Difficult decisions

Being a vegetarian has been a core part of my identity for the last seventeen years. I stopped eating meat when I was nine, after seeing a TV programme on factory farming. I had occasional slips until I was 13 and only learned about gelatine and rennet when I first got online at 16 (yes, I am old enough that my family didn’t have a computer until I hit my mid-teens), but vegetarianism has been important to me for more or less two thirds of my life – I’ll be 27 next month. I’ve never been a hardcore veggie zealot – many claims about the “right” way to eat are founded on some seriously dodgy science, regardless of whether the argument is for paleo, Atkins, vegetarianism, veganism, macrobiotics, raw diets – the list is a long one, and not all of those people who are so convinced that they have the answers can be right. I also don’t think that trying to guilt people into changing their eating habits works, and I’m not a fan of the campaigns which really lay it on thick. I don’t claim to know some universal truth about nutrition, I don’t presume that others must be stupid if they don’t think the same way as I do, and I don’t tell people that they are going to give themselves cancer. I wasn’t attracted to vegetarianism for the health claims anyway, it was an ethical decision. I was a sensitive little thing and couldn’t bear the thought of eating animals.

However, over the last few months I’ve slowly and reluctantly come to the decision that it would be a good idea to have a six month trial of eating meat again.

(pause to duck all those rotten tomatoes being thrown at me)

Yeah, I know. Believe me, I wouldn’t have chosen to do this if I didn’t have good reasons. Basically, despite having been at a healthy weight for almost two years now, my health is still fairly bad. Some of it I can blame on bad genetic luck and after-effects from the eating disorder, but only up to a point. As I said, I became vegetarian at nine. At nine I also developed problems with anxiety, depression and palpitations. I had always been a jittery and obsessive child and some of the escalation of this could be put down to what was going on in my life at the time – bullying, parental financial problems, my dog dying – but I also know that my physical health hasn’t been right since then either. My immune function is chronically low, as is my blood pressure. My blood sugar is wonky no matter how balanced my meals are, and my hormones are all over the place. My hair falls out too much. I have pin-prick spots all over my arms where blood vessels have started breaking for no apparent reason. My digestive system didn’t stop beating me up even when I cut out a list of allergens as long as my arm. I eat balanced meals, I don’t overdo desserts or sugary snacks, I barely touch caffeine or alcohol, I take a multivitamin and mineral tablet, extra B vitamins and evening primrose oil, I walk everywhere and my weight is healthy and stable. I have run out of other things to tweak.

My job has influenced my decision too. Spending time with people suffering from various age-related problems makes the damage my eating disorder did to me seem more real. Having weak bones and a dodgy heart at my age is terrifying when I think about the fact that 90% of the residents are between sixty and seventy years older than me. I have no real evidence that being vegetarian caused or exacerbated any of my other problems, but it’s certainly not cured them either.

Despite being on a tight budget I’m only going to eat free range, organic meat. My ethics can only stretch so far in the name of health. I do feel a bit guilty for putting my own interests before those of the animals, but it’s just six months. I’m not going to turn into a rampant carnivore either, I’ll stick to eating meat three times a week or so. If my health gets better my family will worry about me less and I’ll be more likely to be able to continue supporting myself financially (instead of going back to the sickness benefits…) and become a good counsellor. If nothing changes I can go back to being veggie and accept that my body is crocked up.

Whilst I accept that I will feel guilty, I won’t take abuse from anyone else. I’ve seen some of the comments lapsed veggie and vegan bloggers have received, and anything like that in response to this post won’t make it past moderation. If you’re friends with me and you’re that judgemental you’re probably not much of a friend, and if you don’t know me and you just want to abuse/patronise me I’m not interested. I don’t particularly want to do this, but it’s scary living in my body sometimes, and if there’s anything I can do to change that, I’ll give it a try. I hope people are empathic enough to accept that, but I’m hoping no one will have an issue since I’m not and never have been a specifically vegetarian or vegan food blogger – I’m just a random person who writes about different things.

Although I’ll never tell my dad, because he’d just gloat.

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14 responses to “Difficult decisions

  1. I’m a Vegan (I tend to swap back to Veggie when I travel to other countries though to save faffing around trying to tell people I can’t eat eggs, meat or dairy), I kind of have a similar belief to you by the looks of it, I have my personal reasons for being Vegan (I don’t like how the dairy industry works, and spiritually I think it’s wrong for me to eat the dead), but they’re my reasons and I would never try and force them on anybody else because what you eat is a personal choice, so if you think you need to start eating meat for heath reasons or whatever then you shouldn’t have to justify yourself to anybody πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Alexandria πŸ™‚ it cheered me up that the first comment was so open minded! I can’t have dairy because I’m allergic, but I relate to the problems with travelling – I ended up virtually living on potatoes last time I went to mainland Europe. It’s a good job the UK makes things easy for veggies and vegans or I really would have some serious deficiencies!

  2. I think that eating preferences are a personal choice. I often feel hypocritical because I don’t eat animal flesh, yet I do consume fish (and an awful lot of dairy). I shunned animal flesh when it really ‘hit me’ that meat comes from animals at age 10. Sounds crazy, but as a small child I never associated meat with animals! If I were allergic to dairy I think I’d fnd it difficult to consume enough protein because I’m a lazy cook and am not very good at experimenting with food.

  3. *defends from any rotten tomatoes and then realises there aren’t any* Well, I’m your friend and I think you’re a star for sticking up for yourself πŸ˜€

    ‘it’s scary living in my body sometimes, and if there’s anything I can do to change that, I’ll give it a try.’ That’s a quote I should have tatooed on my forehead. And I’ve abused mine, where as you’ve done absolutely everything in your power to give yours a fighting chance. I think being veggie/vegan is a LOT harder when you have allergies or intolerances to deal with as well. Mine are just IBS stuffies but you have a genuine, serious allergy to contend with, that rules out so many vegetarian choices.

    I was a miltant cow for most of my teens and now I can see how wrong I was to try to foist my lifestyle on others: I was doing well then but I was also restricting my food most of the time, and therefore my IBS wasn’t a problem because there wasn’t much food going in to trigger it. I don’t think Diet Pepsi has much fibre πŸ˜› Even if I hadn’t started experimenting with (sustainable) fish then I still wouldn’t judge you, now or ever. I can’t bear the thought of eating animals either but at the same time feeling crappy for your whole life isn’t much of a life at all: self-love as well as animal compassion, right?

    Give yourself a break lovely: you have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.

    xxx

  4. GO For it!! ive recently started eating some poultry, fish and eggs cuz my body needed it from all the lifting I was doing! dont fret!

  5. I have also seriously considered eating meat, not for physical health reasons but because I think my desire to become vegetarian was very closely related to my eating disorder. However if eating meat could lessen your anxiety I might try it to see if it helps me, I look forward to reading about how it goes – you’re inspirational.

  6. Actually, instead of me throwing rotten tomatoes at you, you’ve eased my guilt about my recent ventures back in to dairy! And I’m not ruling out that I may find my way to free-range organic meat or sustainably caught fish (though I haven’t been able to do it yet).

    Though I will militantly deny that my ethical food choices had nothing to do with restriction and my ED (or yours), I do think that letting go, changing your mind, experimenting, not seeing everything in black and white is undeniably a sign of recovery and good mental health. And it’s uncomfortable….that’s a good sign too! πŸ˜‰

    Go you for putting your health first.

  7. My vegetarian housemate has recently gone back to eating meat and fish because she was diagnosed with dairy and gluten intolerance. If I were in her shoes I would probably do the same thing (I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years). Compassion with animals is great and obviously very important, but so is taking care of yourself and your body. Taking care goes beyond just making sure you don’t drop dead on the spot – for me it’s about leading a life that’s as easy and comfortable (dare I say happy?) as possible without doing disproportionate harm to your environment. Even if their are things you can eat as a veggie that don’t wreak havoc on your digestive system, if you think you can feel better or you want to have more option or to make going out to eat easier – those are all valid reasons for incorporating meat/fish. No need to justify anything πŸ™‚ (I’m also curious to see how it works out for you on a personal level as well: being a vegetarian and anorexic “in remission” I struggle a lot with inexplicable stomach pains. I tried quitting dairy but it didn’t seem to improve much, and while it’s not unbearable it’s definitely uncomfortable.)

    Love,

    Dame Noire

  8. For what it’s worth I’m a lapsed vegetarian. I went veggie at 13, lapsed at 20, gave up meat and poultry again when I was 28, and a year or so later I cut down on fish – I now only eat sustainable fish and shellfish on special occasions. I like seafood too much to give up completely! And I don’t even have health reasons for this. I’m glad all the comments to this thread have been so positive. You have to do what’s right for you and no one else should try to force their ethics on you or to make you feel bad for taking care of yourself. x

  9. You’re writing is very cautious, even sort of submissive at some points. You do not have to justify your decision at all! Especially not in such a way and even if your reasons are as reasonable as they can be. It is true, I do not have any experience with vegetarians and vegans, no matter if they are of the militant kind or not, so I do not know if such caution is appropriate. I myself am not a vegetarian – I have tried to exclude meat from my diet, when I was about 12 or 13 years old (I am 28 now), but gave up after some weeks due to several reasons: one was that it was really difficult to stay clear of meat in my environment, the second was that I was not clear on my reasons to become a vegetarian.
    Anyway, I hope it helps with your health. I also have a weak immune system, although I eat healthily, I am doing sports and I try to not consciously expose myself to health risks (starting with avoiding cold feet or dressing mindfully). The only explanation I have is that it is a long-term effect of anorexia, because before I got ill, it was okay, but it has never worked as “properly” again. I am still hoping, it will get better eventually.
    I hope the addition of meat to your diet helps you.

    xx
    Judith

  10. Well, I for one hope things work out for you and that you can achieve a higher level of health.

    I often wonder how I would deal if I was told I had to eat meat. Originally I accidentally became a veggie by default: eating meat just seemed alien to me (I never craved it, and I couldn’t get over the ‘dead flesh’ part as a child. Chewing bacon was my nemesis…). At 9ish my mum borrowed a bunch of veggie books, discovered how to make sure I got enough of what I needed, and stopped trying to coerce me into eating the meat part of my meal (usually ham, fish fingers, bacon or shepherds pie: she never cooked proper-joined-up meat and we never had a Sunday roast). The ethics part came later (along with giving up marshmallows. Sad face).

    I do think there is something in the whole ‘different bodies need different eating methods’ thing. I can’t predict whether I’ll ever encounter vegetarian related health problems, or what I’d do if I needed to make a choice to eat meat, so I respect you for facing this decision with an open mind and going with what you’ve decided. I think adaptability is an important part of being human. Our bodies are always changing, and there is nothing wrong with responding to the body’s changing needs. In a way, I think we actually need to pay attention to what our body is saying, rather than always trying to dictate what we ‘think’ it needs.

    I like the tangent Alison went on about moral beings, desires of the flesh and principled commitment. Yes, we may be able to make decisions based on our beliefs and principles, but sometimes I think humans forget that, in reality, we are still animals too, and still need to respond to our bodies on some basic level. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Every living thing is part of the intricate web of all living things: we all benefit from and give back to Life Out There.

    I hope you manage to get over your personal guilt (really! Don’t feel guilty!) and can somehow embrace this new approach, and that your body reponds positively.

    Oh, and the dad comment made me smile πŸ˜‰

  11. As a guiltily lapsed vegetarian (who intends to be veggie again someday), I thought that this was a really interesting post and set of comments.
    When I first returned to eating meat I found ‘The Meat Book’ by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of ‘River Cottage’ fame- my mum’s a fan) to be quite helpful in rationalising my decision: he basically points out that humans and animals have existed in a kind of symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship for thousands of years, and the relationship between humans and the animals we eat has become closer and closer over that time until there’s a sort of ‘evolutionary contract’ between them. Of course, it still doesn’t mean that individual animals want to be killed- but if animals are raised and killed humanely, it’s far kinder than the way it happens in nature. I’m not sure that I find the argument entirely convincing anymore- because humans have a choice, which squid and sparrowhawks don’t (although if your health is affected, this point is probably debatable), and because it doesn’t even begin to address the environmental impact of meat.
    Anyway, I hope that you don’t feel too guilty: it sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot, and I think that you minimise any making the decision to only eat free-range meat and even then only a few times a week. If everyone in the western world followed those rules then I think that both animal welfare and the environment would be far better off. A lot of people are very blase about eating meat- eating it every day (often 2-3 times) and never thinking about the fact that it comes from an animal (let alone how that animal was raised).
    Just out of interest, would you eat fish or just meat?

    • Hi Briony πŸ™‚
      The environmental thing was part of why I stuck to being vegetarian too, but I’m hoping to offset any negative effects by being extra careful about the rest of my diet. For example, I’ve never been all that picky about where my fruit and veg comes from, and I can’t say my diet is good for the environment if I’m eating fruit and veg flown into the UK from all over the world. Eating British meat and British seasonal veg would probably have less impact than eating no meat and lots of exotic stuff.

      I think eating fish would probably be good for me, but I’ve never liked it! The smell freaks me out, it’s a bit of an aversion. I’m going to try it at some point though…

  12. Try not to feel guilty about it. I am not vegetarian, although I don’t eat very much meat, but I do sometimes get flashes of guilt when I eat meat. I don’t have a justification for it – my parents tend to tell me that the animals wouldn’t be alive in the first place if we didn’t eat meat, which is generally true, but I love animals and so I do have some issues with it, but overall my diet is fairly limited as I am very fussy, and if I cut out meat altogether then I think it would be very awkward when eating out etc, as there is already so much I don’t like. Like you, I don’t like fish. My dad on the other hand doesn’t eat meat, but does eat fish. We do only buy British, organic, free range meat – I would never buy one of the ridiculously cheap chickens that the supermarkets sell, as I just think it is hideous the way those animals are treated – I don’t think it should be allowed. My mum always says how when she was a child people just did not eat meat with anything like the regularity they do today – having meat daily was virtually unheard of as it just wasn’t affordable, whereas now an awful lot of people do have meat at least one meal a day. Having said that, if I eat meat out then it probably does not fit these guidelines most of the time unfortunately, but for the sake of practicality I think it is difficult to always stick to morals. You do not need to justify your decision to eat meat though – it is a perfectly natural thing that has been happening for as long as humans have been on the earth, and the majority of animals also eat other animals, so it really is a natural thing. I think the important thing is to stick to organic, free range meat whenever possible, as it is the way that animals are treated that is the really objectionable thing, rather than the fact they are killed – that bit is just the circle of life really.

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