This is not a blog about vegetarianism. This is a blog about how I learned to change my mind. My journey to giving up meat has not been mentally straightforward. Last spring, if someone had told me that I would be going pescatarian in a year’s time, I would have laughed, spluttered and gestured to the full English breakfast I was devouring.
Yet, here I am, meat-free for a month now and not regretting my decision.
I thought I would share some of my reflections on my journey, just because I am quite struck by how afraid I was to change my beliefs on this subject. I didn’t even realise how close-minded I was being; generally considering myself to be quite an open-minded person. It makes me wonder whether my attitudes are limiting me in other areas of my life. So, I would like to start a discussion about how important it is to start discussions.
My carnivorous youth
Truthfully, I love my meat, for a whole host of reasons. For starters, I was raised by an Iranian. My dad used to be utterly perplexed if I invited vegetarian friends over for dinner (What do you have with your rice?!). I was equally confused. My dad’s Persian kebabs were amazing, and it did not occur to me to seek alternatives. I had never even heard of quorn. I thought tofu was a kind of soap…
I also didn’t have many vegetarians in my circle of acquaintances. There was one close friend, but she wasn’t too keen on food in general (she later found out she was gluten intolerant and discovered a new enthusiasm for food that wasn’t poisoning her). I assumed her general lack of appetite contributed to her willingness to sacrifice meat. I, on the other hand, have always been very into my food and saw eating meat as part and parcel of having a healthy appetite. I never enjoyed the idea of killing innocent animals, but I figured that if it was that bad, nobody would be doing it.
I guess I was quite naïve about humans. More importantly, I was unwilling to acknowledge that there was a different way of doing things than the one I knew and loved.
Following the crowd
At university, I did meet more vegetarians, but a lot of them were dangerously thin, or anaemic. Nobody mentioned agriculture, or the carbon footprint. It was all about showing off how little one could consume, whilst still functioning. At first, I joined in and went vegetarian in freshers’ week, since I was so stressed by the whole transitioning to university fiasco that I was hardly eating anyway. Two weeks into my first semester, I was looking very pale, losing an unhealthy amount of weight and surviving on a diet of neat gin, cups of tea and the occasional slice of toast. Then, one night I made myself a huge pot of spaghetti bolognese. I felt amazing. Almost as if I should be eating proper cooked meals…(seriously, somebody needs to be looking out for students). Of course, I concluded that beef had saved my life and held onto that view for the next four years.
The problem with blindly holding onto beliefs is that you stop listening. For a long time, if my fellow students presented arguments for vegetarianism, I hardly heard them. I thought they were insane to deprive themselves of something I believed was nutritious and delicious. In my head, humans were natural omnivores, making vegetarianism highly unnatural and only motivated by a pathological need for attention and/or unhealthy desire for thinness.
Looking back, I am ashamed of my prejudices. I should not have allowed myself to get sucked into stereotyping and judgemental dismissal of something I had not bothered to know anything about.
Years of inner conflict
As time went by, I became smarter about health and started feeding myself proper meals. In second year, I upped my cooking game and began to produce some vegetarian dishes, mostly because I was living on a student budget and meat is expensive.
At this stage, I still felt I was sacrificing a lot from my meals if they lacked meat. Only once I stumbled across the wonders of a well-seasoned aubergine did I even begin to consider enjoying vegetarian food. It took me a couple of years to build up a wheelhouse of decent recipes. Luckily, this involved me turning outwards and seeking cooking advice from my fellow herbivores. I began to realise that these people were not all sucking on celery sticks and weeping. Some of them even enjoyed catering.
By the final year of my degree, I had expanded my social circles, attended a few debates and tentatively begun to ask people why they were vegetarian, without being prepared with an instant rebuttal. I learned that vegetarians were less often gym-crazed cult members. More often, these people were doing a nice thing to save animals and the planet.
However, I still figured that it was mad to cut a whole food group out of a balanced diet. I began to feel very guilty when I ate meat, but felt I had no choice. I experienced several health scares in my final year of university, including inexplicable pain and inflammation in my joints. I was therefore very unwilling to impose any risks on my health by restricting my diet. I viewed vegetarian dishes as morally virtuous but lacking in essential nutrients.
Again, I chastise myself for my narrow-mindedness. All I had needed to have done was open up the internet, and I would have found reams of information about the health benefits of a plant-based diet. I would have figured out that my dodgy joints might even benefit from giving up red meat, which has inflammatory properties.
I think I was scared of the truth. If I knew the truth, I would have to give up one of my greatest enjoyments in life. More than that, I was scared to be proved wrong. Eating meat felt like part of my heritage and my identity. It was going to take a while for me to let go of that aspect of myself.
We live in a progressive world, and it has become much, much harder to hide from the truth. I had friends turning vegetarian left, right and centre. I wanted to know why, and began to do my research. I followed vegans on the internet. I read endless debates about the keto diet. I learned the names of all the vitamins. I went one way and then the other. It was really hard for me to get my head around the fact that the way I had known was probably not right for me after all.
In the meantime, I maintained my flexitarian lifestyle, which mainly consisted of me eating a plant-based diet at home but stuffing my face with burgers when I was drunk. This was mostly very stressful as both meat-eaters and vegetarians (and myself) criticized me for not living by the values that I clearly held deep down. I was also not eating the necessary nuts, seeds and other important sources of Omega 3 and protein that you need if you are not eating much meat or fish. It was a terrible middle ground that resulted from my complete denial of the change I was clearly wanting and trying to make.
I got to the point where it was impossible to be comfortable with my choice to eat meat, even occasionally. I am not the sort of person that can do things halfway, and the guilt and the dissonance got louder and louder until I could not longer ignore it.
So, one random Tuesday night, I decided enough was enough. I was going to do this properly and renounce meat for good. At the time, the decision felt quite sudden, like a switch had flicked. On reflection, I had clearly been building up to it for months, if not years.
It was a massive relief to commit to one lifestyle rather than several incompatible ones. I could embrace the change fully, making my shopping lists and meal plans and stocking up on flax seeds and walnuts. I also consulted my doctor, which is always advisable when you are changing your diet. They recommended that I go pescatarian because of my unresolved joint issues, so that is what I am doing for now. From a health perspective, it makes sense and fish has a lot of nutritional benefits, especially for your bones. However, a month in, I have got to the point where I am not used to eating dead things and it feels quite strange to eat fish. I may have to rethink and research, which I am now perfectly willing to do!
At first, I did miss meat very much. I had terrible cravings, especially when I was having food out and about. I felt my options had halved and I found myself scowling at menus. But after as little as two weeks, I became not very bothered by this. The sight of meat very quickly became unappealing. Now, I still like the smell, but even that love is fading.
I never thought it would be this natural and easy to give up meat. Not only do I feel at peace in my head, but I have more energy, my weight has stabilised and I don’t feel bloated and sick every time I eat out. I wish I had done this years ago, but perhaps I have learned more by doing things in this very roundabout way: I have learned to listen. I have learned to seek out the opposite point of view, just in case it has merit. I have learned that one can be very wrong, for a very long time.
As I said at the start of this post, I am not really talking about diet, but about the mind. Deciding to give up meat was of one of my biggest attitude shifts, and I wanted to share it as an example of how much capacity we all have to make our lives better if we are willing to think differently.
Sometimes, it really is ok to change your mind.