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Carnivore No More
The hardest thing about becoming vegetarian is other people
Kamaal Dashiem Crumpton
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“Here Kamaal, take this,” said my foster mom Crystal. She handed me a plate of rice, corn, and baked chicken.

“Umm…would you mind if I had soup instead?” I knew if I tried to explain my new decision that she would give me her long-winded opinion. I wasn’t trying to hide it from her, just to avoid that conversation for a while longer.

“No, Kamaal. You have dinner ready right in front of you. Why would you rather eat soup?”

There was a brief pause and then I had to tell her: “I’m not eating meat anymore.”

“All meat? That’s really cutting away from the nutrients that you need.”

Changing your diet is hard in foster care. Crystal and her husband Jaime Sr. have four other foster children besides me: Uzzia, Arinze, Jose, and Devante. Their biological sons are Xavier and Jaime Jr.

There are many different eating habits in the house. Jaime Sr. is religious and fasts on occasion. Xavier does not eat beef because he says it blows him up. Arinze and Jose eat everything except for fish, which boggles my mind because seafood tastes so good to me. Uzzia, Devante, and Jamie Jr. pretty much eat everything in the book.

Most of the time we don’t all eat together; Crystal usually eats upstairs by herself. Some days Crystal makes dinner for us; other days she has a friend from church come over with Chinese food or spare ribs or a chicken salad. I knew she wasn’t going to start making tofu dishes just for me!

A Friend’s Example

I decided to become a vegetarian six months ago. My friend Imani told me she was a vegetarian. Being around her pushed me to eat healthier. Before I would rather buy a bag of chips than a banana. But when we ate together, I would eat more like her, and mostly everything Imani eats is healthy. (I didn’t know what Naked Juice was before I met her.)

I started to eat something green (my favorite color) every day. I looked up soy products, different cheeses, different oils, and other foods I had never heard of before on Google Scholar.

I decided to keep eating fish and other seafood because it was healthier than beef, chicken, and pork products. I learned that the word for vegetarians who eat fish (like me and Imani) is “pescetarians.”

Downsides to Meat

For most of my life, I’ve loved eating meat—chicken, beef, lamb, and turkey, everything except pork. Because of my father’s religious beliefs, he raised me and the rest of the family not eating pork. He told us the pig was a dirty animal that plays, bathes in, and even eats its own filth. That was enough reason for me not to eat it.

But then I began to wonder if pigs were the only animals that were disgusting in their habits or were raised in an unhealthy way. Imani told me that she actually eats meat in Jamaica because the animals raised there are much healthier than those raised in America.

So I did some research. I found several bad practices that farmers use to raise their animals that are cruel to us and them alike. Most cattle in the U.S. in big “factory farms” are raised eating corn instead of grass because it is cheaper. But corn is not an appropriate diet for cows, and corn-fed cows’ meat is more likely to have harmful E. coli bacteria in it, according to a book called Fat, Inc.

image by Erika Faye Burke

Factory-farmed animals are crowded together in unsanitary conditions, so farmers give them low levels of antibiotics to prevent disease. This creates bacteria resistant to antibiotics—a huge public health problem. To make cows grow and produce milk faster, factory farms inject them with hormones, which harms the health of people who consume their beef or milk.

Substitutes

I wasn’t sure about which nutrients I would miss by giving up meat. I found out that B-12, a vitamin usually found in meat, makes blood cells strong and keeps nerves intact for proper brain function. So I take a multi-vitamin with B-12.

Teenage boys need protein, which builds muscle mass. Luckily fish and any other seafood are packed with it. Shrimp, crab, lobster, and tuna all are full of protein and not that much fat. Because I also eat soy products, eggs, cheese, and nuts, I don’t have to worry about not getting my share.

After I dropped meat, I wanted to cut out everything unhealthy that I could, from soda to chips. I learned that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is in almost everything that we eat because it is cheap and makes food taste more appealing. Yet eating this contributes to obesity and type 2 diabetes, which have been leading causes of death in the U.S. for over three decades.

I can’t imagine sitting down morning, noon, and night eating corn for the rest of my life, yet it’s happening to people and they do not know it. It’s in cereal and other snacks, as well as in that corn-fed beef.

My main motivation for giving up meat was the greater good of my body. But it’s turned out to be a cool way to save money, too. Going to the closest McDonald’s or chicken spot around the corner cost me a lot more than spaghetti or rice and peas that I would be able to whip up at my house. I’m tempted by all the vegetarian dishes and restaurants in New York, but mostly I eat at home.

I can’t say that meat doesn’t smell good to me, even pork. There have been times when my foster mother makes certain meat dishes, and the look and smell consume my insides.

But I have learned not to rely only on my impulses. I stick with the belief that changing the way I eat is going to help me. Eating organic foods (foods made without pesticides or other chemicals) as much as I can, ridding my body of excess sugar, and lowering my cholesterol are some things I have grown very fond of. I haven’t seen any big change (I was already thin and healthy), but I like knowing that I’m eating healthier.

Obstacles

What has been a bigger problem than meat cravings are other people. The other day I was given chicken by a friend, and it devastated her when I told her that I wouldn’t eat it.

“Eat it Kamaal, you’re a carnivore! It’ll be just like old times,” my friend demanded.

“If anything, I was an omnivore. And me eating meat doesn’t have anything to do with the good old days,” I replied, laughing.

“Eat it,” she fired back at me with a menacing glare in her eyes. People can be so wrapped up in their own beliefs and customs!

I have yet to ask my foster mom to make a special veggie dish or fish for dinner. But she may be softening up about my choices. Last night my dinner was very satisfying (even though it was all carbs); a lot of rice, string beans, and macaroni and cheese. I had two plates and fell asleep like a baby.

I’m enjoying life as a vegetarian. There are many substitutes for meat that are healthier for you, such as falafel and tofu. It seems to me that many people eat meat only because that’s what they’re used to. But in the end, isn’t a little change worth a healthier, longer life?

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(FCYU-2011-01-13)

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