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Growing up, nutrition was not an elemental part of my life. I was an athlete, going from school to travel soccer practice to AAU basketball practice every night since elementary school, and I consumed what I wanted indiscriminately. Not to say that my parents raised us on fast food, but we definitely hit up the usual chains between extracurricular activities. Also, the adolescent palette seems to favor chicken tenders and spaghetti over just about anything.
When I went to college to play soccer, we were cautioned against any sort of calorie restriction; we would be expending enormous amounts of energy in our strength training, endurance, and technical practice sessions. Having a hefty dining hall dollar balance on a prepaid university ID card, I more than happily indulged in late night meals of mozzarella sticks, nachos, full-fat ice cookie dough ice cream, and sometimes double lunches when I couldn’t decide between the sub station’s buffalo chicken wrap and the griller’s quesadillas.
After I left the soccer team at the end of my freshman year, I took a long hard look at the state of my health. I realized that my activity levels were not going to be the same, and I needed to make some dietary adjustments. I had gained a lot of weight my freshman year, and I felt lethargic and self-conscious. My first attempt at weight loss was through Atkins: a high protein, extremely low carbohydrate program. This worked for the first couple of months, but then my weight loss plateaued—which is due to the fact that I mostly lost just water weight.
So in the summer of 2009, a year after quitting soccer, a couple of events happened concurrently that led me to the healthy lifestyle that I still practice today. Firstly, my younger sister started seeing a nutritionist because her cholesterol and triglycerides were very high; it was recommended that she limit her intake of animal protein. Before this, I had not even considered meat to be “animal protein.” It was just this thing we ate that was really yummy, and the vegetables were just superfluous supporting characters. The concept that I was consuming something that was dead really struck a nerve in me.
At the same time, I read an article in a fitness magazine that compared high protein versus high fruit and vegetable diets. Surprising to me at the time, diets high in produce were more effective for weight loss. This seems like common sense, but as a previous Atkins practitioner and believer, all I cared about was negligible carbohydrate consumption. The article went on to explain that, volumetrically, 200 calories of broccoli goes a lot further than 200 calories of meat, cheese, etc.; eating that much of a high fiber vegetable would fill you up before a slice or two of the latter.
With this knowledge, I slowly weaned myself off most animal products until finally, I could no longer stand on both sides of the aisle. I can still remember my last meal with animal protein, which sealed the deal for me. I was having lunch with my dad at a popular chain restaurant, and I ordered a petite filet mignon with a side of steamed vegetables. Since I’d already been weaning myself off meat, my body was beginning to adjust to the digestive relief of a plant-based diet—being that it’s very acidic and takes a ton of energy to break down animals in the body. After this meal, I got extremely sick and decided that was the last straw. That was July 2009, and I haven’t looked back since.
After fully committing to the lifestyle, not only did the weight fall off quickly, but I also started to see a major shift in my energy levels and overall wellness. I have not been sick in years! I attribute this to the massive consumption of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It also helps that I am no longer consuming animals that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics of their own; when we consume their vaccinated flesh, it makes our antibiotics less effective.
Along that vein, my shift to veganism enlightened me to the world of animal cruelty. Animal agriculture is a moneymaking enterprise like any other business, so they take shortcuts to maximize profits. This means slaughters are mechanized and faulty; the feedlots for cows and the cages for pigs and chickens are tiny. These animals can barely move around, grow too big for their bodies from hormone injections to accelerate growth during a shorter life cycle, and become very ill. Some animals lose limbs or get infections and can still pass food inspection. Moreover, it is not in the interest of regulators to crack down on these shoddy operations because they have likely worked as lobbyists for these industries such as pork or poultry producers; it’s the crony capitalism of the food world.
Even after educating oneself about the animal slaughterhouse system, one might wonder if vegetarianism is the answer. But in the sphere of animal advocates, I think some people view vegetarianism as the agnostics of the ethical eating spectrum because they abstain from animal flesh but still consume the animal byproducts: eggs, milk, butter, honey. Contrary to what many believe, these industries are equally if not more cruel.
Dairy cows are artificially inseminated their whole lives so that they become pregnant, give birth to a calf, and produce milk---the milk that was meant for the calf only to be consumed by a different species which should’ve stopped drinking milk after they were babies. The calf is taken away from its mother and raised to become veal; the tired, callous-nippled mother will eventually become ground beef.
The egg industry has its own horrors. From the get-go, male chicks have no use in the egg industry for the obvious reason that it cannot produce eggs, so they are ground up alive in meat grinders or disposed of in garbage bins where they are piled on top of each other in the thousands. The females who make it through are debeaked and declawed without anesthesia—which is extremely painful. The industry does this to prevent them from injuring themselves or the other chickens who they are crowded around. I invite anyone interested in more specifics and video documentation to watch Earthlings, a documentary narrated by Joaquin Phoenix that explores all areas in which we use animals including food, fur, leather, and domestication.
In retrospect, I truly wish that I had been presented with this information during my youth. I feel a bit duped that I had not known these atrocities were being committed and that I was complicit in letting it happen. Also, I feel that I was robbed of a more holistic culinary experience; I have been introduced to so many wonderful ingredients and international cuisines through this reeducation. If I had been healthier growing up, I believe that I would have been a much better athlete, student, and human in general. Taking care of myself made me a less stressed, bubbly, and lighter of spirit individual.
Everyone has or her own food journey. If you had asked me even ten years ago if I’d ever be vegan, I would have laughed. It takes education, experimentation, and one’s own willingness; change cannot be forced upon anyone as it will inevitably cause further resistance. I can only express how much my life has improved - beyond the weight loss and physical difference - and hope that those seeking something more will explore the world of veganism.