So, stop me if you’ve heard this one: Paleo Eve and Vegetarian Eve go to a bar, and the bartender says, “What kind of drinks for you, ladies?” Paleo Eve says, “How about a vodka tonic?” And then, Paleo Eve’s friends gather around it and argue that no, potatoes are too starchy, and anyone trying to lose weight should stay away from vodka. Omg! Vegetarian Eve orders an O’Douls, and Paleo Eve says, “Ugh, that’s disgusting, how many carbs are in that thing?” Vegetarian Eve screeches, “Technically, there’s no meat in this! Get off my case! Gawd!!!”
I was a vegetarian for 8 years of adulthood and have been eating lower carb, paleolithic-ish for only the past 4 months. In all the reading done about the paleolithic diet and lower carb eating, I’ve come to realize that if you’re doing the vegetarian diet correctly, it resembles paleo a great deal, with the main difference of avoiding meat and substituting other protein-heavy foods like soy, peanuts, and a variety of beans, nuts, and legumes.
Technically, I knew that vegetarians could eat raw vegetables and seeds, too, but I was much less willing to eat fresh produce than I am now, and more willing to consume processed foods that often packed less nutritional punch and were ultimately worse for me. Oh, how I regret the Bartlett pears that have gone bad in my crisper drawer.
I touched upon observing the letter but not the spirit of the vegetarian lifestyle in a recent post about my poorly executed erstwhile vegetarianism. I relied on a lot of soy burgers and fake meat products, anything processed that I could make into a sandwich or throw into stir-fry. Spaghetti practically ran through my veins. (Ok, that was a weird mental image.)
I still ate dairy and eggs, and many processed vegetarian foods are made with dairy and egg ingredients, so it was easier for me to get protein and fat than it would have been if I’d gone fully vegan and eaten more like the way I do now.
In the past, I saw meat, and meat substitutes, as the main part of the meal, and therefore the most essential part of the meal. A dinner built around something other than that kind of main dish was only a snack, or a sign of poverty of imagination (or literal poverty – I mean, who eats just rice and veggies for dinner?). This led me to choose the veggie burger and fries instead of a variety of mixed steamed veggies with a baked potato and salad if I was having dinner at the pub.
While I ate my share of unconventionally structured meals, sometimes that was just due to my misadventures in cooking rather than creativity or fluency in my chosen nutritional path. This thought pattern for every meal of “meat/facsimile and two veg” wasn’t intentional, but it’s something ingrained in a lot of people in the U.S., and it led me to make a lot of poor food choices.
Judgement of That Which Is Deemed Different
I wonder now how much of substituting fake meats but keeping the meal structure otherwise the same was also to downplay the “weirdness” of being vegetarian in a social setting. I had only a handful of friends who were vegetarian or ate with special dietary restrictions, with most of the people in my life enthusiastic omnivores, and little support structure. Most of the people I interacted with were all right with my food choices, because I didn’t throw them in their faces, but occasionally, I’d get hassled by an acquaintance or family member whose bemusement shone through as negative attention that I just wanted to avoid.
If I’d had a spine, I would have been much prouder of my choices. I was almost apologetic and ashamed sometimes about an aspect of my life that only I and the people who truly care about me had any right to meaningfully care about, my food intake.
I am still careful to explain my current diet couched in as many terms as my mind sees as necessary, but I find that people don’t find the details as compelling as they do the broader strokes, so explanation in depth is usually not necessary anymore. As soon as I say, “My doctor put me on this diet,” understanding clicks in, and it’s on to the next topic of conversation. I understand not everyone else who eats like I do has this luxury, and some people are going to be belligerent jerks about the dietary choices of other people no matter what. The old me would have rolled over and taken that kind of prodding (be it good-natured, thoughtless, or trolling), but the new me isn’t about that. All I have to do these days is pull up pictures of me from four months ago and tell them about shopping for new clothes, breathing more easily, and maybe being able to run again someday, and the only thing I’ve changed about my lifestyle is my diet.
Be proud of your lifestyle choices, especially educated and careful choices you make about food and fitness. Don’t let others with no real interest in your health talk you out of doing what is best for you and your body. And those of us who eat differently, remember to be kind and give the benefit of the doubt before you actively judge others. Better yet, don’t judge others at all, since you don’t know their struggles. Sometime when others are negative, they are defensive, feeling like your actions are a judgment of their own. Others may be embittered about their own lack of success and taking it out on you without realizing it (some realize it, and those people are poisonous and should be minimized in your life). Other times, they may have run into someone who made choices like you make and treated them poorly, and they have negative associations they haven’t been able to divorce from the food lifestyle you lead. Their poor reactions from other people toward your diet may be because they feel provoked by the things you say or the attitude you project. Do you brag about your diet everywhere you go? Are you vocally putting down people who eat differently than you do? Be awesome, lead by example, only tell when asked, and follow Wheaton’s Law.
While I still do go for a main dish surrounded by vegetables for many of my main meals, I am also content to eat weirder meals: almond butter with a sprinkling of seeds and nuts, or a bowl of snap peas with cheese (I still love my dairy, so I try to eat quality cheese in measured, reasonable portions). My lunch is usually a portion of deli meat in a sea of raw vegetables, the veggies taking up at least two-thirds of the mass inside my lunch container. During these months when I’m eating with the idea of weight loss, white potatoes are off the menu, but sweet potatoes can be eaten in moderation.
Any of these meals minus the lunch meat would have been perfectly acceptable vegetarian meals, if only I’d thought to branch out from my usual pasta, rice, or quinoa pilaf topped with sad boiled vegetables and a sugary sauce, breaded faux chicken on toast, pasta-riffic frozen lunches, etc. and try some real, unprocessed foods for a change. If I ever go back to vegetarianism, I believe my lower carb, paleo-ish diet has been a valuable education in the importance of the kind and quality of foods you eat.
If they can get along over a bowl of carrots, then there may be hope for healthy future dietary endeavors.