For some, being vegetarian or vegan really works. It's important to be careful that you strike a healthy balance.
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Being a vegetarian is no new fad diet or never-been-seen-before lifestyle choice: chances are, you know a vegan or vegetarian in your life.

Of course, there are pros and cons to every dietary decision. But I chose vegetarianism—and I’m sticking with it—because it helps me balance my environmental concerns and my checkbook, without stressing out if there’s the very rare occasion when I eat meat.

Here’s why it works for me:

1. I don’t want my meals contributing to climate change.

During an environmental policy class, I learned that raising livestock is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Studies estimate that the meat industry accounts for 18 percent or even up to 51 percent of global, man-made GHG emissions.

Animals bred for food require huge amounts of water, feed and pasture, and produce notorious amounts of methane. Plant-based agriculture is certainly not emissions free, but it is inarguably more efficient and sustainable.

Keeping a meat-free diet also relieves some of my concerns about indirectly contributing to the unethical treatment of farm animals, because I am just not willing to foot the bill for organic, free-range meat.

2.  Veggie options can be easy on my wallet.

All countries consume more meat as they become wealthier. A vegetarian diet can be cheaper than an omnivorous diet, but it depends both on individual preferences and economic situations. Meat in the US is relatively affordable and available, whereas access to fresh, healthy food can be a real problem. Some 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, and over half of those are considered low-income.

For me, being vegetarian is cost saving, and I am grateful to have easy access to well-stocked grocery stores, as well as the time, energy, and economic resources to plan my meals. Trader Joe’s is my favourite source for affordable products like tofu, tempeh, hummus, non-dairy milks, eggs and yoghurt.

3. I feel happier and healthier.

It feels great to have a specific outlet to connect my purchasing power to my food. I’ve found ways to make meals I love, even when I’m not sharing a house/cooking duties with other vegetarians.

One of the most annoying challenges is that vegetarian options at restaurants can be decidedly uninspired; I never want to see a cold, wilted grilled veggie sandwich ever again. But many mainstream restaurants are bucking this trend. I’m a fan of the veggie burrito or the sofritas bowl at Chipotle, and salad-inspired restaurants like Chopt and Sweet Green provide lots of delicious choices.

Living Vegetarian in a Balanced Way

My vegetarianism encourages me to live by my values, which is a wonderful feeling, but I’ve learned that the most important factor is my own health.

Being a vegetarian only works if you have a clear balance between commitment and personal health. While a vegetarian diet may have certain physical health benefits, it can also disguise eating disorders. I’ve seen these tendencies before in friends, and I’ve recognized them in myself in the past.

To make sure that I’m putting my physical and mental health first, I try to keep two things in mind:

1. Eat sufficient and varied sources of protein.

For breakfast, that can mean a bowl of Grapenuts or other protein-packed cereal. For other meals, I try to alternate between different beans and lentils, which are cheap and available in US super markets, and meat substitutes that will satisfy even a die-hard athlete. I often look online for recipe ideas, including ones that feature complete proteins.

2. Make wise exceptions and don’t feel bad.

If I’m a guest at someone’s house, traveling, or just unable to resist the roast turkey at Thanksgiving, I might drop the vegetarian requirement for the moment. That technically makes me a flexitarian, but since I’m a veggie some 99% of the time, I prefer not get too caught up in strict dietary definitions.

But wait, you might say. If I’m that concerned about the impacts of the meat industry, shouldn’t I aim to cut out all animal products and go vegan?

Maybe, but veganism requires much more commitment and time than I can muster right now, perhaps at the expense of my sanity. Plus I really like cheese.

Ultimately, it’s a numbers game: Americans eat more meat per capita than anyone else on the planet, so it makes me really happy that potentially impactful trends like “Meatless Monday” seem to be gaining traction.

It will take serious regulatory action by the US government and the international community to make a real dent in curbing GHG emissions, but I’m not waiting around. So I’ll leave you with a favourite vegetarian recipe, perfect for colder weather: spicy chickpea and spinach stew. Bon appétit!

Katherine Manchester is an international development professional, with roots in Maine and Tanzania. She has written about issues of environmental sustainability and gender. For fun, she enjoys reading and messing around in sailboats.