A septuagenarian’s long, slow journey to a plant-based diet

I grew up on dinners of meat and potatoes with some vegetables on the side followed by sweet desserts. This was par for the course in the ’40s and ’50s. It wasn’t till 1992 that the USDA developed the food pyramid, and later than that when we all became aware of what was called a “heart healthy” diet – less cholesterol, therefore, less beef, whole milk, eggs and butter. The food pyramid has changed periodically. Now sugar is the killer, not fat. Needless to say, a plant-based diet has never been recommended and couldn’t have been farther from my mind.

About eight years ago I found myself as a widow, living alone with a cat. I no longer had to cook for anyone else but myself — that’s one of the benefits of living alone. You don’t have to cook at all if you don’t want to. I often wait until I get hungry and then forage for something quick and easy. Sometimes it’s hummus with chips and veggies, or a salad. Sometimes it’s leftovers from my last meal out. Occasionally I turn on the stove.

A few years after that, three of my grandchildren became vegetarians. At the time this seemed like a far-out thing to do as this isn’t just plant-based eating but legitimately giving up all meat. I thought maybe they were just going through a phase, but it hasn’t been. I worried they weren’t getting enough protein, but they all have been perfectly healthy.

Along this timeline, I’ve made my share of lifestyle changes in light of our climate crisis without yet addressing my diet. I’ve been active with the Sierra Club and am thoroughly climate educated. I drive a Prius but mostly walk or take the bus. I carry a reusable bag and water bottle and I’ve switched to wind energy for my condo.

But somewhere in the back of my mind lingered an awareness of the damage animal factory farms were doing to the planet and the poor cows and pigs. I decided to go two or three days a week without red meat, a trial run of a plant-based diet. And guess what? Over time hamburgers actually lost their allure! But I did always have a roasted chicken in the fridge.

Then a series of events impacted me:

  • Baha Brainstorm — I went to a fitness spa in Baha for a week where only vegetarian food was served. I found that not only did I have the strength to exercise strenuously but I could do it on the mandated vegetarian diet which included eggs and small amounts of seafood occasionally. Amazing.
  • French Farm — I visited a pig farm in France on a culinary trip. It was touted as humane, but it broke my heart to see these huge, fat sows lying in the grass with a dozen cute little piglets climbing on them. They were being raised for sale (this little piggy went to market!) and the moms are *only* impregnated three times a year. Industrial farms impregnate sows five or six times per year! I remember blanching and saying aloud, “I think I’m going to become a vegetarian.”
  • vegan protein sources chartCorps Commitment — Earlier this year, I attended Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Seattle. My commitment to the climate crisis went from about a 7 to a 9 ½! Here too we were offered vegetarian fare. No problem.
  • Cute Chart — I came across a chart by Miki Mottes with drawings of plant-based protein animated with personified eyes. I was surprised how many there were and how many I liked. I shared the chart on Facebook with the caption “I could be perfectly happy with a diet of peanut butter, hummus, and Caesar salad.” I didn’t even mention the chocolate or avocados! These are things I eat just about every day. I get the shakes when the peanut butter jar gets low and I don’t have a full one waiting!
  • Articles Analysis — I read two articles about animal agriculture’s adverse impact on the climate, land, water, biodiversity, and on the animals themselves. There are many ways to divide up the rankings, but by one analysis animal agriculture is responsible for about 14–18% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. These numbers don’t account for the huge percentage of emissions that feedstock crops cause. By some analysis, animal agriculture causes over half of global emissions.

The tipping point had arrived.

It’s been a month or two since my “aha” moment. My plant-based diet is going well. I’ve given myself permission to cheat now and then, especially if someone has me for dinner or a visit. And I’ll eat fish without hesitation.

I realize what you eat is a very personal choice. Toddlers fight major battles over control of food, after all. As an adult, I don’t judge anyone at either end of the spectrum — those who want to remain meat-eaters or those who’ve gone beyond vegetarianism to become a vegan. And hopefully, they won’t judge me either. My choice has been based primarily on the environment, but also on health and the “ick factor” — factory farms are disgusting. 

So here I am, at 70-something, pretty much transitioned to vegetarianism. Who would have thunk it? Certainly not me.

Cynthia Linton

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