As most of my real-life friends and family know, I'm vegetarian and have been for more than 15 years. Being vegetarian is much more mainstream than it once was. However, I still get asked the same questions over and over by people who have just found out I don't eat meat, so I thought I'd answer some of those questions here. If nothing else, I can send future querents the link. :-)
Why are you vegetarian?
I never liked meat when I was little -- my parents begged me to eat my meat the way other kids' parents beg them to eat their vegetables. I ate it grudgingly when I had to, but I found ways to avoid it whenever I could. (I remember getting in trouble when I was in kindergarten for hiding a piece of steak in one of my shiny black dress-up shoes.) When I was around 17 or 18, I realized that I was old enough to choose the diet I wanted, so I stopped eating meat and never looked back.
Over the ensuing years, I've also come to understand all the ethical and health-related reasons for being vegetarian, which is why I've brought my daughter up that way. Now that she knows where meat comes from and what it means, she's free to make her own decisions about whether or not to eat it. As for me, I can't imagine ever putting a piece of meat in my mouth again, though I'm sure I could find a better place for it now than my shoe.
I have a friend who's vegetarian, but she eats chicken.
She's not vegetarian.
I have a friend who's vegetarian, but he eats shrimp.
He's not vegetarian either.
So vegetarians don't eat any meat at all, ever?
No. Vegetarians don't eat beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, rabbit, fish or any other animal -- as my husband says, "nothing that had eyes when it was alive." (Shellfish count, as does any apparently eyeless alien creature you may have managed to hunt down and harpoon.)
Vegetables are alive too.
Yes, they are, but everyone has to eat something, and I'm not going to starve to death over semantics.
Do vegetarians eat anything that comes from animals?
It depends on the vegetarian. Some eat eggs and dairy products; some eat dairy but not eggs. Vegans don't consume any animal products at all, including eggs, dairy and honey, and are also likely to avoid wearing leather and using products tested on animals.
Which one of those are you?
I started out lacto-ovo (dairy and eggs), was vegan for about a year during college, and am currently lacto-ovo again.
You must eat a lot of salads.
Not any more than the average person. I like salad just fine, but I don't want to have it at every meal.
What do you eat then?
I eat what everyone else eats, but without the meat. If we're eating sandwiches and you have ham, I'll have cheese or peanut butter. If we're having Mexican food, I'll have beans instead of beef in my burrito, or I'll order a quesadilla. It's really that simple. I also like the more esoteric vegetarian foods, like tofu and tempeh, but you could eat dinner at my house with no fear of encountering something unfamiliar.
How do you get your protein?
From food, the same way you do. A woman my age and size only needs about 40-50 grams of protein a day, and since most foods contain at least some protein, it's very easy to reach this requirement just by eating normal meals. For vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products, it's even easier. Protein deficiency is very, very rare in developed countries -- anyone who's eating enough food is probably getting plenty of protein, unless he or she is living on Pop-Tarts, Cheetos and Dr. Pepper.
Do you have to take vitamins?
Not unless I want to. Fruits and vegetables contain a huge variety of vitamins. Beans, tofu and dark leafy greens contain iron, as do a lot of commercially produced cereals. Vegans can sometimes become deficient in vitamin B12 because it's only found in animal products, but it takes years for that to happen, and it's easy to prevent. I'm not vegan anymore, so B12 isn't a concern for me.
Will you get mad/offended/nauseated if I eat meat in front of you?
No. As far as I'm concerned, if you don't harass me about my diet, I have no reason to harass you about yours. I'm not keen on the smell of meat cooking, but by the time it's on your plate, it's not a problem. However, my tolerance does not extend to taunting, so please don't shove turkey legs in my face or try to force a forkful of steak into my mouth. (You think I'm kidding, but these things do happen.)
I don't know how you do it. I could never give up meat.
Since I never liked meat, not eating it is a relief, not a sacrifice.
I hardly eat beef anymore.
(I don't know why people feel compelled to tell me this ... maybe they think it'll defuse some of my vegetarian wrath?)
Do you want to force me to stop eating meat?
No. I'd be thrilled if the whole world were vegetarian -- health and environmental impact aside, think of all the restaurant options I'd have! -- but I'm not out to convert anyone. I will gladly tell you all the reasons meat is nasty if you ask me, though. :-)
That's all I can think of for now. Any other questions?