How to Be a Better Vegetarian, According to a Bad Vegetarian

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by Will Sutton

When I arrived at school last year, I figured that the new setting-- and the control it gave me over my dietary choices-- was a great opportunity to commit to vegetarianism. It proved to be harder than I expected. I still eat meat much, much more than I’d like to, so keep in mind that this advice is as much for myself as it is for you.

But I think my relatively poor job of going vegetarian has stopped me from adopting a superiority complex when discussing the diet. I know firsthand it isn’t easy, and I know how annoying it is to have successful vegetarians preach at you about why you should adopt the diet. So hopefully I can avoid that today.

 This article is intended to help struggling vegetarians, but also to give the skeptics some ideas to chew on. So whether or not you are trying right now, and even if you think it’s ridiculous hippie mumbo-jumbo, I ask that you read on. My advice itself is simple:

Be a vegetarian for yourself.

The conventional case for vegetarianism would emphasize the environmental, nutritional, financial and, perhaps least convincing for dubious audiences, humanitarian reasons for adopting the diet. These are the benefits of the diet. They are what I hope to gain by being vegetarian, and I hope that by successfully dropping meat, you, too, will enjoy these benefits.

But the problem with these benefits is that, financial improvements excluded, you rarely receive meaningful confirmation of them. If foregoing meat is helping you avoid heart disease, you don’t receive a trophy that says “I Avoided Heart Disease,” you just… don’t get heart disease. Cutting personal intake of meat is a tiny decrease in carbon emissions-- the ocean is going to rise whether you individually eat chicken wings or not. And when you opt for a salad over a burger, the restaurant doesn’t wheel out an adorable cow to moo a “thank-you” for saving his or her life.

This is why I call these benefits of vegetarianism, distinguishing them from reasons for ditching meat. If you adopt the diet for those largely intangible reasons, you will probably have a rough go. It will be all work, no (obvious) reward. You may say you sleep better at night, but we both know you’ll be dreaming of hamburgers.

If you want to be a vegetarian, you have to internalize your “why.” You must transform the benefits into personal reasons. I do this by connecting my reasons for vegetarianism to specific values, memories, and feelings. When I forego meat, I think not about the distant, abstract pay-off of doing so but rather the immediate reasons why vegetarianism is more compatible with what I hold dear.

This probably sounds like hippie mumbo-jumbo, so let’s look at some examples. I personally am vegetarian for environmental and nutritional purposes, so this is how I relate those benefits to my reasons.

Environmental: When I think about being vegetarian, I think about the forest outside my door where I love to run. I think about the mountains my family used to hike through, and the beach where we spend summer days. Vegetarianism now evokes the memories of those places, and the peace of nature, rather than triggering a rather abstract fear of climate change that is all too easy to overlook when you smell filet mignon.

Nutritional: When I think about being vegetarian, I remind myself of how it feels to stretch the morning after a long run; the strain, the lightness afterwards. To me, it’s the most perceptible bodily feeling of health. And by connecting vegetarianism to that feeling instead of to heart disease (which I am fortunate enough to have never experienced), I create a positive reason to persevere.

These examples reveal that by internalizing the often abstract benefits of vegetarianism, we transform the diet from a negative one (don’t eat meat because of impending climate change and the threat of heart disease) to a positive one (do be a vegetarian because of the diet’s benefits to nature and satisfaction of bodily health). And working towards the goal of a vegetarian diet, rather than working against the temptation of meat, makes vegetarianism a whole lot easier. You’re not being a vegetarian for far-off benefits. You’re being a vegetarian for yourself.

If you’re a striving vegetarian, I hope this article was helpful-- keep at it, my friend. And if you are a skeptic, and you see a veggie burger on the menu-- I hope you think about what reasons you personally have to order one.

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