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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

*Disclaimer: This article mentions eating disorders. It is also in no way, shape, or form health advice.

Many pre-teens and teenagers make rash decisions all the time. Some of those decisions happen to be more long-term than others. When I was 12 years old, going on 13, I had the insane idea to go vegetarian. I know insane is a bit of a strong word, but it is warranted in this sense. 

After watching vegan influencers on YouTube for about three months straight, I became obsessed with the idea of looking and feeling like the epitome of health. Never mind that I was in the throes of puberty; I just had to look like the 20 and 30-year-old women who were selling me this lifestyle. However, when anyone would ask me why I was going vegetarian, I would cover up the real truth by saying that I felt bad for the animals. 

I gained some weight between the ages of 11 and 12. I was never overweight, but I might as well have been obese in my eyes. Exercising proved to be a difficult task, so the only other way that I could think to lose weight was by cutting out certain foods in my diet. I never admitted these thoughts to anybody.

Once my parents gave me the go-ahead to start my vegetarian lifestyle, I began almost immediately. Gone were the days when I would eat chicken, pork, and beef for dinner. From the day I became vegetarian to the day that it ended, I never once ate any meat. Cheat days did not exist in my eyes. My mom started making a separate dinner for me to accommodate my eating preferences. Those dinners consisted mostly of carbs and a small sliver of protein such as spinach, beans, or plant-based “meat.” 

I started off my vegetarian diet well. I was making sure that I included some kind of protein in each meal since I needed to keep my iron levels up. But somewhere along my journey, I began to slip, and I was eating less and less protein. Of course, some days were better than others, but most days were filled with carbohydrates and some kind of fruit. 

Around ninth grade, I lost a lot of baby fat in my face. I was also beginning to look skinnier, which only fueled my commitment to the vegetarian lifestyle. My lunches consisted of a sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of chips. I was definitely eating a lot less than I should have been for someone my age. 

As I continued high school, I became more entranced with my vegetarian diet. It was proving to make me skinnier, but I was also feeling light-headed more often. During my sophomore year, I joined the swim team. Since I was burning so many calories during practice, I would come home at night and stuff my face with leftovers in the fridge. Looking back, I realize that I did not eat enough nutrients to sustain myself during any kind of physical activity. Regardless, I continued being vegetarian and thought nothing of it. 

At this point in my life, I had been a vegetarian for four years. It was such an integrated part of my life that I almost forgot it was there. People always asked me if I would ever stop, and I could never imagine not being vegetarian. Why would I stop something that was supposedly going so well?

Right before I left for college, I made sure that the CU Boulder dining hall offered vegetarian meals. It seemed like a vegetarian and vegan-friendly place that would help me continue my already six-year-long diet. I came to realize, after a month of eating at the dining hall, that I was getting weaker and skinnier. The food was not sustaining me, and the vegetarian options were less than optimal. 

During my first finals season in my freshman year of college, I was becoming so weak from refusing to eat the dining hall food that I felt tired all the time. My boyfriend suggested that maybe I should stop being a vegetarian. The idea sent me into a spiral.

At that point in my life, I became so accustomed to being vegetarian that I assumed it was the key to being skinny. I kept thinking to myself, “What if I start eating meat and I gain weight because of it?” I did not want to come to terms with the fact that I was depriving myself of proper nutrients for so long.

Eventually, I came to the decision that I wanted to eat meat again. It was a slow process that I started over winter break, but I felt much happier about my decision as time went on. Throughout my spring semester of freshman year, I was much better physically and mentally because I started eating meat again. I got all A’s in my classes, and I woke up almost every day to go to the gym.

But one day during finals week, I felt an unusual pain in my stomach. I felt full all the time, and I was constantly bloated. I lost three days of sleep because my body was in such great pain. There was always a searing pain in my upper abdomen whenever I lay down to sleep.

I then decided that it was time to go to the emergency room. During my visit to the ER, the doctors told me that I had Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD). That means that my stomach was overproducing acid, and it was burning my esophagus every time I lay down. I went to a couple of doctors afterward, who all confirmed the same thing. It was, in fact, GERD, and it was not going away anytime soon. All of these doctors told me it was because my body had been deprived of meat for so long that it didn’t know how to handle it. 

I was absolutely devastated. No more eating beef or pork. I could only eat meat that was low in fat, like chicken or turkey. I felt like all the progress I made was wasted. The doctors told me that my condition was permanent and that eating foods like beef and pork would only make it worse.

I’ve since learned to live with this condition, and I have a pretty good handle on it now. It was a rough year of trial and error, but at least I know now what I can and cannot eat. I just wish that someone told that 12-year-old girl that she is not fat by any means. The answer was not cutting meat out of my diet and depriving myself of nutrients. Little girls all across the nation are told daily that they need to look a certain way, and I ended up believing that I am not pretty or skinny enough. My story reminds me that diets can be done the right way, or they can be done very wrong. Unfortunately, I was too young to understand how to properly be a vegetarian and how to treat my body with kindness. I am just grateful that I have learned from my mistakes and have become better because of them.

Maya Paustenbaugh is a writer for the Her Campus University of Colorado-Boulder chapter. Outside of Her Campus, Maya works at the CU Boulder Bookstore on campus and enjoys reading in her free time. She was one of the editors of her high school yearbook for two years and is currently a multimedia journalist intern for Bucket List Community Cafe. Maya is a junior studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science and Leadership. In her free time, Maya enjoys going to the gym, re-watching Harry Potter, and visiting her family in Fort Collins, CO. She also loves any water related activity and baking (especially cakes). Maya learned how to ski when she lived in Germany and can be found skiing around Colorado in the winter!