Vegetarians: We’re not just feckless hippies
I love meat. I love nothing better than sinking my teeth into a big juicy steak or burger or sausage or just about anything meaty for that matter. In fact, now I come to think of it, eating a big piece of flesh would be right up there in the top five things I’d like to be doing at this moment.
But I can’t. Because I’m vegetarian.
Why, you might ask, would anyone be so daft as to deprive themselves of one of their top five favourite past times? It’s not like I’m an obsessive arsonist or kleptomaniac, heroically restraining myself for the good of society at large, so why bother?
The answer is I’m not entirely sure. I’m 35 years old and I became a vegetarian at the beginning of this year as a new year’s resolution. It all came rather suddenly and a bit unexpectedly (to myself as well as others).
I had always found a certain moral argument for vegetarianism persuasive: that we shouldn’t kill another living creature for food when our survival doesn’t depend on it. Should a life be taken away just to satisfy a desire for a certain sensory transaction between our tastebuds and our brains? I think probably not. Most rational people would find it abhorrent that animals were killed in the making of a film for example, which provides a similar sensory stimulus.
I’d also developed a mid-life environmental conscience and joined Greenpeace. As a consequence I’d discovered that cutting meat out of your diet is the Carbon-footprint-lowering equivalent of giving up driving. This is because the millions of animals reared for meat production generate methane – a greenhouse gas which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Maybe, like many people, I had just liked meat too much and lacked the willpower to give it up. Now my heretofore limp and pathetic willpower had been hardened and purged in the crucible of cigarette-quitting the year before and this, in combination with the moral and environmental concerns, was probably what tipped me over the precipice and sent me freefalling into action.
Whatever the reasons for giving up meat, what has followed has been a meandering journey of discovery encompassing in varying parts: a bionic immune system (surprisingly); weight gain (surprisingly and also annoyingly) and an over-familiarity with lentils.
In terms of the weight gain, I had gone into the whole thing with little or no planning and so, instead of preparing balanced, nutritious meals, I carried on eating the same dishes but without the meat. This led to making up the deficit with more carbs and dairy products (the classic nouveau-veggie mistake I’ve since learned). When you first become vegetarian you tend to rely on the most familiar and palatable non-meat alternatives such as pasta and pizza dishes and it doesn’t take a dietician to know what a diet of pasta and pizza does to the waistline.
The most surprising aspect though has been the positive effect on my immune system. I’m not saying I used to be a sickly little lamb, but if something was going round I nearly always got it. If my girlfriend caught something you could take out the nearly. Since I became vegetarian my girlfriend has come down with viruses twice, both of which floored her for a week. On both occasions I was unaffected.
This was a surprise because all the anecdotes you hear point to the opposite extreme. In these stories vegetarians drop like flies at the mere whiff of a bacterium somewhere in the next village. In fact one of the clichés that had been thrown at me unremittingly when I first gave up meat was that I would be forced to start eating it again when my health started to deteriorate. Since I’ve got to know more vegetarians though I have discovered that my case isn’t so strange. One of my colleagues says she hasn’t come down with a single cold in the seven years she has eschewed meat.
Perhaps it’s because of this confusion about the health effects of a meatless diet that growth in numbers of vegetarians in the UK has slumped in recent years. In a survey conducted in 2000 by the Food Standards Agency, 5% of respondents said they were vegetarian while a further 7% referred to themselves as partly vegetarian. The figures remained roughly the same through the next few years but then in 2007 the number slumped to 2% vegetarian and 7% partly vegetarian. Figures were similar over the next two years according to surveys conducted by the same agency.
So what is it about cutting out meat that is putting people off? Maybe it’s the popular misconception that you will become a frail, lifeless, husk ready to keel over at the merest change in temperature. Maybe it’s a hangover from the old view of vegetarians as feckless hippies. Maybe it’s just that, like me, people enjoy meat too much.
But actually that’s not really true. I like meat but not too much. Despite what I said earlier I’m not about to run off and munch ecstatically on a burger. The thought of a nice ploughmans sandwich is just as tempting. Yes I do miss meat occasionally but the cravings go as soon as my mind turns to something else. They come less frequently and don’t last as long as the weeks go by. And frankly, compared to nicotine cravings, they’re child’s play.
To be honest I’m rather surprised to find that being a vegetarian isn’t all hairshirt and self-flagellation but actually quite enjoyable. I feel like I’m a lot more creative and experimental with the food I eat. I feel like my sense of taste has improved. I can’t believe I’m going to say this but yes I even feel a bit better ‘in myself’. And of course there’s always the chance to gloat the next time my girlfriend comes down with a cold that doesn’t touch me.Tagged in: carbon footprint, carnivore, diet, environment, green technology, greenhouse effect, health, immune system, meat, methane, smoking, vegetarian
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