When I was nine years old, I watched my grandma battle stomach cancer. Although she did overcome it, an infection in the hospital is what killed her due to her immune system not functioning properly after chemo. Throughout her battle, she was encouraged by her doctors to be an ovo vegetarian. My family lived in her house to take care of her, and throughout this time I was eating the same meals that she was. While I wasn’t thinking about it so young, I did stick to the diet from fourth to seventh grade. Not eating meat became a huge part of my life, and didn’t require much strain on my family. My mom always prepared a salad with dinner, made pastas rich with vegetables, and many other recipes that all sustained my diet and kept me feeling as strong as I would’ve with meat. To maintain some kind of protein, and because I was an ovo vegetarian, I would eat hard-boiled eggs for lunch or as a snack, and scrambled eggs in the morning.
Most of my life I had been playing soccer, all the way from kindergarten until eighth grade. My teammates were close friends of mine, and our parents all partook in showing up to the games, hosting parties at their houses, and bringing us snacks every game. This is why consuming some kind of protein was important, so that’s why I stuck to eggs and it seemed to be enough. I was healthy and doing well, and my season in sixth grade I realized the cleats I was wearing were made out of leather. While I was a vegetarian, I had never considered other ways I was using animal products. I purchased synthetic cleats for my new season since I outgrew the old ones, and suffered through the blisters I’d never received in a pair of shoes before. But to me it was the right thing to do. I never wore fur before-hand or up until now, and I wanted to commit to not buying products made from animal skin or fur.
The summer after seventh grade however, I started training to practice Olympic-style diving as well as swimming. It was the off season for soccer so I wanted to stay physically active, and quite honestly I loved the water sports more than soccer. My practices for swim were three times a week, and dive was twice a week in the pool and one day was in the gym and the pool. While recreational soccer wasn’t so draining (one practice a week plus one game on the weekends, and the occasional tournament that was 2-4 games), swim and dive were. I would come home and fall asleep right after showering before I could even make it to the dinner table. I had little to no energy, and was building muscle without the proper protein to keep up.
My parents had their friend tell me about his being an ovo vegetarian, and occasionally he was a pescatarian. He suggested eating fish occasionally, and I said that I didn’t want to eat any meats or fish. He instead told my dad to make me the same protein shakes he drank, and also to buy me iron and vitamin supplements to makeup for what might’ve been being lost from my lack of meat eating. The vitamins and shakes did help. I drank them on the way to my swim and dive practices, and took my supplements daily. I felt more energized and also stronger. Despite ending the dive and swim practices once school was back in session, I stuck with the protein shakes and supplements. In eighth grade I was doing alright, until I started having awful growing pains in my legs and lower back. I went to the doctor who confirmed they were just growing pains, and gave me a note to sit out on P.E. when they were acting up, but also told me on a downside that I was underweight. I was confused because I was following what our friend had suggested, I took my supplements religiously, ate eggs once a day in some form of my food, and drank the protein shakes. My mom worked extra hard in getting me the protein needed to sustain my diet, and yet it didn’t seem like enough. My mom and I both told my doctor I’d work towards eating greater amounts and getting my protein up in other ways, and she said to consider implementing meat back into my diet if I saw no results.
To my dismay, our family friend recommended the same. He said during his developing stages (childhood through early twenties) he was indulging in an omnivorous diet. He believed it was important to grow strong when you’re young, and even through his research and personal practice of being a vegetarian (now vegan) he encourages this simply to prevent any health concerns in a developing body. I wasn’t sure what health concerns he meant, yes I was underweight, but I could work on that pretty easily.
I attempted to do this throughout eighth grade. I ate everything my mom wanted me to try in order to get stronger, and continued to sit out when she would cook tacos and Peruvian dishes with meat for our family. I’d munch on salsa and guacamole with corn chips while she’d make an omelet with some cheese and veggies in it for me. The worst was when she’d cook my great grandma’s food – the Italian meatballs and breaded chicken and I could smell the homemade marinara sauce all the way from the other side of the house. I missed the connection these foods had to my relatives from both sides and their culture, and while I didn’t want to eat them, I also didn’t want my mom to stop cooking them. Not only did I not want these practices to disappear because of my being a vegetarian, but my mom also had to learn how to prepare these dishes for my dad and sister who suffer from gluten intolerance. This was especially upsetting for them, seeing as though both my mom and dad are Latin and use flour tortillas with every Latin meal, and also because my father is Italian and grew up on homemade baked and grain-based goods like pasta, pizza, biscotti cookies, and every delicious meal you could imagine. These meals were made not only to continue cooking the food of our families, but also to sustain two members in our family who had to find a substitution for the flour and wheat-based goods they loved.
My freshman year, I had a physical and came to find that I was more underweight than before (due to growth in height) and that they wanted to run blood work. I was pale all the time, I physically felt weak no matter how much protein I consumed (in all forms available to a vegetarian), it was affecting my school work as well as my mood, and I was only getting taller. Yet no where else in my body had grown or developed, which was odd for an almost 15 year old girl. When the ran blood work the following week they discovered my white blood cell count was low, and with the state my body was in they were afraid of me developing anemia. When I asked what anemia was I was told that it was a blood cell deficiency that would require blood transfusions as often as every week or bi-weekly, to as minimal as every month; depending on the severity. They looked at my mom and asked her to get me a burger on our way back home.
The following week I was confused, I was an ovo vegetarian since I was nine years old, and I was now going on fifteen. And now it was a risk to my health – because the supplements and shakes and eggs and any other form of protein or iron I took wasn’t doing enough. I was terrified of needles and hated being in the hospital. After long and hard contemplation, I sat in a restaurant with my sisters, parents, and grandpa. They ordered a steak appetizer, and almost never having beef in my life (before becoming a vegetarian, I mostly only ate chicken) I picked up a piece and asked to try it. My family was shocked as I finished and wanted more, within only a week or so after I felt better than I had my entire multiple years worth of being a vegetarian. I grew more in height and weight than the doctors were predicting, but they were relieved to see it. Upon meeting other people who received the same news that I did, and became anemic while on their vegetarian or vegan diet, they sincerely regret not becoming at the very least a pescatarian. And while I do eat meat and include it in my diet, I also make it a goal to not eat meat every day, or for every meal. Since being away at college, I eat more vegetarian meals than omnivorous meals in a week. I save the meat eating for when I’m back home with family, eating our family’s recipes. But even just adding one meal every 3-4 days (one meal a day) that has a meat component to it keeps me much more healthy and sustained. With artificial meat on the rise, I’m sure it’ll be easier to keep up a healthy diet as a vegetarian in the future. And I do like having that choice available to me. But what I learned through this journey of creating my diet is that not everyone can be expected to make the same sacrifices. My naturally having a lower white blood cell count and being high-risk for an iron or blood deficiency means I don’t have the option to cut rich protein foods from my diet entirely. However, it also doesn’t mean I have to indulge in them all the time either. I balance out this diet to be affordable, healthy, and not eat meat whenever I want, but rather based on the need I have discovered works for me. And eating meat no more than four times a week works for me, and the rest of the time I’m still eating vegetarian foods and meals. Ultimately what came out of this for me was the knowledge to respect ones choices of their diet, because culture, health, and access are all huge components that determine what we eat.