During my senior year in college in the early 70s, my friend Jennifer and I would hitchhike from the Tulane campus to Bud’s Broiler, the best hamburger joint in New Orleans. Devouring our juicy burgers at one of Bud’s funky wooden tables, Arlo Guthrie thrumming The City of New Orleans on the jukebox, beat having dinner at Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace or any other legendary New Orleans restaurant, hands down.
These days, the thought of hamburgers rarely crosses my mind, though, because about 6 years after my outings to Bud’s, my new husband Barry and I decided to stop eating meat. For me, this wasn’t difficult. Although I was raised on my mother’s fried chicken, Southern ham, pork chops, and ribs, I never learned to cook meat myself. As a single woman in my 20s, the closest I came to meat was ordering chili at the corner diner.
We had different reasons for our decision. Reading Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, I was appalled to discover that in rich countries like the U.S., the proportion of grain used for animal feed is around 70 percent. If all food crops grown globally were fed directly to humans instead of animals, the world’s supply would be enough to feed over half the humans on earth, let alone the 828 million who face hunger every day.
Barry, meanwhile, had just read Peter Singer’s 1975 expose, Animal Liberation, and was outraged learning about the cruel treatment animals received in factory farms.
So, armed with the Moosewood Cookbook as my Bible, I started to prepare dishes without meat. We weren’t vegans, and we didn’t even call ourselves vegetarians, since we occasionally ate fish. Like other non-meat-eaters I knew back then, we over-relied on cheese as a transition food, consuming huge amounts of quiche and other rich, creamy meals, oblivious to the fact that dairy can be as damaging to the body and the planet as beef.
More than 40 years later, I’m grateful for our decision to stop eating meat. Here are eight reasons why.
1. I Love Vegetarian Food
Barry and I eat a varied and interesting diet, often influenced by Southeast Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. Beans, sesame, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, stir-fries, salads, soups, greens, grains, you name it.
Black beans, especially. So versatile! Add a shot of cumin and cut-up mango or chutney, and they taste Indian; add orange juice, and they turn Brazilian. Add coffee or cocoa, and they taste “haunting,” as one recipe described it.
A friend described the early years of her marriage, when she and her husband were chronically broke, as “the rice-and-beans days.” I laughed because I could live on black beans and rice for the rest of my life. When we visited Cuba, we ate the delicious local version, called Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) every day.
2. Plant-Based Cooking Is Creative And Fun
I love experimenting and improvising with different foods, and I frequently make up recipes. For instance, I recently invented a new soup, consisting of chickpeas, miso or umami paste, coconut milk, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, and ginger. In a word, delicious!
Miso is a form of umami, which, along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, is one of the five essential flavors. If you think vegetarian food is boring, try a dish with umami paste — it will wake you up faster than a strong cup of coffee.
When I run out of ideas, I look for recipes on Meatless Monday, a site that encourages people to reduce their intake of meat, or 101 Cookbooks, one of my favorite vegetarian blogs.
3. A Plant-Based Diet Is Much Healthier
Research shows that a low- or no-meat diet reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and even early death. Three members of my family have had cancer, so I’m happy to do what I can to reduce my risk.
Some data also suggests that a vegetarian diet can help with weight loss and maintenance. This has been true for me. In my teen years, my weight fluctuated much more than it has since I stopped eating meat.
4. I Get Plenty Of Protein Without Meat
The average omnivore in the U.S. gets more than 1.5 times the optimal amount of protein, most of it from animal sources. Although vegans need to take a Vitamin B12 supplement, Barry and I don’t, because we still eat some dairy products (though nothing like when we started).
5. I’m Rarely Constipated
Because I eat so much roughage, my digestion system works like a charm. Eating a lot of meat and dairy, neither of which contain much fiber, can cause constipation. My microbiome seems to be in good shape.
6. Not Eating Meat Helps The Environment
Animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a leading cause of land and water use, deforestation, wildlife destruction, and species extinction. About 2,000 gallons of water are needed to produce just one pound of beef in the U.S. And according to Grist, an environmental online newsletter, one pound of cheese requires 10 pounds — about 5 quarts — of milk from a cow, which emits the greenhouse gas methane. Not to mention the grains that go into feeding the cow.
7. It’s Economical
It turns out skipping animal protein isn’t just good for my body, it’s good for my budget. Research published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, suggests vegetarians save at least $750 a year.
8. It’s Simple
I can’t keep up with the number of health-crazed diets promising weight loss, longevity, youth, vitality, and so on. The Whole 30, the Paleo Diet, the Keto Diet, the Gluten-Free Diet, the Raw Foods Diet — it never ends.
I agree with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, that too many options imprison rather than free us. Limiting my choices and knowing what I eat and don’t eat helps keep me calm and sane.
Barry and I are still part of a minority. Whereas the number of adult Americans identifying as vegans or vegetarians is about 10 percent, I was surprised to read that as of 2017, the U.S. had the second-highest per capita meat consumption in the world, second only to Hong Kong.
Vegetarians have a reputation for being sanctimonious, but I don’t feel morally superior to those who eat meat, nor do I judge people for their decisions. As someone with a history of compulsive eating dating back to adolescence, I know firsthand that making decisions about food can be overwhelmingly complicated and confusing. People have to figure out their own path. Besides, there are plenty of unhealthy foods I still eat, like chips, crackers, and cookies. I do find it funny when, if I mention to someone that I eat a plant-based diet, they’ll often say, “I rarely eat meat,” or “I only have meat once or twice a week,” as though they’re worried about my reaction.
But I almost never bring it up. Barry and I have eaten a plant-based diet for so long, it’s just become a river that flows quietly through our lives.