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How My Life Changed After I Became Vegetarian

My switch to a plant-based diet started out as one thing, but became something else (and something bigger) entirely.

When I decided to become vegetarian in early 2018, it wasn't for the reasons many people might normally assume. I had recently moved to Malaysia as an American expat, and I was often coming across new friends and colleagues who abstained from meat for religious reasons, but for me being vegetarian is more of a lifestyle choice than one based on my beliefs (or even my experiences of growing up in a family of multi-generation cattle farmers).

In the months before moving to Kuala Lumpur from Paris, I had made the conscious decision to begin living plastic-free as part of a zero waste lifestyle. Of course, this continues to have several major positive influences on my life at large, but one of the greatest takeaways so far has been opting for a more plant-based diet.

There were many factors for this switch, including the way it enables me to shop at farmers markets and bulk food stores that eliminate the need for plastic packaging, the fact that most household compost bins can't take animal scraps, and how the international livestock industry is a leading cause of deforestation and water wastage around the world; ultimately, I made the choice to lessen my environmental impact by saying no to meat.

It Started At Zero

Ever since I started my journey to living with less waste in 2017, I have constantly looked for new ways to limit my individual impact on the planet. From the beginning, I regularly shopped at bulk food stores with my own reusable containers and always refused plastic straws (and other single-use items), but none have been more effective than removing meat from my diet.

By the time I moved to Kuala Lumpur in January, I was ready to kick my daily meat-eating habits aside, replacing beef and chicken with leafy greens and seafood (a choice I made to help ease the transition). But the day I announced to my friends and family I would be pursuing a more plant-based diet, I learned there were far more reasons than I had originally realized. While answering their questions as best I could, I started listing down my personal motives for going vegetarian.

Without knowing it, my individual response to plastic packaging and composting had unearthed thoughts on the unethical, inhumane, and environmentally unsound practices of animal agriculture in America and around the world. (And the news that micro-plastics are being discovered across various levels of the food chain was yet another catalyst on this expanding list.)

In the months since, it's been challenging at times to stay motivated; that's why, when considering a lifestyle change as all-encompassing as this, it's important to have a list of personal reminders to keep moving forward, whether it's for health, the environment, or animal welfare. Trust me, it may have started with Zero, but it doesn't stop there.

The Limit Does Not Exist

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn when starting my vegetarian diet was that there were more options out there than just salad, green beans, and asparagus. Having grown up in small-town Alabama to a family occupationally obsessed with cows (and meat eating), the concept of vegetables being a standalone meal was hard for me to grasp at first; they had always been mere supporting side dishes to the more substantial slab of beef, chicken, or fish.

Now, having moved to Asia does provide a fair share of perks. Here in Malaysia, a vegetarian can have an entire buffet of options laid out in front of them—pick your favorites, along with rice, and it's good to go. But breaking loose from the notion of a meat-and-potato meal plan is challenging at first—and yet immensely rewarding.

The things I have learned since switching to the green side have ranged from exploring new ways of cooking and the importance of seasoning, to taking advantage of seasonal produce and going to the streets in the search of local markets. When I find myself bored and wanting something new, it's time to approach an ingredient differently; instead of missing that cut of rib-eye steak, I discovered I really enjoyed the taste and texture of roasted eggplant.

Allowing yourself to be creative with the foods you eat will be a game-changer: Replace your carnivorous longings with satisfying vegetarian options, and you'll see there are no limitations to what you can prepare. That's how I've managed to go on without missing my meaty past.

Being Vegetarian Is Not A Package Deal

Since transitioning to an ovo-vegetarian diet (one without meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products, but occasionally eggs), my life has changed tremendously. Not only have I developed lactose intolerance (which conveniently keeps me away from dairy), but it has also allowed me to compost more (further eliminating my food waste at home) and removed any need I once had for a trashcan (because, while meat products are often sold in some type of packaging, vegetables and other staples of my new diet can easily be bought package-free in my own reusable containers). It's also prompted me to redefine what being a "vegetarian" means to me.

What I have learned so far is that vegetarianism isn't a package deal. It's not a lifestyle that dictates a set equation on how one should live; instead, I've made it my own—and you can too. I transitioned slowly by first cutting out beef, chicken, and pork, before gradually removing seafood. (Anchovies and prawn paste are quite common in Malaysian food, so that continues to be a challenge at several restaurants.) But simply because you are vegetarian, or just want to be vegetarian for three days out of the week, that doesn't mean you have to be one overnight.

I think it's important to revert back to that list of motives I talked about earlier, discover why you want to pursue life with more veggies, and open yourself up to all the possibilities that enjoying a more ethical and sustainable (and yes, healthier) diet might bring. You may even find yourself wanting to become a vegan in the future, as I have.

The Benefits Of Being Vegetarian

While looking at my own list, I have discovered that so much about myself has changed, evolved, or improved; honestly, incorporating a vegetarian diet has had a truly "mind, body, and soul" effect on me, as cliché as that might sound. Since I made the decision to become vegetarian, I have noticed myself becoming more mindful of what I eat, where it comes from, and how my actions have a positive (or negative) impact on the world.

In addition to being more mindful, I have found that my body has reaped several rewards as well. Not only have I become more conscious of the effects the food I eat has on my body, but I have started losing weight without really trying, my skin has improved (partly thanks to the plant-based skincare routine I've personally blended for myself as well), and I've rarely gotten sick; all this while eating just as much as I did before without feeling nearly as gross or bloated.

More importantly, I've found that this lifestyle has brought me closer to the source, giving me a cause to care about and inspiring me to be more aware of the struggles our animal friends face in factory farms. If living a zero waste lifestyle has rekindled my sense of environmentalism and conservation, a plant-based diet has inspired a sense of compassion.

What will your reasons be?

Brent Taalur Ramsey
Brent Taalur Ramsey is a freelance sustainability writer. Read more about Brent Taalur