January is a time of year for resolutions, and self improvement often tops the list. For some, a change in diet is a must, but for those willing to convert to vegetarianism, it’s common to lose resolve as the year goes on.
University of Oregon student Zach Leherr decided to become a vegetarian at the start of his freshman year. According to the PEW Research Center, in June of 2016, 12 percent of Americans ages 18-29 identified as either vegetarian or vegan.
The process is not always easy.
“I started craving meat about a month in. I was thinking of meat constantly at that time, but I stayed strong and pulled through,” Leherr said.
Besides the meat cravings, new vegetarians often struggle to make necessary substitutions in their diet in order to stay healthy.
Changing your diet in this way means having to consider where your body will get protein, what you will be able to order at restaurants, how you will turn down meat at a dinner party and what to say when people inevitably ask about your reasoning. All of these issues can lead new vegetarians to a dietary relapse.
“It’s very easy to eat foods that don’t have what you need, so you have to make sure you are eating protein-rich and vitamin-rich foods,” said Leherr.
One Oregon resident took matters into his own hands when facing the challenges of vegetarianism. Seth Tibbott founded Tofurky, a producer of vegan and vegetarian products, in Forest Grove, Oregon, in 1980.
Today, Tofurky products grace the shelves of more than 15,000 stores around the world, including those in Costa Rica, Russia, El Salvador and Iceland.
Tibbott recalls how difficult it was for vegetarians to find protein supplements when he started the business.
“Back then you had to make everything yourself, from yogurt to veggie burgers,” he said. “It is so much easier now with the plethora of vegan and vegetarian products.”
One such option is tofu. Often given a bad rap for its squishy texture, tofu is made from soymilk, which comes from soybeans. It can be added to a stir-fry, a soup or even a breakfast burrito. It can also be baked, fried or marinated to add flavor. Another alternative for vegetarians is tempeh, which is also made from soybeans and packs a protein-filled punch.
Besides these soy alternatives, many people forget about the protein possibilities from nuts and beans, such as peanut butter, almond butter, pinto beans and black beans.
But Tibbott warns of other struggles beyond protein intake.
“Eating out and eating with non-veg friends and family are still common challenges,” he said.
According to veganbits.com, Eugene is one of the more veg-friendly small cities in the nation, making the often daunting experience of visiting a restaurant a little less worrisome.
It is always acceptable to mention a vegan or vegetarian restaurant as an option. Your friends and family members may have never tried tempeh or tofu before, thus your idea may be an exciting new option for them.
But if you end up at a meat-heavy restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask (politely) to make a substitution. You may have to get creative, but beef burgers can often be swapped for a veggie patty and sides of bacon or sausage can usually be replaced with toast or fruit.
For vegetarians, a restaurant like the Cornbread Café can be a beam of light after a very dark trail of fast food joints, steakhouses and hamburger huts.
Sheree Walters, owner of the cafe, which is a 100 percent vegan diner in the Whiteaker neighborhood, has helped to expand the niche of animal cruelty-free restaurants in Eugene.
“While our particular style of food isn’t very common right now, there are veg restaurants opening up daily around the country and worldwide,” Walters said.
Although navigating a restaurant can be a difficult experience for new vegetarians, dinner at a friend or family member’s house can be just as tricky.
In order to avoid an awkward moment, it is helpful to call the dinner host ahead of time to inform them of your eating habits. Bringing along a veggie patty or two never hurts either, but Walters warns that it is criticism from the group that can be the most difficult.
“I think ridicule from peers and family is one of the biggest struggles vegetarians and veg-curious folks face,” Walters said. “Even though the movement is growing rapidly, there is still a stigma to vegetarianism.”
For some, not going vegetarian isn’t an issue of stigma, but a question of possibility. UO senior Cecilia Hassel has considered becoming a vegetarian many times, but worries about the difficulties that go with it.
“I love salmon too much to give it up,” said Hassel. The vitamin and omega-3 benefits that salmon provides are often reasoning for people to continue eating the fish.
Despite her omnivorous diet, Hassel understands the need for more vegetarian options across the country. “The US isn’t really known for a healthy lifestyle,” said Hassel, “and especially not a vegetarian one, but I think it’s getting better and things will hopefully keep on that path as the generations are more aware of different lifestyles and environmental issues.”
Seth Tibbott feels that the sacrifices are worth the outcome of going vegetarian. “You will never regret whatever changes toward plant-based foods that you have made,” he said.
Sheree Walters feels similarly, but adds that the reason behind going vegetarian or vegan is incredibly important to remember. “First and foremost, it is not necessary to abuse animals and human beings in order for us to eat, enjoy food and be healthy,” she said.
While there are many reasons people make the switch, one of the most common is the humane aspect.
“There is not one good argument for torturing innocent, sentient beings, which is what is happening all around the globe,” Walters said.
Another reason is the environmental impact that raising animals for food has on the Earth. According to Tibbott, eliminating animals from our diets is “important to the survival of our planet which is struggling to produce such inefficient proteins from animals.”
Aside from the external positives, eating less meat has also been shown to improve health. Compared to those who eat meat on a regular basis, vegetarians are more likely to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index, according to Harvard Medical School’s Health Publication.
Heman Bhojwani, the owner of Earthly Gourmet, a vegan food distributor based in Portland, is excited to see more vegan and vegetarian options becoming available. For years, Earthly Gourmet was in a class of its own.
“We were the first all vegan and gluten-free foods distributor in the US focusing on both retail and foodservice,” Bhojwani said.
This growing community of vegans and vegetarians may be proof that your diet change resolution is possible to keep, despite the challenges.
Bhojwani has one piece of advice for those considering a vegan or vegetarian diet: “Be open-minded. Ultimately you’ll figure out what works for you, but you won’t ever know until you try.”