This is the second post in a series about our journeys transitioning from vegetarianism to a paleo diet. Read Katie’s story here.
One of the most rewarding decisions of my life — transitioning from vegetarianism to a paleo diet — has also been an incredibly challenging and eye opening experience. For nearly ten years I followed a strict vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) diet, eating no meat or fish, and focusing instead on produce, grains, dairy, and soy-based products. It started at age 12 when I realized I didn’t care too much for the taste of meat and as I researched further, really did not like the way it got from “farm to table.” so to speak. At first, family and friends resisted the change. But as the months and years went by, it became clear that I had no intention of changing my mind anytime soon. (As Katie shared, she eventually joined in as well — thus us becoming the “veggie burger-eating” kiddos in the family.)
While I dined happily on cheerios for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and some combo of potatoes, veggies, and Morning Star meat substitutes for dinner, my body slowly started showing signs of resistance. By age 17, I suffered from chronic stomach pain, often causing me to miss work, school, and social activities. Heading into college a couple of years later, my health issues continued to worsen and cause anxiety and all sorts of other not so fun side effects. The direct correlation between food and overall health, mental clarity, and energy didn’t become a top of mind topic until my early twenties.
In 2012, I began training for the American Cancer Society Pan Ohio Hope Ride, a 328-mile bike ride across the state of Ohio (from Cleveland to Cincinnati). My dad and I trained vigorously for the ride, often recording 3-4 bike rides per week (on top of a full-time job and a regular workout schedule). Constantly hungry and craving all sorts of foods, I tried every tweak and change to my standard vegetarian diet that I could think of or get my hands on and yet, nothing worked. To make matters worse, my health issues continued to surface and my energy levels plummeted, causing me to question if I’d even be in good enough shape to complete the event in July.
Around June of that year, my boyfriend introduced me to the paleo diet. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday — mostly because I thought it was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard. “So you’re telling me that I’m supposed to train for and complete this ride without carbs?!” Literally the words out of my mouth. I could not grasp the concept of removing what I thought were key elements of an athlete’s diet (pasta, whole wheat, Gatorade, etc) just weeks ahead of the bike ride. And, taking this leap meant I’d have to swallow my pride — literally — and start eating meat again.
With further education (but mostly, the persistence of my amazingly patient boyfriend), I eventually came around to the idea. Within a week, I felt a physical change in my body — my energy levels boosted, sleep schedule started to normalize, and my joint pain (even with all of the training) subsided. In July 2012, I successfully completed the bike ride on a mostly paleo (100% gluten free) diet, which was one of the proudest moments of my life. It taught me that mental barriers are really just that, and when you put your mind to anything it can be achieved. And now today, I can happily say I am a “recovering vegetarian.” The lifestyle suited me for a while but ultimately, did not promote my healthiest self.
For anyone considering transitioning from vegetarianism to a paleo (or any type of meat-eating) diet, check out the following tips.
- Slowly reintroduce meat. I can picture my first meal post-vegetarian: a simple spinach salad with grilled chicken. I intentionally didn’t want anything fancy and certainly could not stomach red meat after more than a decade without it. Subsequent meals included lots of salads with various types of protein, until eventually I worked my way up to eating a steak and all the bacon. And yes, I’ve never looked back.
- Set goals. For myself, the end goal of crossing the finish line of the 328-mile bike ride kept me on track with my new lifestyle. I knew that without meat, I would not have the energy to complete the ride. Consider setting a goal to keep things fun and slightly competitive — just enough to keep you motivated to stay on track.
- Share the experience. Include your loved ones in your new food adventures. Ask for support of your close friends and family and if met with criticism, stay true to yourself! While the support of others will inspire you to keep going, don’t let any nay-sayers bring you down.
- Have fun! Most importantly, find the joy in learning how to cook new recipes, try new foods while eating out, and embarking on a new adventure. While it took a long time (and is still in process), I love cooking all types of steaks, burgers, and more — something I never thought I would enjoy in my days as a vegetarian. My boyfriend and I had many nights of “dining firsts” with chicken wings, steak salad, making bacon, and more. It was a blast to share that with someone and have the fun memories to look back on.