My Journey to a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet

By MaryCatherine Neal | @mchammuh

Until now, the longest stretch of time I went without eating meat was 40 days for Lent—the time in the Christian calendar that precedes Easter. My mother and I stopped eating it together when I was in seventh grade for the religious holiday so that she knew I was getting enough protein and energy from my food. Although at first I missed my father’s famous chicken salad, spicy chicken sandwiches, and turkey and cheese rolls, I came to enjoy salads, wraps, and new foods my mother and I whipped up.

Of course, after the 40 days were up, I gorged myself on a big, juicy steak that my dad grilled for me. It was delicious. For the next five years, my family continued to eat meat. Because of the history of heart disease in my family, we typically stayed away from red meat and ate chicken only three to four times a week.

It was during my senior year of high school that my mother decided she was going to become a vegetarian. That lasted a few weeks until she made the drastic switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Her doctor recommended avoiding dairy to see if it would help decrease her constant wheezing. When she discovered that taking cheese and milk out of her diet made her feel more energetic and less wheezy, she cut out dairy altogether.

At first, I was a little upset about this change. We already didn’t eat meat as much anymore, and now cheese—one of my all time favorite foods—was gone. I fought my mother on this diet change up until right before I went to college. I realized that eating meat made me feel sluggish and milk made my stomach churn after my mom made the switch to almond milk.

In college, I created a new version of myself: the vegetarian version. The switch was easier than I expected because the meat at the Emerson dining hall is not exactly the most appetizing, and the vegan and vegetarian options are always delicious. And when I go home for breaks, my mother always makes vegetarian and vegan options for all of us to choose from. The one obstacle I still run into is when I eat out. At restaurants where I used to order meat, I instantly crave those dishes, and occasionally I’ll cave.

However, I have plenty of motivation to keep me faithful to an animal-free diet. As an environmentalist, I understand the effects the meat and dairy industry have on the planet. According to a Guardian article by Juliet Majot and Devlin Kuyek, “Livestock production now contributes nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” surpassing transportation. I’m also aware of the inhumane treatment of animals by corporations such as McDonald’s and refuse to support genetically modified animals who suffer up until their death.

If you want to experiment with a vegetarian or whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, start small by doing Meatless Mondays or by only eating meat for one meal a day. You can also find a variety of delicious dairy-free options for milk, ice cream, and cheese in most grocery stores. Beans and green, leafy vegetables are a great way to get the protein, fiber, and vitamins your body needs to stay energized. I know firsthand that switching from 17 years of eating meat is a process, but I’m confident in my ability to succeed for my health and for our planet. I know that my healthiest, happiest life is a whole-food, plant-based life.