Becoming Vegetarian

Colette GerstmannSeptember 13, 2018The Body in BalanceFeatures
Becoming Vegetarian

Artwork by Gracie Gralike

Years before I became vegetarian, I was interested in animal rights.

I read books about animal rights, convinced my mom to take me on a tour of my local ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and had a strong belief that people should not wear fur. Later on I insisted on only eating free-range meats and organic dairy and eggs. Then, after learning about the way pigs are cruelly treated in factory farms, I cut ham, bacon and other pig products out of my diet. When I was around eleven I brought up the idea of becoming vegetarian to my parents. They told me it was unhealthy for children to become vegetarian and were concerned about my getting enough protein and iron. It became an idea I brought up every once in a while, but my parents were not comfortable with totally cutting meat out of my diet.

One day when my mom made chicken for dinner, I downright refused to eat it. I said that I wanted to become a vegetarian and that it was unfair for my parents to dictate my diet. I told them I’d find recipes myself and help with cooking so that they wouldn’t have to make two different meals for dinner. But they weren’t worried about that—their concern was my health. They didn’t want me to develop anemia, which results in lack of energy and is harmful to health. They told me that they knew how I was feeling and they respected my beliefs but that my health came first. I ate my chicken in tears that night, feeling with every bite that I wasn’t doing the right thing.

My friends wanted to help with my predicament, so they told me I should find vegetarian recipes and research on vegetarian health, and put it all into a “Vegetarian Folder” to show my parents. I did just that, pleased to find an abundance of online information about living healthily as a vegetarian. I showed it to my parents, telling them daily about new articles I found and pointing out benefits for my health and for the earth, as well as stating that being vegetarian was a personal choice and a part of my beliefs. After asking my doctor about my becoming vegetarian and finding out that many kids my age had remained healthy as vegetarians, they told me I could stop eating meat as long as I continued to eat fish and ate plenty of other iron-rich foods. They did some research themselves, informing me that eating rice and beans together increased the protein intake in both foods, and that it was the same for washing down peanut products with milk. My dad had been a vegetarian for a few years as an adult, so he knew about some ways to make sure I was getting enough protein and iron. I was happy that my parents had accepted my choice of going vegetarian and I was grateful that they tried new vegetarian recipes to make and eat with me.

Sometimes, however, when I ate lunch at school, some people objected to the fact that I called myself a vegetarian while still eating fish. They said that I was not really a vegetarian.

I ate fish about once a week and only ate wild (not farm-raised) fish, except when it was unavailable. Sometimes, however, when I ate lunch at school, some people objected to the fact that I called myself a vegetarian while still eating fish. They said that I was not really a vegetarian. I argued that I was a vegetarian, that fish was not considered meat, that I needed fish to make sure I was getting enough nutrients. I was upset that they were bothering me about the foods I ate. I found it upsetting that they hadn’t even made the commitment to becoming vegetarian, but they thought they knew more about it than I did. However, I began to doubt my own judgment in the matter, thinking that they could be right. I became ashamed of eating fish and wondered whether cutting it out of my diet would be the right thing to do.

Eventually I started asking my parents to let me stop eating fish. They said no. They told me that I shouldn’t let people’s comments get to me. But I was actually beginning to think myself that maybe it wasn’t right to eat fish. I started eating fish less and less, and my parents became aware of my intentions. They explained that not eating fish could result in anemia. My mom informed me that when she was little and her Catholic family observed Lent, she was not allowed to eat meat but she could still eat fish, which was not considered meat. But I stubbornly continued to boycott fish. I ate lots of other iron- and protein-rich foods, such as tofu, raisins, milk, spinach, nuts, beans, cheese, yogurt, and quinoa. To this day I don’t eat meat or fish.

I became a vegetarian for one main reason: I thought it was wrong to eat animals. But becoming a vegetarian was—and still is—a learning experience for me, and the truth that I found out while researching the topic is that being a vegetarian has lots of other benefits. As long as enough nutrients are being absorbed, vegetarians are often very healthy and at a lower risk for illnesses such as heart disease. Also, vegetarianism is very good for the planet—raising an excess of animals for the meat industry results in extra carbon and methane emissions and farm animal overpopulation, and factory farms, where animals are inhumanely slaughtered, and which often dump dirt and waste into rivers and other bodies of water.

Being vegetarian, or even just reducing the amount of meat you eat to a few meat products a week, can have a big impact on your health and the earth. And maybe it’s just me, but eating vegetarian makes me feel good about myself; I feel like I’m doing something right, ethical, and humane. People might laugh or scoff, but I’m a vegetarian and I’m proud.

Colette Gerstmann is an 8th grader at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. She lives with her parents, sister and dog. She likes animals, art, reading, writing, playing the clarinet, singing, playing tennis, and dancing.