OPINION PIECE: Thoughts on conversion to a meat-free life

I stopped eating meat on Tuesday 1st September 2015. The choice was entirely pragmatic: I was on a shopping spree in a supermarket, having just moved into my second-year accommodation, and I was struck by the amount of meat-free alternatives on the shelves. I simply thought, “why not just pick up a load of these today and give them a go instead of meat?”. This was both an effort to save a bit of money and also an experimental foray into the world of vegetarianism, as I’ve always been fond of funky veggie/vegan cuisines. This wasn’t a challenging switch for me and I think this was for two primary reasons:

  1. There wasn’t any pressure to avoid meat. I wasn’t coerced by my friends, guilt-tripped by the teachings of a God after a dramatic conversion to a religion or dissuaded from the fresh meat aisle by a series of gruesome animal cruelty videos. I literally just thought about trying some new bits and pieces for the week ahead, until my next supermarket excursion. I hadn’t actually considered it as a significant milestone or as the beginning of a meat-free lifestyle for the foreseeable future. Thus, I was free of any weighty expectations and honestly didn’t give a flying fudge about potential judgment.
  2. I’ve always had an affinity for eating vegetables. Apparently I was quite an avid eater of the greens as a kid, and unlike most other petulant children dodging bits of leafy goodness in their dinner, I was gorging myself on it with no encouragement. I was excited by the prospect of trying something new, so I embraced it as an adventure.

This relaxed introduction to eating vegetarian alternatives then became a more permanent lifestyle change, with me choosing to continue on without meat. It has clearly worked as a long-term project. This year is my 5th anniversary of being “meat-free”, though I do occasionally consume fish (technically I’m a pescetarian, though I’m avoidant of “labels” where possible as they provoke so much emotive and political conflict!).

I’m not very strict. By that, I mean I’m not particularly concerned about cross-contamination or other people’s lifestyle/dietary choices, which means that I’m pretty relaxed with regards to eating around others. This is a necessity as I am presently living at home, surrounded by people who are carnivorous. In previous years, I have also lived alongside friends who are carnivorous and as a matter of courteous co-habitation with others, I have generally managed to overlook our dietary differences. I imagine this could shift more in the future, as I am hoping to transition to an entirely plant-based diet. In the meanwhile, I think a mutual respect for people’s differences and healthy debate about our lifestyle choices has helped more to encourage my peers towards a plant-based diet. I’ve also found that a lot of family and friends have tried alternatives when I’ve cooked for them, and some even prefer these meat-free alternatives over the “real deal”. This just goes to show that militant rhetoric and guilt-tripping isn’t a productive means of getting people to see from your perspective. A well-cooked dish can do all the talking for you!

There are definite advantages to my lifestyle. I don’t feel I’m “missing out” as nostalgia can be catered for: most meals I enjoyed as a child have been adapted so that they’re suitable for my present dietary needs. There were cravings, particularly in the earlier period of my abstaining from meat, but for the most part, I’ve found worthy substitutes for both flavour and textures that I’ve wanted to eat and have therefore managed to fulfil all my taste cravings without feeling guilty. Additionally, I’ve had my horizons broadened and tried traditional vegetarian/vegan dishes from all over the world, which has helped me to improve my palette and awareness of flavour.

On the flip-side, there are also disadvantages to my meat-free life. I mean, would I say I’m healthier? Probably not. But this is because I make poor lifestyle choices consisting of carb-heavy meals in unlimited portions, so I can’t say that my nutritional input is cleaner due to being greener and I certainly can’t blame the plants for that. That fault is entirely my own! Eating out of convenience and laziness generally holds me back, though an increased interest in cooking has meant that over recent years, I do cook a lot of meals from scratch, using derivatives of soy proteins and kooky vegetables that most people probably couldn’t even name.

Another major disadvantage is that my decision to deviate from the “norm” can bring up very interesting, often flammable, conversation topics when sat around the dinner table with family or eating out with acquaintances… I think eating meat is just an intrinsic part of our culture, and something embedded in recipes bequeathed from one generation to another. Some people are maybe offended by the notion that such dishes are being “rejected”, or threatened by the idea that it is indeed possible to live a life without meat, for whatever reason. I know that my casual foray into veggie eating has definitely confused and angered some people, simply because they don’t understand why I’m abstaining from meat and therefore feel it’s an inconvenience to those who are cooking or a purposeless endeavour, if there’s no justification such as an “end goal”. I wasn’t prepared for how much criticism I would receive from some people, and how emotive discussions would become when trying to explain why I was off meat. I was quite explosive at one point, angry at the expectation I had to explain myself, but I do think that over time I have learned to approach these queries from others with more kindness and patience. Life is a learning curve!

In summary, I would definitely say that I’ve had my eyes opened to alternatives which have made it difficult for me to consider rescinding and turning back to meat. I’ve also intentionally pursued, as well as accidentally stumbled upon, educational material regarding nutritional benefits from sustaining a plant-based diet and jarring footage of animal cruelty within the meat production industry. These experiences have only further inclined me to a future of plant-based living. I would definitely urge people to try and acknowledge some home-truths, as uncomfortable as that may be, with regards to how our food is sourced and how mainstream media has normalised insidious means of food production. This is a necessity in our modern society, which has distanced the realities of what we see on our plates from what we see on farms. It’s important now, more than ever, particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which stemmed from zoonotic transmission (animal to human). Previous examples also include Avian Flu and Swine Flu (you may remember?). It’s worth thinking about how we can prevent contraction of such lethal diseases and whether it is entirely necessary, given the environmental and health repercussions, to sustain lifestyles so heavily reliant upon meat consumption.

I would love to hear your thoughts, dear reader. Are you meat-free? If so, why? And how have you found this experience?

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