How to read this article:
Option 1: "I want to read about Michael's journey as a vegetarian, and some of the conflicts he found along the way." If that's the case, just start reading.
Option 2: "I don't care about Michael's journey, I just want to read about his take on what a balanced vegan meal looks like." Skip down to "How to Eat Like a Super-Vegan."
My Vegetarian Story:
I was once a vegetarian. Well, not really. There was one year when I was a complete vegetarian. I spent about 8 years as a pescatarian, eating fish on occasion.
The first time I tried to go vegetarian, it didn't go well. I was in high school, and around 16 years old. A few of my friends were vegetarian and as impressionable as I was, I decided that eating land animals was not for me, so I decided to go vegetarian.
The problem was that I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I turned down my mother's cooking, and just ate rice and mushrooms. This lasted a few weeks, I think. I don't remember exactly how I felt. I just know that it didn't last long.
The stimulus for becoming vegetarian the second time, maybe 2 years later, when I was 18, was based on what I thought was the healthiest diet. Being vegetarian, I thought, was healthier. I bought some cookbooks, called my abuela and told her I wanted to learn how to cook arroz con frijoles, and dove right in. This time I was more successful. I had a better understanding of food preparation and was able to cook myself more balanced meals. Rice and beans became my staple food for a long time.
My vegetarian lifestyle, coupled with my raging hormones and ego, made me a force to be dealt with on the home front. I was self-righteous and damming of non-vegetarians (my family). I was not diplomatic about it at the dinner table. Maybe my self-righteousness at times was righteous indignation, but I had to learn how to reflect on how I presented my lifestyle to others.
My dogmatism transformed to self-criticism. I wasn't converting my family, I was pushing them away. I started to learn that most people dont care what you think, and care even less when you are criticizing something like their food, culture, and lifestyle—even if your logic and reasoning are spot-on. Any change that I've ever been successful in bringing out in another has always been through example. People watch people. And when one person sees another doing something right, that's when that path becomes enticing for the voyeur.
By this time, I started working on a farm near Jonesville, Florida. I entered the farm an idealist, wanting to "close the loop." Stop importing tractor parts, oil, plastic, and CAFO manure for fertilization. But that idealism was met with a heavy dose of reality: the more closed the loop, the more work, and the heavier it got. And the work was endless already; you could work 24/7 and still have more work. By the time one-half of the field was weeded, the other half was covered in weeds. Manure needed to be spread, the fields needed to be cultivated, seeds sewn, transplanting, harvesting, processing, delivering, ordering, weeding, and weeding, and weeding. And the wages were good, but only because the land was payed for by the owners, who had off-farm jobs, but if we had had to pay a mortgage? Money down for the tractors and implements? The farm paid for itself and turned a profit, but we were at the mercy of the weather, and it was just two people supported economically by 10 acres of land.
Then, I was freed (or so I thought). I started thinking for myself and thinking critically. When I decided to start eating meat again I had already been farming vegetables for a solid three years. I had killed adorable bunny rabbits on my tiller. I had spread tons of chicken manure (from a CAFO farm) all over my fields. I had experienced the true realities of farming: the non-romanticized reality of what it takes to grow food for people—and it's not pretty.
Still, I had it good. I was able to save money (money that I used to start The Ark). I wasn't living like the pseudo slaves of Immakolee, Florida, who pick your Wendy's tomatoes and live in squalid conditions. The job was super tough, especially in spring, but life was good.
One day, on the farm, I was listening to an interview with Wendell Berry, and the interviewer asked assumingly: "Are you a vegetarian?"
Wendel replied, "No. In order to have a healthy farm, you have to have animals."
This was a shock to me, but it resonated. It was true! We had a healthy farm, and we didn't have animals... but wait, we did. They were hidden. They existed in some CAFO in Bell, Florida. We imported their shit for fertility.
Cover cropping and other forms of perserving fertility are great land conservation practices, but there's a major problem with every single farm: every farmer takes away nutrients from the land in the form of vegetables, flowers, nuts, seeds, and fruits, and sells it to someone who is going to eat it, and shit in a toilet miles away from the farm. That shit—the brown gold—will never make it back to the farm, but will instead end up... Where? I'm not really sure. The ocean?
Here is my point: fertility leaves the farm and never comes back, unless you are a homesteader who uses composting toilets and spreads your shit on your field, that fertility has left the farm forever. So, you must reintroduce fertility in some other way. Cover cropping cannot bring that fertility back, only fertilization—only inputs.
Farm animals may provide those inputs in a way that leaves out the CAFOs. However, the reality of lost fertility still stands, because the animal that eats the end product does not do number two on the field, but in a toilet. As a result, other inputs are necessary to feed animals, like grain, grass, hay, etc.
If fertilization is not done by animals, it is done by chemicals and oil. But here's the big question: if we fertilized with CAFO manure on our certified organic farm, but the CAFO chickens ate GMO grains grown using Monsanto corn, Monsanto chemical fertilizers, and herbicides, does that trophic layer provide justification for not using chemical fertilizers?
Are you following me? We, in a sense, by using chicken manure from a CAFO on our farm in Jonesville, were in a sense using GMO corn and chemical fertilizers, because that is what the chickens that fertilized our soil ate.
So, for a time, I was dissuaded from my vegetarian lifestyle and disillusioned with the complexity of our food problem. But, now, I am coming full circle to realize that although food politics is messy, I can still make choices that are good for my health, and good for the environment. Yeah, even organic vegetables can sometimes (and most likely) be tied to the same systems we are trying to avoid, but that isn't a good enough reason to keep eating meat 4-5 times a day. We have to consume food to survive, so making better choices, even though they are not themselves totally karma-free, is still a step in the right direction (i.e. a step away from total environmental collapse—seriously).
Food politics is messy. Farming is difficult. There is no black and white. I'm not going to go into the politics of why you should be cutting down your meat consumption or even make a case for becoming vegetarian. I just wanted to share my story. What I will tell you is this: you can reach your goals, whatever they may be, on a vegetarian diet. Below, I will outline some nutritional habits that will help you stay balanced and well fed, if you decide that cutting down your meat consumption is right for you as a person.
How to Eat Like a Super-Vegan:
Let's explore what a well-balanced, vegan diet looks like:
1. Half of your plate should be comprised of leafy-green, cruciferous vegetables, or vegetable fruits, like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. That's a given. Even with a diet heavy in meat, this is the only way to be healthy. Eat 1-2 balled-up fist-sized portions of veggies every meal. Vegetables provide fiber, micronutrients, satiety and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Eat your veggies!
2. A quarter of your plate should be filled with protein dense plant foods. OK, this is where things get tricky: morning star burgers need not apply, and quinoa is a starch. I'm talking about BEANS and LENTILS. Red, pinto, black, white, red, yellow, green, spotted, garbanzo, purple, blue. Eat all of the beans. Beans are your life-force. You are now, by default, a socialist-environmentalist-hippie. You are a human-bean.
If you do not own a pressure cooker. You are fucked. Really. You are literally dead-meat (pun intended) if you think canned beans are going to cut it. You might as well inject yourself with cancer-causing BPA's and testosterone blockers right now. But, don't fret, split peas and lentils cook fast—even faster if you soak them—so, you can start with those while you shop for a pressure cooker.
Other forms of vegetarian (vegan) protein include tempeh and tofu, with tempeh being the king of kings of vegetarian protein. Tempeh is predigested by a fungus, a type of mycelium, that makes the protein in the soybean, and other beans readily available to us human-beans. Tofu is okay on occasion, but you should look at tofu with skepticism. It may be hard to digest, and not top-shelf protein. You're better off eating a bowl of black beans and rice.
Here's the kicker: we are neanderthals that up to this point, can only think of protein as meat. As a vegetarian, we'll need to stop thinking of protein as one thing, like tofu and tempeh (that's why those choices will be easiest at the onset, because they fit into our meat-and-potatoes paradigm). We'll need to start thinking of protein as two things. As two things that compliment each other.
You see, in the communist-vegan world, as well as in the hippie-plant world, their exists no plant that contains all of the essential amino acids that your body needs, so you'll need to find foods that compliment each other. Like... drumroll please... rice and beans. Which brings me to number three.
3) An 8th of your plate should be a complimentary starch, like brown rice, sweet potato, quinoa, or some other starchy, slow-digesting, whole food (usually a type of whole-grain [insert collective paleo gasp]). This is going to be the food that completes the amino acid profile of your bean. If you are eating tempeh, you do not need to worry about this complimentary starch, as the mycelium in tempeh completes the amino acid profile (that's why tempeh may be a better choice for someone trying to lose weight, if keeping carbs down is part of your plan). If you are an athlete who is not worried about gaining weight, or has just worked out, you may increase the portion of your starchy compliment, as well as legume/tempeh intake
4) The final 8th of your plate should be filled with nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are not only an excellent source of healthy fats, but also an excellent source of protein. For those wanting to increase protein intake, without increasing carb intake, a higher portion of nuts and seeds in the diet can accomplish this. The down-side is nuts and seeds are high in calories, without providing the satiety that meat may provide. If you are not worried about your weight, go to town. As a rule of thumb (again, pun totally intended), you should have 1-2 thumb-sized portions of fat with every meal.
4) Include a small cup, perhaps a cupped handful or two of fruit every meal. This will help with overall caloric intake, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and keep the protein calories working to rebuild your muscles rather than being used as energy.
5) Follow hunger cues. Eat when you are hungry. Stop when full.
6) Supplement with B-12 and protein powders. Unfortunately, you need B-12 for proper nervous system function. You may morph into a ethereal hippie with no grounding in reality without it. A sublingual liquid is probably the best way to go, but there are pills, chewies, and even options to inject if needed. Other supplementation my be required, but is totally optional, like creatine, BCAAs, and plant-based protein powders.
7) Go out in the sun. Vitamin D. Get it. You're vegetarian. You'll need it now more than ever.
8) Eat variety. Expand your horizons. Eat all of the colors. All of the beans. And, a wide variety of healthy fat sources.
Here's a couple of example vegan meals:
Post workout meal for a vegan female:
1 cupped handful qunioa
1 cupped handful of legume of your choice
1 fist-sized portion of broccoli
1 thumb sized portion of walnuts
Anytime meal (didn't just work out) for a vegan female:
1 palm-sized portion of Tempeh
2 fist-sized portions of sautéed onions, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and fennel
1 thumb sized portion of an avocado (maybe a 1/4 of a haas)
Are you a vegan male? Double your portions from above. Also, keep in mind that you'll be eating 3-4 meals a day, or a meal as outlined above every 2-3 hours.
The caveat to all of this is that vegetarian diets, especially vegan diets, tend to be high in carbohydrates. If you are working out, that's fine. You need carbs to fuel training. If you are trying to lose weight, however, this may present a challenge. If you are a vegan trying to lose weight, stick to organic tempeh and tofu along with healthy fats and vegetables on off days, and higher carb meals, like beans and rice, on training days. Also, monitor your portions and take frequent measurements. If you are not losing body fat over the course of 2-4 weeks, decrease your portion size, but stick to the ratios outlined above. If you are trying to gain weight, and are not measuring growth, increase meal size, especially fats and carbs. Also, supplement with post-workout shakes.
If you think you are going to go from eating meat five meals a day to vegan over night, you're playing yourself. Start with one meal a day, then an entire day, then every other day, and so on. Buy a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, and a vegetarian cookbook. Follow the guidelines I have outlined above, and not only will you have a thriving vegan body, but you will be ensuring that your food choices are not contributing to the fuckery that is climate change and total environmental destruction.
Not convinced? I don't blame you. Still, you should try it.