In my almost four decades of being vegetarian, I’ve probably heard every stupid comment and been asked every ridiculous question you could imagine. (A compendium of answers: No, I’m not some religious fanatic, my parents weren’t vegetarian, I don’t miss meat, there are other sources of protein, and I definitely do not want to taste your fried calamari.)
Once, in a restaurant in the Austrian Alps — after a long and what I thought was a successful conversation about wanting “vegetarian soup” — the waitress delivered a bowl of broth with a huge hunk of something animal floating in it. When I brought that to her attention, she smiled warmly and said: “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t charge you for the meat.”
Another time in Prague, after some difficulty communicating our food requests to a “this is clearly beneath me” waiter, we finally finished eating and were handed the bill. Unaware that one of our party was actually Czech, the server announced, assuming we wouldn’t understand, “Well, the worst is behind us.”
And then there was my special birthday in Sonoma County, where before booking the bed and breakfast, I had a respectful chat with the owner about my dietary restrictions (no meat, fish, fowl or eggs). “No problem!” I was assured. “This is California.”
Breakfast on the first morning (I won’t even comment on the thimble-size juice glass or the fact that they ran out of coffee) was white toast with Smuckers and an egg casserole — with ham. I waited a while before inquiring whether there’d be something for me. The hostess scowled and said: “For crying out loud. Just pick the meat out!”
Just one more before I get to my point: When I was editing a vegetarian lifestyle publication, I was asked to appear on TV to promote one of our stories. I’d done this a number of times in my career, and while I’m no fan of the spotlight, I’d had media training and felt comfortable, and proud, to do this for the magazine. But one of the executives — who might actually be the opposite of a vegetarian — pulled me aside and offered to “coach” me for the appearance.
I thanked her and said I didn’t think that would be necessary. “What if they throw a curveball question at you?” she asked. “No worries, I’ve been living this lifestyle so long, I can’t imagine they’d take me by surprise.” And, I reminded her, this was going to be a favorable piece. “But, but … what if they ask you if vegetarians are weird?”
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Great New Meat Alternatives)
Vegetarianism Is Trending
It could be T. Colin Campbell’s groundbreaking The China Study and a growing aware of the health benefits of a plant-based diet for individuals and the environment, Michael Pollan’s terrific books or just the prevailing zeitgeist, but things have definitely been changing. I used to know a handful of vegetarians. Now, it seems, every time I dine in a group, there’s at least one other “veghead,” if not several. Or someone tells me they don’t eat red meat or seafood or fowl.
It’s hard to get reliable statistics, but judging from what I see and read, it almost feels like vegetarianism is trending. Obviously, I think this is a great thing, but I’m concerned about the mis-, dis- and lack of information out there. Tomes have been written on the subject, so there’s no way to cover all the important points in one article. But there are five things that anyone even considering going veg should be aware of.
Five Cornerstones of a Healthy Vegetarian Diet
- “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Those are the seven brilliant words Michael Pollan boiled his 2008 masterpiece In Defense of Food down to. Simple advice, but perfect.
- “Food” means real, whole foods — things your grandmother would recognize. If she wouldn’t, Pollan advises, don’t eat it. This means food the way nature grows it, and without preservatives or other additives. Another one of my heroes, Annemarie Colbin, is a longtime champion of real food — not all veg, by the way — and anything she’s written, like this article on a whole-foods diet, is worth reading and remembering.
- Take your diet seriously. “Functional eating” will sustain you physically, mentally and spiritually. This means making sure everything you eat serves some life-affirming purpose.
- Every body is different — vastly so. Roger Williams’ 1956 landmark book Biochemical Individuality draws on massive research to show that human bodies can differ by as much as 1,000 percent in how they process nutrients. The takeaway: You have to figure out what’s optimal for you. And that doesn’t mean it’s right for anyone else. Which leads to…
- Don't forget the most common missing ingredient. I once gave a speech to an enthusiastic veg crowd and, knowing I’d be preaching to the choir, I wanted to offer one unexpected insight. So after a preamble that touched on all the health, spiritual and ecological benefits of a plant-based diet (perhaps more critical today than ever), plus citing studies that affirmed it’s possible to thrive on a meat-free diet, I paused to get everyone’s attention. Then I said that despite all those positive aspects, there was one thing I found to be missing among a vast majority of vegetarians. I asked what they thought that was. Hands flew up around the room: Calcium? Zinc? B12? No, I said. We can get that from our diet and supplements. The thing so many of us lack is tolerance.
There is a certain self-satisfaction or feeling of “superiority” among people who believe they’re eating a “more evolved” diet, whatever it may be. That’s the most important thing I want to communicate. We simply can never judge others by how they eat. We don’t know what’s behind their choices. I personally know of at least three dozen people who, like the Dalai Lama, had to start eating meat for various health reasons (like pernicious anemia), including the founder of a vegan restaurant.
If His Highness can be cool about eating meat, I think it behooves the rest of us to do the same.