When I describe myself as a reluctant vegetarian, people often ask ‘why do it, if you’re reluctant?’ It’s a fair question – the only person stopping me from eating meat and fish is me, so if I want to eat it then why don’t I? The answer is that I like the idea of non-violence towards my furry, feathery and fishy brethren marginally more – just marginally mind you – than I like the way they taste.
I was vegetarian for about 6 years in my youth, but it didn’t end well – the animals got a good deal, but my own health suffered. Just because a diet is vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s good for you, and apparently Pot Noodles, toast, and microwaveable chips do not a balanced nutritional program make. So that was the end of that for a good many years, and I began cheerfully tucking into anything that would stand still long enough, the more bony and offally and requiring of specialist implements the better.
And then I went and got mixed up in this yoga malarkey, the first guiding principle of which is non-violence. Tricky.
Now I’d harboured some pretty violent behaviours towards myself for a number of years, so it was enough to address those to begin with; non-violence, like charity, begins at home. The journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance does not happen overnight, so I had plenty to be going on with in my early yoga days, and I wasn’t overly troubled by my wanton lust for ox-tails, chicken legs and just about anything that came out of an ocean. Well I say that – I did occasionally feel conflicted about the fact that I’d never kill a swan or a dog, and yet a duck or a pig was somehow fair game as long as someone else did the killing part… but it soon passed when the smell hit my olfactory nerves and the pleasure party began in my brain.
But as my relationship with myself softened and I began to feel that perhaps I wasn’t a massive blight on humanity after all, I started to feel increasingly uneasy about putting my taste-buds before the wellbeing of another mammal. I stopped eating anything with four legs, but stayed with chicken and fish. That wasn’t such a great hardship apart from at Christmas – I just had to remind myself that the succulent ham on the table was actually a pig’s arse, and that mostly did the job. Ok, I caved once, but I was still going in the right direction for me. The emerging evidence of the relationship between red and processed meats and colo-rectal cancer was the final nail in the coffin for my red meat eating days.
But then I started looking at the chickens I loved to roast, and seeing them for what they really are – or rather, were. I began to feel that eating their flesh was less than nourishing; that I was eating… well… death. Did I really want that in this body which I’d finally come to appreciate? So with great reluctance and tearful apologies to my taste-buds, who would never again know a hot, juicy chicken thigh, I stopped eating birds too.
Oh but fish though; that was a whole different kettle of, um, fish. Most of my favourite foods came from oceans or rivers. Prawns, squid, salmon, crab, smoked mackerel, pickled herring… the mere sight of a seafood platter had always had me salivating. But all of these creatures, whilst not intelligent to the level of a human, can feel pain and fear, and share with us an overwhelming desire to live. I had something in common with these little critters dammit, I didn’t really want to steal their lives, and yet they tasted so good. I mean, why couldn’t salt and pepper squid just be a vegetable for god’s sake?!
(Well Bec, because a squid is basically an octopus, just like the one you came face to face with whilst diving and which changed colour right in front of you and which had you in raptures for days… that’s why.)
Well maybe I won’t buy fish, I’ll just order it when I’m out if the veggie menu is lame.
(Bec, the only thing that’s lame here is that excuse. Sorry dude. Are we doing this non-violence thing or aren’t we?)
Oh. Ok. Yeah. I guess.
And that was that. No more seafood has passed my lips. It’s one day at a time, but every time I pass up a once-living creature for the abundance of food which is vegetarian, I feel good about my choice. The biggest thing for me is the sense of liberation from the guilt of causing harm, which I’ll admit isn’t the noblest of motivations, but it’s where I am.
When I waver, there’s also the consideration of what goes into animal diets these days – the hormones and antibiotics. They don’t magically disappear when the flesh hits the fork. Nor do the heavy metal and plastic particles which fish ingest from the oceans which we’ve so effectively polluted. And then there’s the impact on the planet… it takes around 15,500 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef, versus around 200 to grow a kilo of tomatoes. Vast tracts of forest vital to our planet’s survival are cleared to make way for rearing animals for slaughter. And huge fishing trawlers decimate the ocean bed of flora and corals in their indiscriminate pillaging of fish, many of which are not the desired breed and so are killed for nothing. Farmed fish are full of hormones and infections and antibiotics – it seems that a plant-based diet is the only escape.
When I sat down to write this piece, it wasn’t my intention to try and encourage anyone to go plant-based – rather, I wanted to share my journey and the ongoing battle between my taste-buds and my heart. Eating veggie is a personal choice I made well into adulthood, and I don’t remotely judge anyone for their own choices – like I said, I frequently struggle. I definitely recommend researching a well-balanced diet if you’re thinking of going down the veggie route – as I discovered the first time round, if you don’t do it properly then you’ll just make yourself ill. But it’s becoming apparent that ingesting red and processed meat, as well as hormones and antibiotics via flesh-food is also making us ill. For our own health then, it makes sense to buy less but buy better if we choose to eat meat and fish. Organic meat and poultry, and wild line-caught fish are more helpful choices for the human and for the planet. They’re more expensive, but if you eat them less frequently it balances out, and no-one needs to eat meat every day. On the subject of money, my grocery bill has halved since going veggie!
I like the term ‘plant-based’ over ‘vegetarian’. It focuses on the stuff we should be eating for optimum health, rather than the all-inclusive ‘any old crap as long as it’s not meat or fish’ approach which I fell into the first time around!
In the end, nutritionist and food author Micheal Pollan has some smart words on the simplicity of eating well.
‘Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’