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It’s been a long time since I last ate a hamburger. The count is nine years, in fact. Since I gave up meat when I was a young teenager, I’ve come a long way in understanding vegetarian nutrition and cooking balanced meals for myself. Learning about and living a vegetarian lifestyle has been one of my passions for about 10 years now. Here are five lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Companies have come a long way in making vegan alternative food products

It’s a glorious time to be vegan. Gone are the days where finding tofu was difficult. Soy milk is no longer hard to come by. Instead, we can count our non-dairy milk choices at the store on two hands! Tofu is only one of three standard, easy-to-cook soy products (hey there, tempeh and seitan). I am amazed at the large selection of snack products in the grocery store that are vegan and made with ingredients like whole wheat flour, real sugar cane, and real fruit. Of course, I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t rely too much on these products, but they’re awesome modern conveniences to have.

2. It’s important to pay attention to our impact on the planet

By deciding to become vegetarian, I took a pledge to pay more attention to what I ate. Instead of going to a restaurant and choosing whatever sounds good off the menu, I take ten minutes to look up their ingredients online before going out.  I check the nutrition facts and/or ingredients of what I eat before I eat it. Doing these things has gotten me in the habit of being a conscious citizen that has permeated into other aspects of my life. For example, where I live I have a recycling bin and trash bin. I’ve spotted a can in the trash, picked it out, and placed it in the recycling bin. I can’t just leave a can, something seemingly meaningless, in the trash when I know how many things can be made from recycled aluminum. Going vegetarian has made me more aware of how my other actions affect the entire planet.

3. You won’t have to buy Tums or Pepto-Bismol again

I feel so healthy and relaxed knowing that what I’m eating isn’t going to come back to haunt me the next day. I hardly have stomach aches and I haven’t taken products like Tums in years. Without processed and packaged meat products going through my system, I don’t suffer from having too much saturated fat or cholesterol. I remember getting stomach aches as a kid back when I ate things like hot dogs and fast food. Fifteen years later, I feel fantastic knowing I hardly fall ill. Some people stock Tums and Pepto-Bismol in their medicine cabinets. By making food my medicine, I don’t have to worry about buying those products ever again.

4. The mostly raw, whole foods plant-based diet keeps you slim

Even if I gorge on a gourmet, vegan sandwich with 600 calories, I can be rest assured knowing that the tempeh or black bean patty isn’t going to pack on the pounds like a hamburger or fast food chicken sandwich. Granted, too much of good things can mean weight gain. It’s not like you don’t have to work to maintain a healthy, vegetarian diet. In fact, it can be easy to gain weight by going meatless if you eat too many frozen and packaged foods. I’ve learned that by keeping my meal choices plant-based, and trying to eat as healthy and natural as possible, I can keep my weight in a healthy range.

5. You can live the lifestyle without preaching

It would be impossible for me to remain friends with some people in my life if I gave them a hard time about eating meat every time I saw them eat it. They know my stance and they’re making a conscious choice to eat meat or to try to stop. They’re making a choice, and so have I. Honestly, I admire activists who shake things up and get things done for animal, human, and planet issues. But I have never been the vegetarian who hands out PETA stickers and tries to convert everyone I meet into being like me. I write, share my ideas online, and love to help people who ask me about a plant-based diet. I will gladly educate when necessary, but I don’t walk around trying to argue.  In more than 10 years of being vegetarian, I have lived the lifestyle without being known as the radical one who will try to berate meat-eaters. You can set your own limits and make your conscious, healthy lifestyle choice into the best one that suits you. If you want to shout about Animal rights in the mall, go ahead! If you don’t, but would like to stop eating dairy, then that’s awesome, too.

Image Source: Kiran Foster/Flickr