Caring, courage and a little knowledge

October is National Vegetarian Month so we thought this might be a good time to talk about how you, or perhaps a close friend or relative, could actually become a vegetarian (I’m using vegetarian in the broadest sense of the word, including total vegetarian or vegan). What does it take? Of course, it’s different for each person, but there are three ingredients which are common to almost everyone, and those are caring, courage and a little practical knowledge.

Many people tell us, it’s all very well for you, but I just don’t know how to get started. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to explain what we see as the essential ingredients to becoming vegetarian. Let’s start at the beginning.

First of all, you have to care deeply enough about one or more of what we call the legs of the vegetarian table, and those legs are health, animals, global hunger, the environment and whatever spirit practice you may have.

Many people care, and some are even worried, about their health. They learn about the many health benefits of a vegetarian diet: the reduction in the risk or severity of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, several kinds of cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and many more. The list of diseases that a vegetarian diet helps to prevent, or even treat, is long.  If people decide that they really want to live a longer and healthier life, once they know the facts about how their diet impacts their health, they are often prepared to change their eating habits to help achieve that goal.

Others care passionately about the animals. When they learn about the reality of the harsh conditions that animals endure on factory farms, how they are regarded as nothing more than objects to be manufactured into food, they decide that they want no part of it.  They don’t want their food choices to cause an animal any hardship, and they certainly don’t want them to wind up in a slaughterhouse, and so they decide to go vegetarian as a way of saving the animals.

Some people learn that it’s the world’s growing appetite for meat that is one of the largest driving forces behind most of the food shortages and the record levels of global hunger. This is because farm animals are really food factories in reverse, returning only a small percentage of the nutrients we feed them, to us in the form of meat. They don’t want their meat-centered meals to contribute to the worldwide crisis of starvation and malnutrition that’s occurring in many parts of the world, and so they decide to switch over to a vegetarian diet, thus leaving so much more food potentially available for others.

Others care about sustaining the environment and they learn about the latest studies documenting how raising livestock is either the main, or a leading cause, of almost every major kind of environmental damage. They learn that raising meat causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships in the world put together, and so they decide to follow a greener and more eco-friendly vegetarian diet.

And last, but by no means least, many people find that choosing a vegetarian diet enhances their spiritual life. They gain increased spiritual or religious fulfillment with having a clear and informed approach to making their food choices.

Once you know enough about the impact of a vegetarian diet, and you care enough about one or more of these factors, you then have to find the courage to make the change. It takes courage to leave the safe and familiar ground of the status quo, and to change the habits of a lifetime. It takes courage to decide to eat differently from the people around you.  It takes courage to raise the issue with family and friends, and explain why you want to change your diet, and it even takes courage to try new foods, new recipes, and new restaurants. Courage is the ingredient which many people don’t realize they need, but if you can identify the fears that are holding you back, a bit of courage makes a huge difference in changing your diet.

The third ingredient to successfully making the change is a bit of knowledge.  You need to learn about the basics of nutrition.  You need to learn about the new essential food groups – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and how you can get all the nutrients you need, including protein, from these food groups. You need to learn about different ingredients and products – how to cook with tofu, tempeh or quinoa for example as well as convenience products such as veggie burgers and veg-dogs.  You need to find new recipes to make at home, and new restaurants where you can eat out, or at least new menu options at your favorite restaurants, before you’ll feel comfortable to start eating as a vegetarian.

Here at Vegetarians of Washington, we try to help you in all of these areas.  We give you the information you need and the encouragement that’ll help you to give vegetarian food a try.  We act as helpers and supporters, because we know that people are looking for help and not a hard time when it comes to making changes.  Our books give you an introduction to all of the facts about the legs of the vegetarian table, how to shop for healthy vegetarian food, and how to deal with family issues. And our cooking classes give you the basics of cooking some new ingredients, which you may not be familiar with. Our dinners (when there is no pandemic) enable you to taste a wide variety of delicious vegetarian meals, so that you know you won’t feel deprived. Vegfest, our annual vegetarian food festival (now scheduled for May 14 and 15, 2022), gives you the opportunity to taste from hundreds of different kinds of foods, and learn so much more. And finally our newsletter helps remind you of why you decided to go vegetarian, and gives you support and advice as you change your diet and move on with your life.

So if you’re sitting on the fence, trying to decide whether to make some changes to your diet, decide which aspect or combination you care about the most – your health, the animals, the environment, feeding the hungry or spiritual enhancement.  Learn more about it.  Then pluck up your courage, grasp the opportunities we provide, get the information you need to get started, and jump right in.  Remember though that you don’t have to do it all at once.  Find a few delicious dishes to replace your old favorites, take it step by step, and before you know it, you’ll realize that you’re pretty much a vegetarian already.  We’re here to give you a helping hand at any time.

For those who have already become vegetarian, perhaps long ago, just think back to before you were a vegetarian, and remember how you felt.  Why not reach out to someone who expresses an interest and offer to give them a helping hand. Share your favorite recipes, invite them to one of our dinners, let them know that you too were once in their shoes, and that while you’ll respect their need to proceed at their own pace, you’ll be there for them if they have any questions or need any extra help. We think that you’ll find helping others a very gratifying experience.

As more people become vegetarian, it gets easier for all of us.  There are more and more healthy vegetarian products available in the stores, more and more restaurants offering tasty vegetarian options, and more family and friends who are open to the idea and willing to support you in your decision. And of course, you’ll be helping to improve your health, save the animals, help the hungry, heal the environment and nourish your spirit. We thank you all for caring, being willing to learn and having the courage to change your diet and to help others to do the same.