After 8+ years of being a vegetarian, I recently made the decision to return to an omnivorous diet (+/- gluten as it still seems to upset my stomach.) Thankfully, none of my response to this has been wow, just couldn’t keep it up any longer could you? or worse, finally getting sick of salads, huh?
In fact, most people seemed to grasp the concept of my switch, especially given when it occurred. Back in February, my Merman and I decided that I would be joining him on a family trip to Poland to celebrate his cousins wedding. For those of you who need a crash course on Polish cuisine, you can simply look to the three P’s:
Pickles, Pork, Pierogi.
Needless to say, two of these three signature dishes contain meat, and wanting to experience all Poland had to offer (and not offend Merman’s grandmother who speaks no English), I decided to start incorporating meat into my diet.
And thank goodness I did. Here’s me enjoying a plate of meat and cabbage pierogi TOPPED with fried bacon and onions. nomnomnom
Now, it may sound like I have come “full circle” with my diet, but truth be told, I have learned so much along this journey, especially as food began to take a more central role in my life. In addition, I’d like to think I have shared bits and pieces of this story with many people in hopes of imparting a little knowledge with the experience, but I want to lay it all out there for the world to see (and to wrap my head around it myself.)
This all began in middle school when I started to realize that many people (mostly young ladies) that I shared a cafeteria with didn’t eat meat. They had either been raised that way, didn’t like the taste, or loved animals enough to declare an avoidance of meat at such a young age. Now, I had always thought of myself as an animal-lover, and it became more and more clear to me that where I group had a lot of “vegetarian options” for the early 2000s.
When a good friend of mine decided to take the plunge and forgo meat, I thought “what the heck, I can do this too!” I limited my intake to fish-only or “pescatarian” and as such my diet looked something like this:
Ok–that last one was during my time studying abroad in Italy and I have NO REGRETS about the food choices made while I was there. Yes, that is a whole pizza for myself. I repeat–NO REGRETS 🙂
But seriously, refined “fake meats” and carbs, carbs, carbs and cheese. It’s not that I didn’t like vegetables, but when I “took meat” out of my diet, I didn’t know that what I needed to do (and what most of the American population needs to do) is add in more veggies, especially those nutritious dark, leafy greens.
This realization hit me after my freshman year of college. Fear of the “Freshman 15” was so real coming into Gonzaga Univeristy… And with good reason. Cafeteria food as a “science” is engineered to not be good for you. Nothing says bad for your health like prepackaged, ridiculously long shelf-life, ingredients maybe thrown together over an actual stove versus a microwave. Maybe.
As a freshman who is already making a ton of life choices for the first time being away from home (if you came from a pretty cushy lifestyle as myself and many classmates did), the last thing I realized would be a challenge is feeding myself especially with the abundance of food in the dining halls. Shouldn’t be too hard right? Well, turns out stuffing your face and actually nourishing your body are too different concepts. While I wasn’t terribly privvy to this when I started college, I had several friends who were.
I quickly realized that my “healthy” choices in the dining hall were extremely limited and frankly unappetizing most of the time. They didn’t really feel like choices at all.
Unfortunately the choice I made then was detrimental to my own health. Because I was so afraid of eating “unhealthy” things, I limited my calorie intake to a dangerously low amount. Thankfully this only last a few months before it became noticeable to myself and those closest to me that this was dangerous behavior, but unfortunately the damage was done–physically and mentally.
I had a difficult time digesting dairy and gluten for a time, and because of that, I started diving into the internet for resources on how to cook without using those ingredients. I was turned on to vegan cooking, for some really inspiring stories of folks similar to my own, and subscribed to it for a while, realizing that vegan bloggers did so much more than take what I considered staple meals and make them vegan but omg they knew how to cook vegetables and make them taste so good. How had I missed that in my understanding on being “healthy?”
But I knew I wasn’t the only one. Shortly after my sophomore year of college began, I found the Real Food Challenge, which changed my life. I often tell this story as my entry way into food systems work. If you go back and read closely, you will notice that I mention many small problems that are wrong with our current food system, which directly impacts consumer health both physically and mentally: lost food culture in the U.S., supply chain issues, federal policies that encourage overly processed food and many more. These are also not the only issues with our food system. Unfortunately, it is a pretty depressing structure as it stands from seed to plate, but many people are working at all points along the chain to provide alternative systems. And its working.
Empowered by this work, I also started to take an empowering look at my own health and wellness. It has taken several years since that point but I am now so happy with my omnivorous diet which includes much less meat than the average American (as sustainably and humanely raised as possible), TONS of veggies, healthy grains, a moderate amount of dairy (mostly yogurt and some cheese on occasion), WINE in proper amounts AND doesn’t break the bank. I have completely shifted my perspective on food to be caring about the human element–both for myself, for the people who produced it, and for the cultures with which it represents. This was a huge piece of my decision to begin eating meat again. I do not feel comfortable telling someone who prepared meat for me, that I “do not eat that.” It feels privileged and disrespectful to me now.
It is totally possible to have this kind of critical analysis of food but knowing that it took me years of pouring through information and complete trial and error to come to this point is a testament that it is not easy. I personally grew so much from point “a” to point “z” and I can only imagine the struggle people who are not actively engaging with their food must feel like. Is this healthy? Is this good for the environment? Was slavery involved in the production of this product?
These are questions worth engaging with for the continued health and safety of people around the globe. If not ready to take drastic steps in changing how you interact with food, at least start to examine what you’re eating now and if you’re happy about it. Truly happy.
And then buckle up for a journey of self-exploration that will change your life, I hope for the better.