I’m flexitarian, that means that I prefer to eat vegetarian, but I don’t commit to it. I think there’s a good case to be made that eating meat is bad for the environment and animal welfare, but I don’t translate that into a behavioral rule, more of a guiding principle. Also I don’t really like meat that much.
I don’t really know enough about vegetarianism to argue about it, but my personal experience gives me familiarity with some of the pain points in vegetarianism–situations that make it particularly difficult to eat vegetarian. I imagine that committed vegetarians need to make major changes in their lives to get around these issues. But for someone like me with a very low level of commitment, it’s easier to just eat meat.
Lack of vegetarian restaurant options
When I first became flexitarian, I lived in Berkeley, California. Berkeley has lots of vegetarian restaurant options. I didn’t realize how good I had it until I moved to another city. Though I still live in a liberal area, it feels like there are barely any vegetarian options around.
Like most people, I have all sorts of constraints on what I eat at restaurants, and a preference for vegetarian food is just one more thing on top of all that. For example, I can’t go to distant restaurants, because I do not drive. There are some foods that I just don’t like, or I don’t like enough to eat them frequently. There are some foods that I don’t eat often because my husband doesn’t like the cuisine. I like variety and novelty in my food. And I don’t usually consider a salad to be a complete dinner. So when each restaurant has zero to two vegetarian options, it starts feel too restrictive.
I’m half White half Chinese-Filipino, which means I have an Asian American identity, alongside a fairly low understanding of what that even means. Yes, I have a PhD and I am perfectly capable of reading scholarship about what it means to be Asian American, but that’s really not the same as living it. And it raises the question, why I should even feel the need to go in search of an ethnic identity–shouldn’t it just be something that I have naturally?
And not to say that this is a great source of angst for me, but it’s a common undercurrent of the mixed-race experience that leaves many people grasping at straws to connect to their ethnic heritage. And the very easiest straw to grasp is food. Ethnic food is indeed something I “have naturally”, simply by growing up with it, and eating it on a regular basis. Is this what ethnic identity is?
I know most readers are white and may lack any sort of conscious ethnic identity. To these readers, I struggle to convey the meaning and significance of my attachment to Asian cuisines. And what may be even more difficult to understand is my attachment to Filipino food, despite never having tried most of it. Because of the sheer rarity of Filipino restaurants, I only know a handful of Filipino dishes that my mother would regularly cook, such as chicken adobo or paella.
Unfortunately, I do not know how to make chicken adobo without chicken. I have tried, there are recipes out there. Alas, I have not found anything satisfactory, and I have a life outside of experimenting endlessly with recipes. And perhaps that’s no different from someone struggling to find a replacement for hamburgers. But it is at least a little different because: a) in this context there’s a premium placed on “””authenticity”””, b) there’s a whole beef substitute industry catering to people who want vegetarian burgers, but not one for people who want vegetarian ethnic foods, and c) restaurants just won’t have the vegetarian versions.
For once in my life, I live near a Filipino restaurant. The first thing I learned from it, is that Filipino food is very not vegetarian.
I am given to understand that cooking tasty vegetarian food is not very hard. But what about cooking tasty vegetarian food, without having to make a whole hobby out of it? I at least cook, which puts me ahead of a lot of people, but adding new recipes to my repertoire is a lot of work. I can’t just find a new recipe online, I also have to test it, and mold it to fit my own cooking habits, tools, accessible ingredients, and taste.
I’ve said that I just don’t like meat that much, but sometimes I feel like what meat does is make the veggies cooked alongside it tastier. I’m not sure to what extent beef substitute works the same way, it sure feels like the meat substitutes are more interested in tasting good than they are in improving the taste of things they’re cooked with. I feel like what I really need is drippings substitute.
Perhaps the most obvious difficulty with eating vegetarian, is that I don’t eat by myself.
My husband eats meat and we take turns cooking. We end up in the middle, where I eat more meat than I would otherwise, and he eats less than he would otherwise. And the burden of cooking vegetarian is split between us; sometimes I cook meat, and sometimes he cooks vegetarian. I like that.
Much harder is negotiating this with the rest of my family. Their accommodation of my dietary preferences is very inconsistent. It’s so often an afterthought when choosing restaurants or communal dishes. And to be fair, I’m sure they would be more accommodating if I drew a hard line about it. But I don’t draw a hard line, so that’s where it stands.
I hope this doesn’t come across like I’m just complaining or venting. It’s more about understanding. If you would like to make vegetarianism easier, either to reduce consumption of meat, or just to better accommodate vegetarians or flexitarians, these are some of the common obstacles to overcome.
REBECCA WIESS says
I can relate to the difficulty eating out – we don’t eat much carbs. Restaurant food is full of carbs. Want a pizza but don’t eat the crust? Pick out lasagna morsels between the pasta layers? Dinner recipes tend to be ways to pack some other stuff around the carbs. Been eating this way for five years now. My recipe box languishes. I buy fresh fruits and vegetables, stare at the fridge when deciding what to cook tonight, and have learned all kinds of good ways to prepare simple food. You and I could go out to dinner if we could only find a vegetarian paleo restaurant.
Hi Siggy. My husband and I switched to ovo-lacto-vegetarian eating very gradually around 2008, and I have switched to pretty much animal-free eating more recently. (I don’t use the term vegan because I don’t make a point of eliminating all animal products from all aspects of my life.) My husband grew up in Argentina, which is very meat-centered, but has since lived in Israel (where I grew up and where we met) where there is more of a mix influenced by many cultures – Balkan, Middle-Eastern, East-European. We now live near Seattle, which is a very veg-friendly area.
When we made the choice to go vegetarian we deliberately decided to do it gradually by incorporating more veg-based dishes while gradually dropping types of meat. We increased the frequency of eating various pulses – there is always some kind of legume being soaked, in preparation for the next batch of cooking. We now have a pressure cooker, which simplifies the cooking and also helps with digestion issues. Another go-to for us were various crustless quiches that are very popular in Israel, so we were used to making them even in our omnivore days. I have found ways of making an animal-free equivalent, though our son dislikes them made this way, so I rarely make them while he is here (just boomeranged back from college).
We have found that several Asian cuisines are veg-friendly, especially if you are not 100% adherent, and thus don’t care if they use actual fish sauce vs the mushroom-based version, or whether or not the curry paste is animal-free. For restaurants we prefer Indian and Thai, as they offer a variety of vegetarian options. (In Seattle it is common to have vegetarian, maybe even vegan options in most restaurants because any large enough group of diners will likely have at least one vegetarian). I have no idea what Filipino cooking is like and how vegetables or pulses are used in it, or even if there are common dishes where the meat is used ground up or diced/cubed (which are easier to replace with tofu, seitan, or TVP). Stir-fries are very easy to make animal-free, and easy to vary. And tofu scramble is probably the easiest thing ever, and easy to vary by adding vegetables.
Yes, I agree about Asian cuisines, it’s not all disadvantages, there are advantages too. There’s a lot of vegetarian friendly stuff, and compared to many vegetarians I was lucky that I was already accustomed to eating tofu all the time. Indian cuisine is fantastic for veggie options, sadly my husband does not like the spiciness.
I don’t really know what a pulse is (aside from what I learned from quickly looking it up), and I’m a lot less accustomed to eating a lot of beans.
Siggy, if you want to try beans as a plant protein source, here are some things that help:
– Start gradually
– Soak them well before cooking; it works even better if you add some kombu (the seaweed) during soaking
– Pre-cook in a hot-pot or similar pressure cooker (modern ones cook pretty fast), then prepare whichever dish using the pre-cooked beans. Alternatively, start with canned beans and only switch to cooking them yourself once you decide it’s worth it for you. (Dry beans can be bought in huge amounts, are pretty cheap per unit of weight and last for years as long as they are kept dry.)
– Beans with smaller seeds are easier to soak, cook, and digest. Try lentils. They make delicious soups.
In the USA, a lot of fast-food and casual/chain restaurants are nothing but empty carbs. Carbs are cheap and keep well. For example, a really popular national-level Mexican-type place has a tortilla that’s 120 carbs. That’s 2 days’ worth of carbs right there. Add the rice and beans, and you’ve got a week’s worth of carbs. Add chips and guac and a soda or sweet tea (itself several days’ worth of carbs) and it’s a wonder they don’t offer insulin as an add-on to your meal.
There are also several noodle chains. Noodles are straight carbs. It doesn’t matter what you add to the noodles; at the base, it’s still noodles.
Then there’s good old Southern cooking; there are several national chains that specialize in that.
The local Indian places with a buffet offer several types of rice, naan, and protein. Nutritionally they’re just like the national Mexican chain. Currently “barbecue” is popular, but it’s not the real barbecue (spice-rubbed meat), but instead ladles-full of sugary sauce over meat, with potatoes (mashed or fries) and cornbread.
My family likes a local Thai place owned by two sisters. You can get your noodles and rice, but they also have bowls of curry or mixed veggies with your choice of meat. Their specialty is a sizzling platter of beef, onions, green pepper, red pepper, tomato with a wine reduction. Second favorite is a Pakistani place where one option is a bowl of meat and mixed veggies on a bed of greens.
Katydid, for most people carbs per se are not a problem, but refined carbs are more likely to be so. If protein is sufficient to one’s needs, the rest of the macronutrients can be split up at a very broad range of possibilities. Diets based on beans and whole grains as a major source of calories work fine for many people. I agree that white rice, rice noodles, white bread and similar are best limited unless one is *very* physically active.
@Anat; I described a vegetarian meal at a popular national chain, with 3 days’ worth of carbs (about 400) before add-ons like chips and drink. That’s too much for anyone. Beans and rice together are an unrealistic carb load for many people when used as a primary source of protein.
OTOH, 3 ounces of lean meat provides a meal’s worth of protein for about 4 grams of carbs, leaving room for a sensible vegetable and salad choice. Many restaurant and fast food meals can’t provide that mix.
We do agree that rice, noodles (egg, rice, or wheat) and bread are best limited…yet they’re major features of restaurant and fast food meals.
Katydid, no I do not agree with you that all rice and all bread should be limited. Whole grains can play a major role in a healthy diet, if one chooses (and doesn’t have specific health contraindications).
I don’t know how you come up with 400 (grams?) being 3 days worth of carbs – that really depends on where on the carb/fat ratio one chooses to be – and there is a very broad range to work with. Some people really need to limit carbs – actual diabetics, people with certain neurological conditions that are managed by ketosis – but for others it’s a preference.
See Kevin Bass’ provocative post Grains are more nutritious than meat for detailed analysis of a diet where whole wheat and lentils serve as the major source of protein.
Anat, you’re assuming people can eat these foods. From farrp.unl.edu/ :
Some of the most potent and prevalent allergenic foods belong to the legume family, including peanut. Proteins associated with legume allergy belong predominantly to the family of seed storage proteins (albumins, globulins, prolamins).
And of course, the dozens of studies about wheat, with conclusions including: A recent study indicated a worldwide prevalence of 0.5 – 9% of the population . In a recent study 0.4% of US adults reported an allergy to wheat diagnosed via a doctor . (dr.schear.com).
And this from the Mayo Clinic (bolding theirs): How many carbohydrates do you need? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45% to 65% of total daily calories. So if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day.
Additional info: I was vegetarian for about a decade, and I worked with a sports nutritionist at a hospital because I’m also a triathlete (in addition to a mom and a wife and a software developer). Long story short, the stress on my body from the carb-heavy vegetarian diet (everything is a carb–including the protein–or a fat and you don’t want to overdo the fats because that’s not good either), overtaxed my pancreas into giving up.
To circle back to the original post, when I was a vegetarian, it was very hard to cook for the family. I had children who didn’t tolerate wheat or legumes (including those lentils!). It was hard to go out, particularly at weddings or company functions where “vegetarian” meant “plain baked potato on a plate, maybe with pasta on the side”.
So, I’m a Paleo omnivore, and it works for me. I get a variety of foods and my body is well-nourished and healthy. And yet when I say things like that, there are always those couple of people who seem to be personally offended and want me to change what’s working to suit their notion of the perfect diet.
I’m flexitarian as well. I reserve some of my meat eating for the times when we eat out. I try to reduce our animal product consumption because it’s not sustainable, but I won’t work myself to death or beat me over the head as long as people fly to space for fun or mine Bitcoins.
Covid was a “blessing” in that way:
We reduced our grocery shopping to one a week, which meant less meat anyway, and being at home meant more time for cooking (and at the start I enjoyed it). So we’ve been eating less and less meat, and the less I eat, the less I want.
Seriously, fake meat has become so good, there’s hardly any difference left. Yes, vegan mince from IKEA (seriously, they have the best vegan mince) tastes different from animal based mince, but it tastes great.
Personally : Soy. While not deadly allergic to soy, I can’t eat much. A whole patty based on soy is just not possible.
Generally: The price. While I can afford it, it’s a travesty that a decent oat milk is about 4 times as expensive as the milk for which you need to raise an entire animal! Vegetarian wieners at Aldi are twice the amount that those made from pork are. And I’m not an asshole that says “well, we need to end factory farming to save the planet, and if poor people can’t afford nicely grass fed beef, they should eat lentils (lentils seem to be the “go to” for “food poor people are allowed to eat”)
Yeah, I’m generally of the opinion that fake meat tastes better than real meat (minus my point about drippings). I’ve also heard it observed that fake meat will probably get better over time, while meat will just stay the same. Not sure if it will get cheaper though.
It has absolutely become much better. 10 years ago I said that I would rather not have any “meat” than fake meat, because it tasted much like cardboard and had about the same consistency. Back then my bet was either vat grown meat or insects, but I think those things have become pretty obsolete.
Katydid, I am not personally offended by your diet, I am objecting to you making general pronouncements that go against medical knowledge and the experience of many cultures. There is a huge variety of eating patterns, and each works for a subset of people. There are people who thrive on the Dean Ornish diet, which can be up to 80% carb, or the Whole Food Plant Based diets promoted by Esselstyn and fellow travelers, there are people who thrive on ketogenic diets (even its vegan version) and all sorts of macronutrient ratios in between.
I looked up the thing about drippings, and it might be a more basic problem than I thought. We already have sesame seed oil lying around. I plead ignorance about basic cooking stuff.
Sorry, anat, just swung back by. I’m glad you’re not offended, but you’re arguing my point for me. Anytime the topic of high-carb diets comes up and I say they don’t work for me, you seem to work extra-hard to diet-splain to me how I’m wrong and I really should try (insert high-carb diet here)”.
Yeah, uh, I never even raised the issue of nutrition so I don’t know where all this unsolicited nutritional advice came from. In general I am extremely distrustful of nutritional advice, because I’m underweight, and a lot of advice appears to be geared towards people wanting to lose weight. That’s why I haven’t been saying anything about it.
Re Katydid #16:
Are we reading the same thread? Anat didn’t say anything about what diets you should try, but has instead been talking about varieties of diets around the world. You’re the one who has been making general pronouncements like
Bold mine. The quality of this discussion is so low, and I can’t stand it.