“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
It’s happened! I’m having a midlife crisis. I’d always wondered what form it would take. The colourful clichés usually pertain to men – they get some gold chains to rest over their greying chest hair, buy a sports car, comb over their bald spot, and acquire a simpering young mistress.
The classic female stereotype is of a woman running off to find herself, though this would mean I have been having a midlife crisis since the age of 14.
Then, I decided to become a vegetarian.
Let me give some background: to imagine a life without meat used to seem intolerable cruel and entirely pointless. There was a reason that if I am what I eat, I would be a chicken. Twice a day, I’d enjoy meat of any and all types (though no fish, due to allergies). I thought of myself as a mindful and not wasteful animal-eater, as I did my best to eat nose-to-tail – including offal and other parts that many people find squeamish. I also spent considerable money on organic, grass-fed, free-range products.
I never contemplated changing my diet. A colleague’s wife once told me that when she felt low in energy and bloated in body, she consumed only green salads for a month. I decided she was an alien creature, and didn’t try to talk to her again.
Vegetarians irked me. What good was that sanctimonious attitude when many I saw were madly unhealthy – as a diet heavy in white flour, oils and dairy inevitably is – and struggled with weight and skin issues.
When I began to have various health problems, my doctor put me on medication and a low-carb diet. Being forced into a corner, I kicked and screamed at the injustice of having to change my lifestyle. I associated deep-fried food, piles of chocolate and cheesy pizzas with the good life. I hated having to “give up” anything. No wonder I felt like a martyr.
Eventually, I adapted. At least I could still eat my beloved meat. While I wouldn’t recommend getting between me and a plate of french fries, it became normal for me to eschew bread and pasta. I stopped having rice. Imagine the fun of explaining that one at a dinner party in Dhaka – I don’t eat rice and I’m allergic to fish; I am constantly apologising for being a bad Bangali.
What the low-carb years taught me was that people, pretty much around the world, don’t think twice about using food to trespass social boundaries and intrude into personal space. Pushing food is viewed as harmless cajoling. But it often felt more like bullying, and that’s not counting people shoving spoons into my mouth.
It wasn’t like sitting across from an anorexic or an alcoholic, whose behaviour often force their loved ones to pick up the pieces. It was the opposite, where I was saying no to the sugary dessert or a drink. It was baffling – after all, what I choose (or not) to eat couldn’t possibly affect anyone else.
I understood at last that food pushers want to assuage their own guilt. It’s validating if everyone else too is having the mucus melted over partially hydrogenated fat. There’s no need to confront their choices.
I learnt to guard myself against food pushers and keep my equilibrium. Nobody else, after all, had control over what I ate except me. Nobody else had to deal with the consequences of what I ate except me, either. They wouldn’t be there when the doctor told me she’d be doubling the dosage of the medication that gave me terrible nausea. Or that I would need another surgery.
The other way
After the various medical issues were at last resolved, I still stayed on the same meat-heavy/low-carb diet. At the back of my head however was a growing concern that, even though I swam and lifted weights regularly, I was consuming too much protein and animal products in general.
As with these big shifts, it was a series of events and realisations that prompted me to make a change.
One was seeing my brother-in-law, for whom I have enormous respect, switch to a vegetarian diet. Mark is highly health-conscious and extremely fit, doing strenuous yoga daily and teaching ballroom dancing at MIT, in addition to his day job of being a computer science professor. He can’t afford to have flagging energy. He rejected the easy pasta, piles of cheese, and packaged, preserved food. Instead, he mainly eats freshly prepared meals of vegetables and grains.
When I asked him if it was difficult, he told me what he’d heard Dr Joel Fuhrman say on PBS – that having a heart attack or getting diabetes is tough. In comparison, eating healthy food is not that hard.
Another influencing factor was staying with my friend Malu in London this year. Malu said there is no dilemma in becoming vegetarian if you enjoy the taste. She made me some of the best meals I’ve ever had. Even now, recalling one still makes my mouth water: a huge bowl of green salad with fresh leaves and avocado slices with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, served alongside small dishes of hummus and baba ganoush, with some Arabic flatbread toasted with zatar. Not only did it taste stupendous, but I also felt wonderful afterwards – satiated but not heavy.
A third was being around my animal-welfare advocate cousin, Rubaiya. Though she never criticised or even commented on my choices, I could no longer ignore the ethical and moral issues I had with animal husbandry. In London, my local organic butchers could tell me the sirloin I was buying came from Daisy, who had been raised compassionately in a farm a few miles away.
But the truth was, I ate meat whenever I dined out at restaurants too. And this most likely came from the 99% of animals grown for meat consumption who are fed growth hormones and kept in traumatic conditions of densely packed cages filled with their own excrement. (Farmed fish are treated no less barbarically.)
In Dhaka, I have no way of knowing my food chain. Where we as a society once ate exclusively local and naturally grown produce, Big Business and a booming urban population have changed everything in a dramatically short time span. We are far from having a reliable third-party fairtrade or organic certification system. While chickens are sold as either “farmed” or “local”, I don’t know if local ones are raised in a humane way, though I very much suspect they are not.
Having lived in cities all my life, I’m removed from my food sources. If I didn’t know slightly better, I would be like the British children who howled when a campaign by Burger King claimed their beef came from happy cows; the children hadn’t realised until then that their burgers came from those cute animals.
In any case, just as organic fairtrade chocolate is still sugar and fat and caffeine, so organic meat still comes from animals that have been killed for my benefit, even if they were “happy” in their lifetime. Vegetables and fruit, of course, are also grown “unhappily” with pesticide, preservatives and genetically modified methods – curse you, Monsanto – though the meat equivalent is believed to be more toxic to our bodies, taking up home in our fat cells that become hormonally active. Fish is no safer a choice due to wide-spread mercury contamination.
A fourth point I could no longer ignore was how I didn’t have a neutral relationship with food. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran in her book, How To Be a Woman: food is the drug of choice for responsible people. Eating to numb my vulnerable soul created more torment in me than most of my illnesses put together. My tastebuds had been corrupted to crave the sugar-salt-fat combo created in labs and factories by food manufacturers (itself, of course, a fatal oxymoron). Real, nutritious food is never so compulsively more-ish (nobody I know binges on broccoli), though for a long time I blamed myself.
The final factor that encouraged me to switch was seeing how much of the older population in Dhaka is so chronically ill. Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, IBS – the list goes on. It’s so prevalent as to have become normalised.
I know all too well how helpless it feels to be sick, when bad things “happen” to me. But here was something I could mostly prevent – these diseases are overwhelmingly the result of poor lifestyle choices. Studies, including the largest of its kind, The China Study, consistently show that a diet low in processed foods and animal products results in dramatically better health.
This was the biggest wakeup call. I still have the second half of my life to live. I want to keep travelling, living in different cultures, moving freely. Even if I settle down, I still don’t wish to be chained to a doctor or beholden to Big Pharma.
Convinced at last, I approached the switch – and this is crucial – with a positive outlook, rather than a heavy heart. Instead of seeing vegetarianism as merely “no-meat”, I’m viewing it as a means to live on nutrient-dense food. So, I have started to eat only vegetables (some raw, some cooked), fresh fruit, a handful of nuts and seeds, some whole grains, and whatever beans I’m not allergic to, namely, chickpeas and its local variants.
This is on par with Michael Pollan’s famous opening lines to his book, In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By which he means that most of the things we think of as food today are only foodlike substances, and not what our great-grandparents would recognise as nourishment.
My reminder list
I’m becoming a vegetarian because I want to re-educate my taste buds to the nuanced flavours of real food.
I’m doing it for my conscience, because I can no longer turn a blind eye to the cruel treatment of animals, where the vast majority of them are raised in horrendous conditions for my throwaway and increasingly unhealthy pleasures.
I’m aligning my morals and rejecting food conglomerates who are never, ever interested in the population’s health but only in their own pockets. There is no profit in selling unpatentable foods like spinach, so they peddle pieces of cardboard with a shelf life longer than ours, or animals pumped with antibiotics that fester in our digestive tract. The meat and dairy industries, especially in the US, are big businesses indeed, and highly influential over government policy and regulations.
I’m doing it for ecological reasons: it requires more land and water resources to grow meat for food; we’ve destroyed half the world’s wildlife in 40 years and upset the natural marine balance through depleting fish stocks; while methane from cow farts contribute hugely to climate change. We also add to our carbon footprint by eating animals that are senselessly transported around the world, because – to give one small example – a mere week spent in Auckland allows food companies to claim they’re selling “New Zealand lamb”.
As compelling as all these reasons are, however, I am not at all feeling that I “should” become a vegetarian, but that I want to.
And the primary reason is my health. To live a better second half of my life and correct the mistakes from the first half.
And that, I believe, constitutes a midlife crisis.
“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” — Lao Tzu
For anyone who believes it’s difficult to correct decades of loving junk food and combatting poor health, here’s a fun article in AARP magazine where former US President Bill Clinton explains why he became vegan. Reportedly, his old VP, Al Gore, recently turned vegan too, though probably, I expect, more for ecological reasons.
No need to deprive oneself of delicious food seen in movies (even though it’s usually not real, due to filming restrictions). No story is more delightful than that of a retired chef who’s lost his sense of taste, cooking for his three madcap daughters. Watch Eat Drink Man Woman from my favourite director, Ang Lee.
Diagnosed with cancer at age 31, Kris Carr decided to change her life around. Her writing is engaging, her enthusiasm infectious, and her attitude inspiring. Read Crazy Sexy Diet for a motivating look at switching to a low-fat, plant-based diet. She explains the problems with meat’s acidity on our bodies, and the pus in dairy (urgh). Warning: the recipes/ingredients are very American; if you are seeking simpler advice on what to eat, I’d also recommend reading Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman MD. Repetitive and hardliner though he is, he backs up his thesis with lots of science and gives uncomplicated and streamlined eating guidelines that can be adapted for anywhere in the world.