Registered dietitian Jessica Cording learned the hard way that you can't force your body into an eating pattern, especially for the wrong reasons.
There's nothing wrong with following a vegetarian diet, but being clear on why you're making the change is key. Is it something you genuinely want, or is it motivated by a desire to meet someone else's standards? Where does it fall on your list of priorities?
When I became a vegetarian, I didn't ask myself these questions, and I didn't anticipate the challenges I'd face. At age 22 I hadn't yet learned how to have compassion for myself—or for my body—and I struggled with feeling worthy of love. Romantic relationships were challenging, but in my last semester of college, I found myself dating a guy a few years older than me. I'd gotten to know him through mutual friends (and MySpace messages, because what's how people kept in touch in the Dark Ages). When he moved from Boston to New York, I scrapped my post-graduation plans to find work in Massachusetts, where most of my friends and business contacts were, and moved to Brooklyn. I wasn't making this decision just for a guy, I told myself—it made sense, because my family was in New Jersey, because I'd found a paid internship and a part-time job to get me through until I found a "real job." Everything was going to be fine.
Barely a month after my move, he and I decided to shack up. Expensive rent has a way of speeding up big life decisions, especially when you move to a new city where you don't know anyone and can't imagine how you'll ever meet anybody in that giant sea of strangers. Besides, I was 22 and thought I was in love. Maybe I really was. (Related: Will Moving In Together Ruin Your Relationship?)
Sharing your life with someone presents all kinds of challenges, differences in diet among them. I happen to be wired to crave steak and love whiskey. (Hey, everyone has their "sorry, not sorry" favorites). He, on the other hand, was a sober vegetarian. I remember admiring his discipline and dedication, and I wanted to be the good, supportive girlfriend. Not keeping alcohol in the apartment wasn't a problem at all. Yes, I love the taste of whiskey, but even at barely legal, I hated feeling drunk, so I mostly stuck to ordering a drink while out.
The meat thing turned out to be the hard part. In Boston, I'd lived alone and had gotten used to cooking myself whatever I wanted, whether that meant stretching Chinese food leftovers with fried eggs and frozen vegetables or searing pork chops and experimenting with grilling romaine leaves on the George Foreman. When he first moved to New York and I was still finishing up school, I'd eat vegetarian when I saw him because I knew I could eat meat after we said goodbye. What I hadn't realized was that I'd established a pattern: He got used to me eating his way because I'd kept my real eating habits from him and our relationship. (See also: The Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet)
It was clear right away that when we moved in together he expected the same thing. He was technically a lacto-ovo vegetarian (one who still eats eggs and dairy) but he hated eggs anyway, so I wasn't allowed to cook with them. The few times I did eat them around my boyfriend, he made a retching sound like a little kid might do to broccoli. I tried to get my fill of meat and fish when we went out to dinner with my family, but when it was just the two of us, he often insisted we share an entrée to save money, and it was always vegetarian. If a menu didn't have many veg-friendly options, another rant would ensue about how underappreciated vegetarians are in society.
Sure, he never said "go vegetarian, or else," but he didn't need to—it was clear my boyfriend disapproved of my omnivorous ways. He had very strong ideas about foods that were and weren't "authentic" and acceptable. While it's possible to peacefully coexist with someone with different eating habits, this is best accomplished by not being a jerk about what you think is right. I wanted to avoid conflict, so I tried to find vegetarian recipes that would satisfy me and my growling stomach. It was easier than fighting. My mom even cheerfully started cooking vegetarian adaptations of family favorites for holidays so he would feel welcome and so I wouldn't feel like I had to choose between him or them.
While my friends were out there dating and partying and navigating post-college life, I was learning how to put the right kind of dinner on the table. My family and friends thought I was happy, but I was hiding the fact that I had daily crying sessions and was making more and more decisions based on whether or not I thought he was going to criticize me. It wasn't just about food, either—It was also my clothes, my dry humor, my interest in astrology. It was my writing and what I wanted to do with my life. Everything about me was subject to discussions on how I could improve.
"I criticize because I care," he'd say.
I felt like a different person. My body felt brittle, and my mind felt foggy. I was hungry All. The. Time. Looking back, I was clearly malnourished—physically and emotionally. Let's not even talk about what poor nutrition does to your libido. Seeing pictures from that time in my life makes me sad. My hair is lackluster and dry, and my eyes have this exhausted, detached look.
When I decided to go back to school at 23 to get my master's in nutrition and become a dietitian, he tried to talk me out of it, furious I hadn't talked to him before applying and questioning whether I was just doing it for parental approval (something I, for better or worse, have never worried about). What I was afraid to spit out was that this education represented (very expensive) freedom from his constant questioning.
I'm still not sure what made me stand up for this when I couldn't even buy a carton of soy milk without a near-meltdown (Was it the right soy milk? Would he say I'd gotten the wrong brand?). Still, I sent in my first tuition check and even changed my paperwork to start a semester earlier than planned. I couldn't wait to start learning the science behind the way food affects the brain and body, because it sure had a way of affecting my self-worth and relationship.
When I was 24 and about a year into my nutrition program, I went to see my doctor for aching pain I was experiencing in both arms. He called a "stress reaction," which is essentially a near-miss stress fracture. But why? From what? The pain made it hard to sleep, and I could barely hold a pen, which, as a writer, felt like the end of the world. When would I get back to journaling? Wielding a chef's knife in my summer food production class was humbling. Would I ever do yoga again?
I kept trying to brush off the injury, but every night I'd lie awake in the New York heat (the boyfriend hated air conditioning) berating myself for not being more careful. Deep down, I knew it had something to do with my diet, but I was afraid to unpack those thoughts fully. That would mean upsetting the uneasy peace I worked so hard to achieve in my relationship.
From my nutrition schooling, I knew I had to bump up the protein, calcium, and vitamin D to repair the bones, but it was so hard to apply that knowledge. I wish I'd felt empowered to stand up for my needs instead of continuing to follow the meat-free house rules. I could have at least purchased, say, protein powder or Greek yogurt instead of the regular (and cheaper) "approved" yogurt. I craved chicken and eggs and fish like crazy and even coaxed myself into ordering them while out to eat with friends or family, but I kept hearing his voice every time.
That September, I finally saw my doctor about the dull ache that now spread and was vibrating through my whole body, which came complete with headaches, light-headedness, and a general sense of feeling like all the dials had been turned down. My boyfriend told me I'd better not come back "with a diagnosis of, like, fibromyalgia, or something." The lab results came back quickly—I was low in vitamin B12 and vitamin D—common deficiencies with plant-based diets. My doctor confirmed that the deficiencies likely contributed to my arm injuries. Supplements helped, but they didn't address the underlying issue: Neither this diet nor this relationship was healthy for me.
It was my 25th birthday when I finally decided to make a change. I joke now that the eggs were the beginning of the end. The timid half-dozen—a sort-of birthday present to myself—would take up little space in the fridge, but I must have picked up and put the carton down 10 times before finally placing it in my basket and walking to the register. What would he say? At that point, I just told myself that technically, eggs were still vegetarian-friendly and they couldn't possibly change anything.
But things did change, and not just because of the eggs. We steadily started to grow apart, and to be honest, I think going to eight weddings that summer pushed us both to question our future together. We had both changed. And it didn't seem like a coincidence that the better I felt, the worse our relationship became. A little less than a year after "the eggs," he moved out.
I'd expected to be sad, but I felt exhilarated. Sure, my apartment echoed and I had to find a ton of odd freelance jobs to cover his part of the rent, but I felt...free, with a cautious optimism pulsing through my body instead of the bone-deep pain I'd grappled with the year before. It took me months to feel comfortable cooking meat again, and his voice stayed in my head when I scanned labels and menus, but the overthinking gradually dissolved.
Now I enjoy a balanced diet that includes meat, fish, eggs, and dairy as well as plenty of meat-free meals. I also found a love for Pilates through physical therapy, and I eventually returned to yoga and strength training, seeing them more as self-care than just workouts now. I feel calm, clear-headed, and strong.
Just because I had a bad experience doesn't mean it has to be that way if you and your partner have different eating habits. People with different diets living under the same roof can make it work—it just requires communication, acceptance, and some culinary creativity. Find your common ground and work from there. It's also essential to check in with yourself to make sure the relationship, like your diet, is the right fit. And for f***'s sake, if your "Happy Milestone Birthday to Me" gift is buying six eggs, then something is not okay. The right person for you will want you to feel like your best self, no matter what you choose to put on your plate.