Growing up in a Serbian household pretty much guaranteed I couldn’t be a picky eater. Luckily for my parents, I had a good appetite and would eat a little bit of everything they put on my plate, with a few exceptions. The foods I disliked the most from as early as I can remember were – milk, eggs, spinach, and canned veggies. I could only drink very cold milk, and just the smell of cooked eggs made me nauseous. The experience that ruined eggs for me was when my grandmother tried feeding me an entire bowl of scrambled eggs with cheese, and the meal that ruined spinach was when my Serbian nanny forced me to eat a plate of boiled spinach that I ended up spitting out in the backyard! These two experiences were traumatic enough that I avoided eating these foods again until I was much older.
Family Heritage & Influences
If you’ve ever seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” there’s a scene where the main character’s American fiancé attends a house party to meet the family. At the party, he meets her Aunt Voula, and when Aunt Voula finds out that he’s a vegetarian, she is beyond flabbergasted! “What do you mean HE DON’T EAT NO MEAT?! That’s okay, that’s okay, I make lamb!” The room goes silent and you hear a bottle break as the entire family turns to look at them in disbelief. This scene (and movie for that matter) is a perfect example of my Serbian heritage and the sentiments we share regarding food. Meat is a staple in our culture, and any time we had cause to celebrate my family would roast a whole animal in the yard. This last part was not my favorite as a kid.
My first memory of a pig roast was around four or five years old when my parents roasted one for a religious holiday celebration at our house. I remember my dad bringing home a small pig and storing it in the refrigerator in a black plastic bag. I knew exactly what it was, and it made me cry. I cried because it was a dead animal and I loved animals, it was as simple as that. Needless to say, I was not a fan of eating it after seeing that. At the party, I walked into the kitchen to find my dad and his friend eating the brain of the pig. I ran away screaming as he laughed and tried to chase me for a kiss. My instinct was that it was gross and I wasn’t given an explanation as to why the whole animal was being eaten or that the organ meats were the most nutrient-dense part. I just knew it was not the usual food I was being fed on a daily basis and that it came from a whole animal that I had seen in the fridge the night before. You could say that all of these experiences really painted a negative picture of consuming meat and animal foods, yet I continued to eat an omnivorous diet that I enjoyed.
The first time I learned about veganism was in the 9th grade at my high school in Claremont, CA. There was an older student who was vegan that I had met through a friend, and all I can remember is that he would eat a very different lunch than the rest of us. I think it was a mixture of grains, beans, and tofu that looked like mush to me. He was average height and very skinny (what some might call scrawny), and he was known as a hippie kid. As the years went by I learned about organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that were supposedly doing work to save animals. As more information has come out over the years, it has been uncovered that they euthanize over 90% of animals in their shelters and use questionable, sometimes criminal, tactics to make a statement. I didn’t find out about this until many years later and was led to believe, like many others, that they had nothing but good intentions for animals.
Social media exposed me to a whole new world of people and organizations that were promoting a healthy plant-based lifestyle, involved in animal welfare activism, and living a life that seemed to align well with my beliefs. I found myself following influential figures, researching healthy diet and lifestyle information, watching videos of factory farming operations, and leaning more and more toward a plant-based lifestyle. Forks Over Knives was one of the biggest influences on me because it was convincing from a health and medical perspective, and “confirmed” a few things about why I didn’t enjoy certain foods (like milk) as a kid. It made sense that drinking cow’s milk wasn’t for humans, but for baby cows. It made sense that eggs were part of a chicken’s reproductive system and not necessary for human consumption because of the dangers of high cholesterol. It made sense that fat and certain meats didn’t taste good to me. I finally felt as though things were becoming clearer and I was forging MY OWN path toward eating a healthy and nutritious diet based on what my body preferred.
On top of all of this, there were the environmental factors. The more I learned about veganism and the atrocities of factory farming, the more environmentally conscious I became. I didn’t know much other than the fact that pollution was getting worse, the oceans were in bad shape, animals weren’t being treated well, and I could make a statement by choosing to buy veggies instead of meat as often as possible. I mean, who wouldn’t want to eat healthier food and do something good for the planet, right? Somehow, in my mind, I thought that eating veggies was the more responsible and moral option because that is what I was being told from every direction. Meat, especially red meat, is bad and all veggies are good. Tofu and veggie stir-fry was my go-to meal all throughout my college years and into my 20s. During that time, I suffered from skin and hormonal issues that I never considered might be due to my diet. I would eat this food and feel happy about making the choice to not eat meat, yet I would end up overeating and feel hungry shortly after. I continued to suffer with acne on my face and neck, and it got so bad at times that I didn’t even want to leave the house. Eventually when I met my husband, he introduced me to eating dairy-free and then gluten-free. As I learned more about elimination diets, I found my way to cutting out soy as well because I was desperate to get my hormones in balance.
Searching for the Healthiest Diet
My elimination diet eventually led me to trying out a plant-based diet in the Spring of 2013. I didn’t commit to veganism 100% at first. It was more of a slow transition mentally where I just chose to eat veggies for each meal one day, and then again the next day. I remember going to the local Thai restaurant in our neighborhood and ordering veggies with my meal because I didn’t trust the meat to be good enough quality, so it became a habit to just avoid meat because I thought it was the safer choice. During that time, I started to have a major shift in my mindset about meat eaters. One time, I was at our local coffee shop waiting for my hemp milk latte when I saw a mom ordering ham, egg & cheese breakfast sandwiches for her and her kid. In that moment all I could think was, “She has no idea where that meat came from or how unhealthy it is.” I became judgmental of others who weren’t eating the diet that I believed was superior. I felt like I was part of some club of people who knew what real healthy eating was about, and that everyone else was doing it wrong and suffering for it. It was a sick way of thinking and it was rooted in the vegan belief system that appeals to emotions and morals over logic and facts.
I was overloading myself with carbohydrates in the form of grains and veggies, eating plenty of non-GMO tofu that I thought was healthier because it was not genetically modified, and trying out all sorts of processed vegan and plant-based junk foods to tide me over until my next meal. I was hungry all the time. This was my first stint with veganism, and it quickly came to an end when I found myself walking by a BBQ food truck during my first trip to Austin, TX. I was in town for work attending SXSW walking down Red River street, and the smell of BBQ wafted past me killing the last bit of vegan willpower I had left. That was it, I was going to eat meat. During that trip, I had a steak at Lambert’s that tasted like heaven, and I was indulging in all of the iron and vitamin B-12 my body could get. See, when vegans say that people only eat meat for pleasure and that the taste is just based on enjoyment, they’re missing the point. The reason we crave certain foods and enjoy the taste is because of a long history of evolving our senses to identify which foods are nutrient dense and worth expending our energy and effort to eat. So, there’s actually something to kids not liking veggies and most humans enjoying the smell and taste of cooked meat. Even though I knew I was enjoying eating meat again and feeling better physically, I found myself overwhelmed by the guilt of eating unhealthy meat and wanting to get back on the plant-based diet bandwagon.
In Part Two of this blog post, I’ll talk about my second and final experience with a plant-based diet, and dive into how I came to prefer and believe that eating meat is better for my health and the planet. Stay tuned, and until next time…
Stay curious, friends!