I strive to live a healthy, active lifestyle and eating a plant-based diet has helped me achieve and maintain my goal. Being a vegetarian is important to me, but it does not define me as a person. I feel that humans are better designed for meat-free digestion anyway, so I believe that I am more of a natural human and less of any other label. I support the school of thought that believes the word “vegetarian” comes not from “vegetable” but is derived from the Latin “vegetus”, suggesting that it was coined to describe how “vigorous” and healthy a meat-free person feels. While I initially became a vegetarian for environmental reasons, I persisted because I felt great, I felt vigorous.
My dietary changes were not so much revolutionary as they were evolutionary. Like most people, I grew up eating whatever was put in front of me at the dinner table. Although my Mom was a wonderful and relatively healthy cook, like most American families, meat always had the lead role only to be supported by a cast of potatoes and vegetables. My active childhood and fidgety nature allowed me to eat as much as possible and still see my ribs. By the time college came, I wanted to build some muscle in an attempt to look more manly. As so many books and magazines suggested, I bought a huge container of whey protein powder and started eating more eggs and lean meats. At the time, this seemed like the best way – or only way – to achieve my goal. Although, my perception of a healthy diet is very different today, this opened up the door to my in depth research of nutrition over the past ten years.
Upon graduating I took a desk job that was very sedentary save the trips to the bathroom after downing numerous mugs of coffee each morning. I packed a Men's Health Abs Diet-style lunch, but often ended up eating everything in my bag before 11am out of boredom. Even, so I would normally go out to a restaurant with co-workers around 1pm to break up the workday. Luckily, I was running enough 5K and 10K races to prevent any noticeable weight gain. Eventually, I entered my first 100 mile bike race and began indoor rock climbing three times each week. Becoming so active caused me to start researching sports nutrition and promoted me to start eating more nuts, beans, soy products, fruits and vegetables. I began cooking more and without even realizing it, I would sometimes go three or four days without eating any meat products.
I felt good. I was running races, setting new personal records, and more importantly, I was more awake at the end of a long work day. My sometimes meatless diet continued for another six months until I moved from Pennsylvania to Denver. My good friend and training partner, Lukas, had just started dating a vegetarian and we were talking about the presumed benefits of making a change in our own lives. After a short discussion about the environmental impact of meat, we decided that we were up for the challenge. I remember saying, “Ok, starting tomorrow we are vegetarians.” We shook on it and I went to the library and checked out several vegetarian cookbooks.
We were up for the challenge, but as it turned out, it was hardly a challenge at all. I find cooking to be extremely relaxing and I was excited to learn so many new recipes. My horizon of cooking potential was broadened exponentially. I continued to work out, run, and bike just like I had before. The only difference was that I felt lighter and I noticed an increased rate of recovery after endurance training. I don't know if it was the fact that my body didn't have to work as hard to digest my food that it could focus more on rebuilding my muscles or if was the fact that I was consuming more fruits and vegetables and thus taking in more nutrients. I didn't really care why, I was just thrilled to feel so good. After a week I was sold. After two weeks I was five pounds lighter and felt faster than ever in my running shoes. My diet has continued to evolve. I have since cut out eggs, milk, and cheese. Although, I am not 100% vegan, I am getting pretty darn close.
There are some vegetarians and vegans that are so passionate about their meat-free lifestyle that the topic is often the first and sometimes only thing you will ever hear them talk about. They constantly debate and try to convert new followers every day. I am not one of those people. What I have found is that those that try too hard to push their lifestyle are often met with stubborn disregard. People don't like to be judged and many will stand up for their right to eat meat just as much as a vegan will stand up for animal rights.
Don't get me wrong, I am passionate about my choice and I intend to eat a plant-based diet for the rest of my life. Still, you won't find me yelling at another man about the cruel nature of slaughter houses as he is opening his mouth to take a bite of his beloved cheeseburger. I prefer to lead by example and save the lectures for those that express interest. It sounds passive, but I am happy to report that I used this technique to help many people move toward a healthier, more earth-friendly lifestyle.
I have had many visitors stay with me in Denver. In addition to site-seeing my guests unknowingly enrolled in my unofficial Colorado boot camp. It includes hiking, camping, biking, walking my dog, rock climbing, and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. In addition, they have to eat what I cook. Some guests are nervous to try tofu or seiten for the first time, but they are almost always pleasantly surprised. They leave my house tired from the activities yet refreshed by the mountain views and fresh food.
Then I just wait. After every visit, without a doubt, I receive a call or email within two weeks telling me that they:
• Made tofu stir fry for the first time and it was great.
• Went to Whole Foods and bought seiten and tempeh
• Started walking four times a week since their return
• Took their bike out of the garage for the first time in two years
• Decided to no longer eat beef and pork
• Only ate meat once since leaving Denver
Hey, it's a start. I plant the seeds and hope that they remember to water them. When they begin seeing and feeling the positive effects it causes them to continue to seek a healthier lifestyle.
My upcoming posts with share my personal experiences of being an active vegetarian as well as the thoughts that inspire me from reading books and watching documentaries on the subject. The more I learn about plant-based diets, the more convinced I become that it is the only way to live, and the more driven I become to influence others to understand the health benefits of making the change.
Matt Tucker is the Co-Founder of ProLong Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to promoting a healthy and worthwhile lifestyle through passionate living. He is a firm believer that the best health insurance a person can have is a healthy diet and consistent fitness program. Matt is an active vegetarian living in Denver, CO where he bikes, runs, and skis as much as possible.