WHY PLANT-BASED DIETS ARE HARD — AND WHY THAT’S OKAY

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash.com

When I was in high school, I had a “vegetarian” phase. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day for lunch, my mom made special vegetarian substitutes for dinner, and I lived my life. I think that lasted for only three months, though. It broke when my dad made his amazing, patented buffalo chicken wraps and said that he “wouldn’t judge me one iota” if I had a wrap.

Skip over to college — and this time, I had a vegan phase. I watched the documentary “Earthlings” and freaked out. Again, though, I’m essentially eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chips. I wasn’t a big cooker.

I think during both of these stints, I had reservations from my own past about taking food out of my diet. When I was in first grade, I was diagnosed with a dairy allergy. By the time I was in seventh grade, the dairy allergy wore off. Still, for the better part of my childhood, I was the kid who couldn’t eat ice cream at ice cream socials, who had to scrape the cheese off of her pizza at sleepovers, and who would bring a water bottle to lunch because she couldn’t drink the milk. Fast forward a few years later, and once again I have to purposely avoid foods by being on a plant-based diet. I’m eating this instead of that because I wasn’t “allowed” to eat it.

I think a lot of people who try the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle end it for pretty much the same reasons that I do. They are faced daily with the “not supposed to’s” of eating. Think about it — for those who do not have any dietary restrictions have the freedoms to choose any meal they want on the menu. It doesn’t matter that they choose the same dish every time they go to their favorite restaurant. Their main frame of mind when choosing what to eat stemmed around what they wanted to eat and not what they couldn’t eat.

Upon reflection, the following is what I believe are attitudes and beliefs about starting a vegetarian or vegan diet that I think should be more directly addressed. By being aware of these factors, you can have a more successful transition to a plant-based diet without any pushback.

You Eat What You Know You Like

Think about it. When you were a kid, you always got chicken fingers when you went to a restaurant. Every morning, you eat a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast. For lunch, you like to go to the local sushi place near your work and get a California roll. At home, you always like to eat a bowl of pretzels when you watch TV. We’re creatures of habit.

When you make the transition to go plant-based, the difficulty is not simply about “giving up bacon” but changing your habits.

You can reframe this way of thinking by not approaching a diet change as a cold-turkey, no-turning-back kind of situation, but rather as a bit-by-bit, change-over-time situation. Introduce new things to love in your diet gradually. Replace the chicken for tofu in your lunch. Try a veggie burger at a restaurant. Go for “meatless Mondays”. It doesn’t have to be this monumental shift in your life.

If you try this, you’re no longer seeing the switch to vegetarianism as this diet where you “give up” things, but instead as a diet formed by the creation of a new palette of foods to enjoy.

Over time, while grocery shopping and thinking of things to make for dinner, beef and chicken stopped looking appetizing to me. Eating the black bean burger made my body feel better than a regular meat patty. They became foods that I naturally gravitated towards because they became my new habits.

We Naturally Love Meat

Our meat craving is something that has developed for millions of years. We depended more on foods like meat that required less energy for our bodies to digest so that the energy could instead fire up our rapidly growing brains. Meat is also rich in protein, iron, B-12, necessary amino acids, and other nutrients that are thought to have contributed to a massive development in the human brain.

That said, the need for meat is not nearly as strong as it was when we were cavemen hunting down our own food. At this point, we’re mainly eating meat because we have evolutionarily grown to like it.

Despite these factors, there’s a growing interest to study plant-based diets and understand how they can better help us. A vegetarian diet is included in the USDA nutritional guidelines and makes it more normative by recommending alternatives for vegetarians in its protein section. It states that a “healthy vegetarian dietary pattern can be achieved” with “beans, peas, and lentils; nuts and seeds; and whole grains” as adequate sources of protein. Plant-based diets have been around for years, and such alternative sources of meat and dairy are becoming more accessible at grocery stores and restaurants. You can usually find tofu, tempeh, and other plant-based protein in the chilled vegetable section in your grocery store, and find foods usually marked with a V in menus at restaurants.

It Can Be Expensive

A pound of meat can sometimes be in the $5.00-to-$10.00 range, but when I would buy it, it a pound of it could get a lot of mileage. I could make a meal that would last a week, easy, without much else. One of my cheapest long-lasting meals hands-down was barbecue chicken sandwiches, which involved me just putting a pound of chicken in a crock pot with a whole bottle of barbecue sauce and eventually serving it with hamburger buns after letting it cook for about 4 hours. That involves just three ingredients, and the meal would last me a few days.

Now that I’m vegetarian, finding a meal that is not just meatless but satisfying and long-lasting may require more ingredients. I’m not finding a lot of veggie meals that require just three ingredients like my chicken sandwich.

In addition, the ingredients I do find will cost more, or give me less mileage. A little package of tofu can be around $5.00 and doesn’t have as much girth as a pound of chicken. If you go vegan, dairy alternatives like almond milk can be nearly $3.00 for 32 oz when you can get 4 times that amount more cheaply by getting a gallon of milk for $2.00. At restaurants, impossible burgers will often be a few dollars more than regular burgers. Things add up, and on top of that, you’re still buying vegetables to add to your meal because that’s what you’re using to fill up your plate.

That all said, vegetarian options can be cheaper. For example, at Chipotle I tried their soy-based “sofrita” option instead of my former usual “barbacoa” go-to and saved a dollar every time I get a burrito there. When making a vegetarian chili, I’m using adding more beans and vegetables in place of meat — a couple 99-cent cans of beans is certainly a lot cheaper than a $7.00 pound of beef. In the end, it can become a give-and-take situation — while I’m spending more on tofu and impossible burgers, I’m saving more with bean cans and sofritas.

In the End, You Got This

Listen, change isn’t easy no matter what you do. Even if you have valid reasons for going plant-based — and there are a ton to consider, from being more ethical to being more environmental to eating less fatty foods — the reasons against can be equally valid. That said, take your time, don’t beat yourself up, and do your research.

I do have factors that contribute to why it’s easier for me now than it was when I was in high school — I live alone, thus I’m not being tempted by buffalo chicken wraps or adding more effort to people’s lives because I need an “alternative dinner”. I also don’t have a family to provide for, therefore I don’t need to cook a giant meal for 4 for one night. The reasons listed above are simple baselines for what one may want to overcome when going plant-based, but I understand that the situation can be a lot more nuanced than what I’ve written.

Whatever you do, do what’s best for you, and don’t be too intimidated by going plant-based. Going plant-based has over time become more rewarding for me. I feel healthier, eat plenty of delicious foods, and have a more well-rounded diet. With effort, research, and planning, you got this. Hopefully, you’ll be thankful too.

Allison is a writer based out of Minneapolis. She lives with her two cats and is loving life.