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Monday, 10 October 2016

Three things I learned from being vegetarian.

 while ago, I decided to take another step towards alpha-hipster status by giving up meat for a whole week. I kept going, and it’s now been nearly a year since I ate the stuff, so I thought I’d perpetuate the stereotype of vegetarians not being able to shut up about themselves by writing a ranty blog post about it. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

I don’t really need to explain myself.
I love meat. Roast dinners, steak, smoked salmon, duck, veal, you name it, I love it. I’ve always been very open-minded when it comes to food. Well, I say “open-minded”, what I really mean is I’m a greedy slob. I’ll eat anything, and a lot of it (I once ate a entire chicken at Nando’s, and usually see ‘all you can eat’ as a personal challenge.)

So why did I become vegetarian? Well it’s quite boring really. There were various personal motivations – I was at a particularly shitty period of my life, so making every meatless day an ‘achievement’ helped me cope – I was also a poor student, and meat is quite expensive.

While I’d been reading into and humouring the idea for a while, it was a book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, that probably tipped me over the edge.

It’s all the standard reasons: Environmental, health and animal welfare. Or, put more expressively, I turned vegetarian for precisely the same reasons I don’t burn tyres, smoke cigarettes or punch cats.

When I was younger, I couldn’t understand how anyone could not eat meat. ‘Meat is so tasty! How can you not like meat?’ I’d scoff whenever anyone confessed to a veggie diet. ‘But what about steak?!’ ‘What about chicken?!’ I’d argue, as if the primary motivation behind not eating meat is disliking the taste of bacon.

Looking back, I think that this knee-jerk hostility towards veggies stemmed from a number of places. It certainly came from my own adolescent insecurity and arrogance (which was why I was – and still am – ambiguous when it comes to arguing), and the immature thrill of poking fun at someone else’s compassion.

But, deep down, I think I saw some logic in their position, and hence wanted to hear how they would defend it.

Of course, now that I’m not 16, I’ve discovered that the best way to understand someone’s viewpoint is to have a civilised conversation or just read a few books on the subject.

Whatever their viewpoints, people enquiring about my motivations for being vegetarian share something in common – they already know why I don’t eat meat.

Everybody knows that eating meat is cruel to animals, terrible for the environment and bad for your health. So much so that I usually just say ‘the usual reasons’ when asked to explain myself.

Just because someone isn’t sad enough to research all of those scary facts – like how animal agriculture is the number one cause of greenhouse gases (making a 40% greater contribution to climate change than all of the Earth’s transportation combined), or that pigs and cows can feel depressed, just like we do – doesn’t mean they’re not aware of the underlying issues. It’s not a question of whether or not you’re aware, it’s a question of whether or not you care.

That may sound like typical douchebag vegan talk, like I’m implying that anyone who doesn’t care about this issue is immoral. But the truth is, not caring is an entirely legitimate position.

Morality isn’t that clear cut. By spending £60 on a nice jumper instead of donating that money to Cancer Research, am I immoral for putting my enjoyment of knitwear before fighting cancer? Of course I’m not. Neither is someone who places the convenience of driving to their nearby supermarket, or the pleasure of eating a steak, over the combating of climate change. You simply can’t equate things on those terms.

The climate aspect becomes particularly hazy. Having a child can dump over 9,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (that’s more than the weight of the Eiffel Tower) and is just about the worst thing two humans can do to the environment. But is anyone suggesting we should all get sterilized? No, because there is a general consensus that a baby is worth the pollution it causes.

Other than being delicious, meat is a tremendously important part of countless cultures, and an argument can be made that the enjoyment and cultural significance of meat is well worth its pollution. But how do we determine what is “worth” the pollution it produces?

In this respect, the only difference between me and a meat eater is where we draw this line.

Not eating meat seems inexorably linked with bullshit.
I try to be quite a rational person – one of the reasons I decided to give vegetarianism a whirl was the logic behind it. I’m an atheist, and this plays into my decision to give up meat in a number of ways.

Other than humans, animals are probably the thing religion treats the worst. Major religions, such as Christianity and Islam, place a strong emphasis on not giving a shit about animals (they don’t even get souls!)

The Christian God thought nothing of drowning all the Earth’s animals. Sure, He caused the great flood because of the wrong doings of humans, but who cares? Animals were just put on Earth for our enjoyment and taste buds anyway.

It’s hardly surprising that holy books conceived by ignorant, desert-dwelling scribes placed an emphasis on agriculture. ‘Sacrifice a few goats and your crops will be rained upon!’

The Bible and the Quran teach us that animals are a gift from God, created especially for us, and this attitude reverberated throughout history, forming a belief that animals are inherently inferior to humans.

Islamic tradition says that we should thank God for the sustenance before we painfully bleed the animal to death in a perverse ritual, but at least pigs are spared. Incidentally, the closest religion comes to respecting animals is in the banning of eating certain species for equally arbitrary reasons.

A bit later, philosophers like that René Descartes guy compounded this by suggesting that animals can’t feel pain, and are just machines – cutting up a dog without anaesthetic was just like looking inside a clock.

Thankfully, Descartes’s interpretation and animal sacrifices are both usually regarded as a bit outmoded, and animal welfare is taken a lot more seriously in modern society.

Although we still practice archaic bullshit like halal meat and fox hunting, people tend to understand that animals can feel pain, and causing them unnecessary suffering is not cool.

As the mistreatment of animals partly originates from god-fearing superstition and scientific ignorance, you’d think that arguments for vegetarianism and veganism would all come from a rational position. Well, it turns out, they often don’t.

It seems you can’t go to a veggie food festival without seeing some charlatan hawking healing magnets or magic crystals, offering to read your palm or tell you what colour your aura is. These dipshits make me want to slaughter and devour an animal right in front of them, just to annoy them.

Choosing not to eat meat should be a logical stance – an informed decision arising from an awareness of the ethical, health and environmental factors. But it seems to have a bit of an image problem.

What comes to mind when you think of the typical vegan? A topknotted hippy explaining to you through a haze of incense smoke that they’re “spiritual”. “I don’t believe in a god with a ‘capital G’” they say, pausing to rearrange their hemp poncho, “but I’m into the Eastern religions, because they’re like, deeper.” Now, I don’t care if you choose to derive your world outlook from Deepak Chopra’s twitter feed, but I’d rather not be associated with you.

There are many ways to legitimately promote a meat-free diet. One of the most common arguments against vegetarianism, the whole ‘we-should-worry-about-getting-enough-protein-and-therefore-eat-meat’ thing, is easy to dispel. The World Health Organization, who last year classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, recommends a plant-based diet to everyone (in particular pregnant woman and athletes), and found that vegetarians and vegans “meet and exceed” requirements for protein intake (and in fact usually get more protein than omnivores).

It seems if you want to avoid obesity, osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in your urinary tract, diabetes and some cancers, being vegetarian is probably a good thing to do.

From an environmental standpoint, given the hugely damaging impact meat production has on our planet, you’d think all green activists would unite in wholeheartedly endorsing going meat-free. However, Greenpeace – the world’s largest and most visible environmental organisation – meekly recommends you should “commit to reducing your meat and dairy consumption by a few meals per week”. But I suppose an organisation known for decimating world heritage sites and illegally destroying lifesaving crops wouldn’t want to risk coming across too militant.

Research and scientific understanding provides us with many compelling arguments for vegetarianism – from meat’s environmental impact to the palpable suffering it inflicts on animals. It irks me when this evidence-based reasoning gets watered down by the homeo-holistic-horseshit that is all too often analogous with vegetarianism.

Companies sell us “super foods” and claim their smoothies “detox” us (an invented marketing term and medical impossibility), quacks flog fruit tablets as miracle weight loss remedies and endless fad diets are dreamt up.

Since being vegetarian, I’ve found I can’t even buy a tin of black beans without having to shop at a wholefoods place proudly displaying homeopathic tablets and a whole host of empirically useless supplements.

When vegetarianism is served with a side order of nonsense, it’s easy for its valid arguments to be undermined.

The evidence suggests that ditching meat is good for our bodies and our world, so why can’t we dispense with all the pseudoscience and hippy hogwash?

Vegetarian food is tasty.
As I mentioned, I’m very open-mined about food. I even like olives, despite their disgusting taste. I saw this as both a blessing and a curse when I decided to go vegetarian. While I can happily chomp on raw broccoli, I also love meat, but surprisingly it wasn’t that hard to stop eating it.

It turns out, it’s quite easy to not put certain things into your face. I’m not used to having a dietary requirement, and it’s pretty awkward turning up to a friend’s house with your own Tupperware box to microwave because you can’t eat bolognaise with everyone else, but it really isn’t that big of a deal.

There are things you need to watch for, I’ve had a vodka jelly while inebriated, probably a bit of parmesan (try googling “rennet” without feeling ill), and a fish ball thing that was labelled in Italian, but that doesn’t count! Wine – which is often made using dried fish bladders – is currently my only exception.

Vegetarianism has been on the rise recently (my age group in particular – in the UK, 20 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds are now vegan or vegetarian).

Obviously, veggies are catered for pretty well these days. You’d be very hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t have veggie options (although I think some restaurants need to up their game – I like to see more than the one token meal).

I thought my diverse palette would demand meat, but surprisingly, I haven’t missed it much. In retrospect, a lot of my favourite foods – curry, Nando’s chicken, chili con carne, roast lamb smothered in mint sauce – get their flavour from something other than the meat anyway.

There are, of course, a lot of meats I miss. Things like smoked salmon, tuna, steak and ham have no adequate veggie substitute. What are vegetarians supposed to put in sandwiches anyway?

However, being vegetarian has caused me to expand my culinary repertoire beyond the five or so meals I made on an endless loop. I’ve discovered a real love for cooking, and I’ve went from not really knowing what a fennel is, to exploring a whole host of vegetarian cuisine.

I’ll probably go back to eating meat (indeed, for 8 out of 10 of vegetarians, it turns out to be just a phase), but I’ve at least tried a lot of tasty recipes.

I used to think a nice meal had to have meat. The ‘no meat, no meal’ attitude is prevalent, probably stemming in part from that stupid ‘food pyramid’ thing we were all shown at school, which taught us it’s fine to eat beef burgers every day and we all need a bit of dairy (despite the fact that 75% of humanity are lactose intolerant).

As we have become entitled to meat, something has become lost in the process – meat has become boring. We no longer view it as something special, instead we chomp down reheated freeze-dried nuggets of mechanically recovered mush.

Even if I give up vegetarianism, I’ll certainly view meat as more of a luxury – I’ll avoid junk, but enjoy a good steak every now and then.

If you do it right, I’ve found vegetarian food can often be more exciting than its meat equivalent. For example, chili con carne was one of my staple meals. I now make a meat-free version, which includes green lentils, peppers, carrots, tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, courgette and the usual onions and kidney beans – all those flavours and textures make for a much more interesting chili!

A Good vegetarian meal isn’t a meal without meat, it’s a meal that doesn’t need meat (I’ll have to do a post listing my favourite recipes!)

Being vegetarian is fun, and I’d recommend giving it a try. I wonder how long I’ll keep this up?

Maybe I’ll be writing a post about going vegan one day…

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