions impact the planet – and my financially aware side (read: broke college student) desperately hoped this would save me money.
Some of those things did happen. Others did not.
I ate (mostly) healthy when I was vegetarian; I had greens most days, I substituted beans, nuts, and legumes for meat in recipes. I still ate dairy and cheese, so I wasn’t totally deprived of protein, calcium, or fat.
I experimented in the kitchen out of both necessity and curiosity. Roasted veggies, rice bowls, and homemade soups were my staples. I bought vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and learned how to bake tofu. I sought out unfamiliar produce and spices. I learned a lot about cooking and flavor, and I maintain that the exploration in cooking was the best gift of being vegetarian.
My body also changed with my vegetarian lifestyle; I lost weight, but not immediately. I still had my pitfalls. Once you know what you’re dealing with, it’s not hard to find vegetarian options for takeout pizza or Chinese food.
My nutrition was better overall, as I ate more vegetables by default, but I still ate too many carbs from bread and processed sugar. I went through uncomfortable phases of eating too much fiber. I retained my emotional eating habits; I was never really into fried meats or chicken wings, but I do have a sweet tooth. When I was an omnivore my cravings usually ran for homemade baked goods and chocolate, while as a vegetarian I became more susceptible to buying foods I hadn’t touched in the past, like candy, mass produced cookies, and sugary drinks. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Maybe not.
One year into the vegetarian lifestyle, I started craving chicken.
Chicken. Arguably the most boring of all the meats.
I grappled for a long time with why I was craving it, and what it meant for me and the future of my vegetarian ways. I beat myself up about it, too. I felt like a quitter for wanting to try meat again.
I stuck with my vegetarian diet for several more months, before I realized a pattern: I was hungry. All. The. Time. Since starting a vegetarian lifestyle I had discovered that my daily caloric intake had been chronically low, and had already adjusted by eating more (hooray!). Still, I was hungry.
I would eat a salad or rice bowl and be hungry one or two hours later. I would have several snacks between meals then not be hungry at mealtime. I couldn’t figure out how to time when and what I ate so that I could feel satiated until my next meal.
I tried to fill up my diet with more veggies, more dairy and eggs, and more nuts to keep me full. I told myself it wasn’t really hunger, that I was just eating out of boredom or distraction. Still, I didn’t feel quite satiated. I was missing something.
I believe that something was meat. So I bought a chicken at the store, roasted it, and converted.
Maybe I could have made more adjustments and put more effort into preparing larger, more filling vegetarian meals. I don’t claim to be the queen of meal prep. But to be honest, I reached a point where it wasn’t worth it for me to try anymore. I did my homework, I made some adjustments, but it wasn’t enough. I don’t do well with exclusionary diets, as it turns out.
My biggest concern now isn’t about nutrition, or being full (thankfully). I learned a lot about cooking and meal planning from my 18 months as a vegetarian, and I trust myself to continue eating a healthy amount of veggies and whole grains. Admittedly, I am a little nervous about gaining weight, but I’ll deal with that as it comes.
To be honest, I’m mostly concerned by the impact of my omnivorous diet on my body and the world. I’m worried about unknowingly putting hormones and chemicals into my body that are unnatural, unhealthy, or damaging. I’m worried about the welfare of the animals I eat while they are alive. I worry most about the impact of the modern meat industry on the planet.
I was always worried about these things. My main reason for becoming a vegetarian was to help the environment, and I’ve learned that I can eat meat with a lower impact, if I choose what I buy wisely. After successfully living vegetarian for over a year, I believe buying meat that is healthy, humane, and sustainable is less effort than avoiding it altogether. I believe I can support myself and those who value the same things I do – health, ethics, and the environment – at the same time by purchasing meat from responsible farmers.