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The Practical Vegetarian

by Gopi Kallayil: I am a practical vegetarian


In a world where vegetarians are already marginalized, and fringe groups are further sub-categorized into vegans, pescatarians, raw foodies, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and on and on, I have invented a new category.

A practical vegetarian is someone who almost always eats plant-based food when that choice is available. And when that choice is not available he/she is open to eating whatever food is available and doing so with gratitude. The difference between being a strict vegetarian as opposed to a practical vegetarian is the world of difference between easily following a kind diet and struggling to stick to a rigid regimen.

Strangely, when growing up in India, where it was easy to be a vegetarian, I was a meat eater; and now, living in the United States, where it is easy not to be a vegetarian, I have chosen to be a practical vegetarian. Part of the reason is that it took time and a shifting of consciousness to really understand the virtues of eating mostly plant-based food. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Wisdom comes to us when it is of little use.” Over time, the wisdom sunk in. And I must confess that Alicia Silverstone’s talk at Google on her book The Kind Diet was a tipping point.

It was easy to embrace the virtues of vegetarianism. If you’re part of the yoga and consciousness community, you may be all too familiar with these and not need repetition.

The impressive and long list includes lower body weight, reduced cholesterol, and lower risk of developing cancer and other diseases. In addition, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental damage: air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, loss of biodiversity. But being a global citizen, a professional in the tech industry with a passion for travel, and a rootless nomad of sorts has meant that I have had to adapt or die. The last few years have taken me to 53 different countries as far apart as Iceland, Mongolia and Bahrain. In Mongolia, outside of the capital Ulan Bator, boiled mutton was the only item on any menu in any restaurant. In Buenos Aires, my business school classmate laid out the most delicious food he had lovingly prepared to make up for the 10 years we had not seen each other—Empanadas stuffed with minced beef. And on the long-haul United flight returning from a day of meetings in New York, when the attendant came to the last row where I sat hungry and tired, all she could offer me was a turkey sandwich.

And so it is that I have adapted to survive. I eat only plant-based food when I have the choice in front of me. And I gratefully eat whatever is in front of me when I don’t have the choice.

Tips for being a practical vegetarian:

Eat plant-based foods. Do this as much as you can when you have the choice. And eat them as close to their natural state as possible. If you can point to something on your plate and see that it is a carrot or an eggplant or a bean, that is excellent. And if it is not cooked or processed in any way, you are in dietary heaven. We are fortunate at Google, where the chefs in our cafes lovingly lay out a wonderful spread of plant-based food to choose from—often from farms within 150 miles of the campus and sometimes even grown on the campus.

Put color on your plate. Nature has done a pretty good job of building the right signals into us. A plate that is exploding in naturally occurring greens and red and pink and purple is visually appealing. But it is also likely a healthy plate with a balanced set of nutrients you need.

Choose and eat consciously. Put things on your plate mindfully. Be conscious of what plants, fruits and vegetables you are choosing. Be conscious of how much or how little you need to feed you body and your taste buds. And eat mindfully too. Be aware of the taste, texture, smells of the food you eat. Be conscious of the natural goodness and life energy that is packed into that crunchy lettuce, juicy carrot and sweet grape.

Eat with an attitude of gratitude. The simple truth is that each plate of food in front of me has involved about 60 people whom I will never meet. The person who planted the crop, the person who fertilized the field, those who picked the crop, transported it, chopped it, cooked it. Most of the them were toiling away in jobs less comfortable than mine, and doing jobs I am incapable of. I don’t know about you, but without these people and their skills I might actually starve to death, unable to grow my own food. I try to remember this and eat thankfully.

Don’t beat yourself up—be practical. Having said all this, I also recognize the fact that the dietary choices of others in this world may be different, and that is where the practical aspect comes in. If I don’t have a choice of plant-based food, then I am okay with eating animal products. In my book being vegetarian 96 percent of the time is good enough. I get the health and ecological benefits of a vegetarian diet. It makes my life easier. It make my host’s life easier. And it makes it easy to travel to Arusha, Papete, Liberia, Koh Samui, Banjul, Tiruchirapalli, Gdansk, Karahnjukar . . .

During the day, Gopi Kallayil works as Chief Evangelist of Brand Marketing at Google. He teaches yoga, travels the world, speaks, writes, sings, lives freely and joyously. At other times he espouses radical ideas like eating plant-based food and can be a general threat to orderly, civil society.


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