5 years a vegetarian. What I learnt

Backstory:

I initially went vegetarian while on a motorbike trip through Vietnam. I was riding from North to South Vietnam on little 110cc Honda ‘Win’ with a Swedish friend of mine. Vietnam is one of the places where everything feels on the move, it feels connected. Every day the farmers come down into the cities wheeling big wagons.  These are over-flowing with any type of vegetable imaginable. Carrots, Celery, Cilantro, Radishes, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Onions, or even bread rolls piled head high in neat stacks like apples in a grocery market. Like-wise, once you are out of the city limits its quick to see the transition to the rural agrarian lifestyle. Tiered rice paddies, channelled water canals, bamboo thatched roofing. Buffalo, ducks and cranes in fields. On the rural roads you see trucks loaded with pigs in cages, that come squealing passed. Or see 20 chickens stuffed into 4 or 5 cages, neatly tied onto the back seat of a moped.

It sounds odd but this stark awakening of seeing animals in this way, is constructive to an individual. It’s a learning experience.  Seeing where the pig eats, hearing them on a truck, seeing them get moved around the streets and led off to some little shop where it will be slaughtered. All this exposure means you cannot look away. It is in my opinion it is actually MORE natural to see life in this way. You understand the food chain better. I would be willing to say a majority of children in Vietnam have seen chickens either being transported for sale or tied up on string ready to be killed. In the West this seems like such an insane notion, but really it’s not.

We shelter and hide ourselves from things we do not wish to be true or would rather ignore.

Having a connection between the farm, the village and the buyer, like in Vietnam; is a throwback to old times. Hiding away pig farms and cattle farms in the middle of nowhere is more a Western trait. We don’t like to hang out our dirty laundry within view, it seems.

Before I dive too much into being Vegetarian for 5 years, I thought I should quickly note. I have nothing personally against livestock farmers of any kind. Nor do I have any problems with people eating meat, I myself am no longer a strict vegetarian. It’s all about supply and demand. The farmers supply a product, we the people buy. Simple as that. Who can blame a farmer for trying to lower costs and rear live-stock on a grand scale? Every person I know is trying to run their business, their life, the finances more stream-lined. So to see a farmer do so, and then cry foul is a touch hypercritical to me.

So lets rewind. I’m in Vietnam, I’m on a motorbike, and I’m in the middle of nowhere. My buddy points into a butchers window and says “woah look at that man, I’ve heard stories but there it is! I think that’s a dog!” He’s pointing at an animal which has been skinned and is raw, strung up to be butchered into cuts. It was undoubtedly a dog, and yes in Vietnam dog is still eaten.

So this is where my journey into Vegetarianism begins. Sadly, it was not based off altruistic motives, but rather from a desire deep within me not to end up eating dog,  or getting food poisoning from ‘off’ meat in Vietnam. I eat a lot of street food and am well and truly a shoe-string backpacker. So, to avoid the chances that when I order “Pho with meat” at a small restaurant for $1 and there is no dog in it, I decide to cut out meat entirely.

This initial experiment lasted my whole trip for another 6 weeks. I then continued being vegetarian on through Cambodia and Thailand. Then on into the USA, Central America, New Zealand… before I knew it I had been a so called ‘vegetarian’ for 2 years. Many vegetarians will tell you that starting to eat vegetarian is very easy in Asia. The wide abundance of cheap, healthy food, rich flavour and fresh fruits makes transitioning away from meat easier. You almost, almost, don’t feel like you are missing out.

When you consider the cliché “western” meal it’s usually red-meat and traditional Asian cuisine does not have much red meat. Thus some Westerners feel that easting Asian food is already enough of a step away from their normal diet, so now cutting out the meat is easier.

What’s also interesting to note, is that in South East Asian countries there is also far less dairy in their diet. Milk comes in little plastic bags, yoghurt is much rarer, and cheese is not as prominent on foods as it is in the west. This is partly due to the fact that refrigeration and being able to keep milk products cold was largely un-available to large parts of the population. But this is rapidly changing.

A homestay on our motor-bike trip in Vietnam
Rice Paddies in Mai-Chau, Northern Vietnam

So what did I learn being vegetarian?

Ok lets get straight into the fitness side of things first:

Cardio:

So first up, my cardio improved. Yep no joke. My distance running became easier with the same routine. The heavy feeling I would get in my stomach after big meals was gone, and I felt lighter on my feet. (Its hard to explain) My breathing felt clearer as if my arteries and airways were more open. That’s just how it went. I would say in the course of a few months my cardio was up 15-20%, but this also could have been partially attributed to cleaner eating.

Strength:

My strength fell. Undeniably. For exercises like dead-lift, bench press, chest press my reps were the same but my over-all 1RPM was lower and my weight output was lower.  This is to be expected as I began to lose muscle mass going Vegetarian. I will note however though that as my overall body mass and weight (BMI) lowered, doing calisthenics became easier. My pullups for example improved, as did my push-ups reps.

Muscle fatigue and recovery time:

I felt less sore after workouts. When I was having a protein rich diet, after a workout I would be sure to try and get a source of protein or carbs or at the very least some calories. As I’m sure we all know, after a good day of training you can wake up a little sore the next morning. This feeling of overall sore-ness / stiffness greatly decreased. I still don’t know why but that’s how it was.

Sweat:

I sweat less when I went vegetarian. A lot less. My sweat also smelt different and smelt less bad. I was used to having a dripping fore-head or sweat bubbles on my nose or sweat patches on my back after long runs. After I went vegetarian this subsided noticeably. In recent times when I’ve had small portions of meat for a few days, I find that I am again sweating more.

Weight Loss:

Going vegetarian I lost weight. Seeing as I was already quite slim I lost predominantly muscle mass. I went from 76kg to 72kg and stabilised there. I am 176cm or 5’10 for reference.

Energy:

Sadly, I undoubtedly lost a bit of energy when I went vegetarian. I would find myself able to still work a full day, still productive and still efficient. But by the afternoon I would usually hit a slump. It’s important to know though I work very active jobs and live a very active lifestyle. So my afternoons and weekends are usually full of outdoor activities like running or hiking. So to me the drop in over-all energy was noticeable. This didn’t affect my lifestyle, what it did mean was that I became less talkative. Weird side effect but that’s how it went. When I was doing an activity and was a bit exhausted, I tended to just go a bit quiet and lethargic.

Mood:

This ones complicated, my mood actually decreased while I was vegetarian, and for this reason I went back to eating meat. When I was a few months in to being vegetarian I noticed I was more passive, and more things agitated me. You may piece this to timing in my life or how I was developing as an adult, but on the contrary I was in a happy place for most of my vegetarian chapter which was in New Zealand and abroad. I just noticed that over-all I was a little less “animated” as my usual self. Since going back to having a small portion of red meat and small portion of chicken or fish each week now, I notice my mood has improved.

What did I learn being Vegetarian?

Read Labels:

Reading labels is an essential to being vegetarian. If you’re going to walk the path of not eating meat, you need to know exactly what’s in the food your eating. Reading labels helped me identify other bad food ingredients to avoid. Over time reading labels became second nature. Now when I pick up a jar or can ill check “How much sodium is in it? How much sugar is in it? What are the main ingredients? What preservatives were used” This is a good habit to form, and I’m glad going vego gave me that awareness.  

Learn about nutritional information:

What vitamins and nutrients are found in a carrot? How about an apple? A banana? A potato? An egg? I started to pay far-more attention to what is actually inside food when I went vegetarian. For that I’m super grateful. Having to learn about B12, Iron, Calcium, Protein, Omega 3 and essential oils as part of my changed vegetarian diet made me more in-tune with what I was putting in my body. It made me by proxy have to research food items, and this in turn gave me a better understanding of vitamins and nutrients. So for me this was some good knowledge.

Learn about daily intake:

How much of ‘X’ do I need per day? For example, many people don’t know they are actually over-loading themselves with certain nutrients. The body can only absorb so much of a certain nutrient per day, the rest is either stored as fat or discarded. In this way, I began to see how much ‘over-eating’ I was doing previously. In another context, you simply don’t need to eat meat 3 times a day, 7 days a week in my opinion. Much of the nutrients in this meat will simply be discarded unless burnt off.

Research:

It would be somewhat odd to be vegetarian and not take an interest in the meat industry in some form. Being vegetarian propelled me to study-up on what was going on in the meat, live-stock and agricultural industry. Learning about how animals are raised and killed is important. Learning about how vegetables are grown, what pesticides are used and how they are stored, packaged and transported is important.

Asking questions and doing research was actually a really healthy practice for me.

Questions such as:

Where does my food come from?

Where was it grown?

How did it get here?

What pesticides were used?

What is a GMO?

What is food scarcity?

Why is meat production contributing to deforestation?

What are ocean ‘dead-zones’?

What is super-netting fishing?

What is factory farming?

What is mass production?

What is desertification?  

Why is ammonia traces found on some meat?

How much water was used to produce this food product….  You get the picture.

This lead to some interesting answers and actually broadened my knowledge on the world. Having an open mind also let me find information and perspectives I had never even considered before. For example, I listened to a podcast where the host was talking about the possibilities of the world going vegetarian or vegan. To get enough protein from plants to supplement the current protein intake from meat may lead to more deforestation. The podcast host also raised the idea of the “goat” metric. If you are someone living in a hot, dry dusty desert region where crops are extremely hard to grow, and the risk of crop failure and starvation is real. Would it be realistic to ask that you don’t eat meat? In some climates and regions people raise goats for this exact reason. A goat is able to eat the shrubs, graze and roam and is a source of milk, leather and meat. Without the goat or some live-stock these areas would be un-inhabitable for these people. To ask such people to go vegetarian would literally be removing their main food source.

This is why research was so interesting to me. Before I had encountered such concepts, I may have been inclined to think “sure, why doesn’t the whole world just go vegetarian?”. The answer is, it’s not that easy. Going vegetarian actually comes some-what from a place of privilege. The fact I can “pick and choose” what I want to eat is a luxury some others cannot afford.

Blue Zones:

One of the more interesting things I stumbled upon while being vegetarian was the topic of Blue-Zones. Blue Zones are places in the world where people have the highest average life expectancy. That is to say, in Blue Zones people live the longest. What similarities did people in blue zones share? Sense of community, active lifestyle, sense of purpose and diet. Most Blue-Zoner’s ate a vegetable rich diet, but also had small amounts of meats, predominantly in the form of sea-food. I found it interesting that in places where people lived the longest, meat was a very small percentage of their diet.

Compassion:

This came in many forms. I undoubtedly became more compassionate towards animals and their plight that we have created for them.

Imagine being a Tuna, which is so prized that we will hunt you down with sonar, with helicopters, with tracking devices. We will come after you with boats, with huge nets, in the dark of night or the light of day; all because we like the way you taste.

Imagine being a cow, which is inseminated with a rod, causing you to be pregnant. All so you can lactate and produce milk. Then when your baby is born we take it from you. Either dead from your womb or alive and separated from you.

Imagine being a chicken, pumped so full of growth hormones or bad food that your legs cannot support your own weight. You are in a tiny cage, stuffed in with another chicken in a dark warehouse with tens of thousands of others, peeing and pooing onto the floor. Scared. It’s all real stuff. It’s all happening. But learning about these processes was to me a very important lesson.  Animals are amazing, interesting creatures and they deserve the right to a good life too. Fundamentally it is against our nature as humans with a conscience to treat other living things willingly badly. If we have to eat meat, let’s do it as humanely as possible.

Non- judgement:

I don’t believe in judging others for what they eat. I don’t think a meat eater should judge a vegan, nor should a vegan judge a meat eater. We are all going through life with our own struggles, internal beliefs, agendas and destinations in mind. I think it is a waste of time to engage in shouting matches, and to draw arbitrary lines in the sand based off what someone ingests. I cannot and will not judge a person based on their diet. To me that’s not thoughtful at all, and I wouldn’t like if someone judged me off something such as my diet. Rather I like the idea of co-existence. Open conversation. Discussion. As a vegetarian ill still go to a BBQ where meats being eaten. It would be a sad reality if two people could not be friends or get along because of what they ate.

So what broke my 5 year chain?

I fell off the wagon, or the wheels fell off the wagon in Canada. I had been vegetarian up to this point for 5 years. I got a roughnecking job on a gold mining exploration in northern British Columbia up in the Tutugon Mountain ranges. This job was truly remote. I would work a 13 hour day out in the freezing cold on a small drilling shack up in the mountains. We had cross shift who would cover our shift at night, and we would work through the entire day.  The living accommodation here was like a camp. We slept in thick canvas tents with propane heaters. There was a camp cook who would prepare our meals for us. Breakfast lunch and dinner. There were roughly 30 people out at this remote mining operation, and the cook would prepare a large meal for everyone every night. For example Lasagne, Chicken fillets, Steaks and vegetables, etc. I was the only vegetarian at this camp, and to ask the chef to prepare an entirely different menu to suit my needs seemed un-thoughtful and absurd.

Truth-fully I think eating meat actually gave me the energy and sustenance I needed to do my job properly in the mines and fulfil my contract.  Working 13-hour days, heavy lifting in the freezing cold I was eating a lot of food and putting on no weight. My body was asking for as many nutrients and calories as I could get. So eating meat to me in this time felt necessary. I suspect if I had only eaten vegetarian for this time, I may not have been able to function as effectively. I finished my 39-day straight contract and went back to eating vegetarian. But now the walls had crumbled a little.

Since that experience in the mine, I went back to eating vegetarian for another full year.  But over time I re-introduced meat into my diet in miniscule portions. A tiny bit of red meat and white meat per week now, was what I stuck to. What interested me most of all was the necessity for B vitamins and Omega 3’s for brain function. I sort of wanted to feature a more “Blue-Zones” diet type which was balanced, minimalist, and very unprocessed.

What did I take away?

I took away that experimenting with your diet is fun and can lead to new insight and information. Its good to know what’s in the food you eat. Its good to learn about your own body and educate yourself on how your body works. Trial and error is part of life in my opinion. Try a new haircut. Try a new sport. Try a new hobby. Try learn an instrument. Try learn a language. Try vegetarian for a week, or a month. It keeps life interesting. You may just like it.

My view from the drilling shack in the Gold Mines

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