In some ways, it was inevitable: after a year living in San Francisco, I finally took the plunge and became a vegetarian. It wasn’t as drastic of a lifestyle change as I expected. At first, I was concerned that I would be unable to get sufficient protein for weight lifting and muscle gain, or that my options at restaurants would be severely limited. Instead, I found that after 6 months I was in the best shape of my life, my blood work was excellent, and I felt better than ever.
To be honest, I don’t have some overarching reason that compelled me to become a vegetarian. Nor am I a crusader trying to spread the gospel of a meatless lifestyle. Rather, I found the existing reasons, combined with the relative ease of a vegetarian lifestyle in San Francisco, to be compelling. Here are the key points that influenced my decisions:
- It is more sustainable (less environmental impact, especially when you choose from locally grown and seasonally available foods). Put simply, meat is a very inefficient way to nourish the human body. Not only does raising livestock take up lots of space and cost a lot to transport, but there are many surprising “hidden costs” – like the fact that flatulence of cows releases as much CO2 as cars!
- Animals feel pain. I’m no bleeding heart, but as an avid student of neuroscience I can’t deny this fact in light of new evidence.
- Anecdotally speaking, I find it very easy to overeat meat, and had been noticing for some time that I felt better when I cut down on my meat intake.
- I have friends and roommates who are vegetarians; again, it is not a difficult lifestyle to maintain in a city like San Francisco simply because most restaurants and grocery stores have adapted for it
As I said in the intro, one of the biggest fears of many males who consider vegetarianism is eating sufficient protein. Because protein is the key building block for muscle and it is much easier to get protein from meat, many bodybuilders recoil at vegetarianism. One easy solution to this problem is to be a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish). White fishes like tuna, tilapia, etc. are some of the leanest and most protein-rich meats on the planet.
Though I do occasionally eat fish when there are no good options at a restaurant, I’ve mainly kept within pure vegetarianism. When cooking for myself, I’ve even gone so far as to purchase only vegan foods (no dairy or eggs). To combat the “protein problem” I was glad to discover seitan, which is a little-known fake meat which can be just about as protein dense as fish or chicken (it is much more protein dense than tofu, tempeh, etc. though these are also good alternatives). Even better, it’s easy to make seitan at home, and costs only a fraction of the price of meat. By making it at home, you can spice it to your tastes and cook it in different was (baking vs. boiling, for example) so that the flavors do not get boring.
The main other ingredients I now cook with are black beans, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, kale, broccoli, sprouts, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, avocados, yams and occasionally some vegan cheese (staying away from bread, carbs and just about anything processed). Followers of Tim Ferris will notice that this is slow-carb compliant, as well as paleo compliant, aside from being rich in protein. There are a huge number of delicious dishes that can be cooked starting with these base ingredients; check out vegetarian/vegan cookbooks like Veganomicon or Meatless for ideas.
Results (Blood Work)
It’s one thing to say that I feel great and am in good shape, but what does that actually mean?
Some people have the impression that vegetarianism will cause them to loose weight. This depends on your previous lifestyle. If you’re coming from eating McDonalds every day, you’ll probably lose weight (like Bill Clinton did). Likewise, cutting out bread and sweets can have a positive impact. However, if you were already a relatively healthy eater and you continue to consume the same amount of calories per day while a vegetarian, you’ll probably maintain about the same weight.
But the question remains: will vegetarianism lead to health (setting aside weight-loss as a different topic)? For my purposes, the most impartial way I could think of to judge this was by having blood work done. Hopefully the screenshot to the right, from WellnessFX.com, speaks for itself. Compared to a non-vegetarian friend who lives a similar lifestyle (who also had his blood work done), my numbers appear “better” in every category. My white blood cell count is also low (not surprising, given that I have not recently been sick). My glucose was a bit high (91) and TSH a bit low (1.4), though my understanding is that these two statistics are more genetic than environmental.
Of course, even blood work cannot paint an entire picture. Furthermore, I live an active lifestyle, exercising ~6 times per week on top of walking ~1 hour per day. Combined with my anecdotal perception of how I feel as a vegetarian, though, I can confidently say that it has improved my overall lifestyle and that I will be sticking with it into the foreseeable future.