Monday, July 28, 2014

20 Questions for a Former Vegetarian

My former coworker, journalist Christina Myers, was once a full-fledged, card-carrying vegetarian, but as of her late 20s, she's gone back to eating meat again. In a recent interview, I asked her about her experience with being vegetarian and why she reverted to an omnivore diet.

1. When did you become a vegetarian?
I was 19. I had been in Europe and arrived home within a few days of my nineteenth birthday, and at some point between being in Europe and being at home, I had decided that I was going to do this.

2. Did travelling have something to do with that decision?
Only in the sense that being away had made me be a little bit more independent and a little bit less inclined to worry about what other people thought. So I was a little bit more inclined to make a decision that I felt was right for me.

3. What prompted you to stop eating animals?
Well, if you had asked me that question when I was 19, I would have had a very long list of extremely rational social, political, and environmental answers. That was sort of a time – that would have been about 1995 – when there was a lot of talk, and PETA was getting bigger and talking about conditions on farms and animal rights, generally. So I had all sorts of logical, rational surface reasons that people would have had a hard time arguing with me over. But if I’m being really honest, which is hard to do, and it’s taken me 20 years to figure it out, the real reason underneath it is that it seemed, subconsciously, like an easy way to eat less food that was bad for me. To maybe lose weight. To have less fat and calories. That was the super low-fat era, when everything was like, ‘Cut out as much fat from your diet as you can. Fat is really bad for you, saturated fat is particularly bad for you,’ and, of course, those were the red meats, eggs, although I continued to eat eggs while I was a vegetarian… but I had all these lovely intellectual reasons, and the real reason is that I thought it would probably help me lose weight, and be healthier, although I don’t really think health was the motivator. It was how did I look, and could I lose weight out of this.

4. So, would you say it was more for health than animal welfare that you cut out meat?
I would say, health, yeah. That would be the main reason.

5. Did you find it challenging to switch to a more restricted diet?
It was like, overnight, and it was not hard at all. I just decided and it just was like a switch. I can’t even really explain it. I just stopped eating meat of any kind, but I continued to eat eggs and dairy.

6. Did you still eat fish and seafood?
No, not for a very long time. When I reintroduced meat, seafood was the first thing I reintroduced. But that was like, nine years later. I was a vegetarian for about eight or nine years. And there was no ‘sometimes;’ I was fully vegetarian 100 per cent of the time. I did not eat beef, chicken, lamb, anything. Not even seafood.

7. Did you ever try being vegan?
I was always just lacto-ovo vegetarian. There were no calories involved in wearing leather boots, so on some subconscious level, I just never asked those (vegan-related) questions of myself.

8. Had you planned to be a vegetarian for life?
I think I thought I’d continue that way for a very long time, if not forever. It certainly felt quite virtuous, I’d say. It sort of felt nice to say, “Oh, no, I don’t eat that,” and to feel like I was sort of committed to something ethically and philosophically.

9. When did you decide to start eating meat again?
I was about 27 or 28.

10. What made you decide to go back to eating meat?
The slow realization that I was not being careful in the way that I was eating vegetarian. When I’d started I was being careful to try to get consistent sources of healthy protein, and over time, which I think happens to a lot of young women who become vegetarian – and this is certainly not a blanket statement about vegetarians; I know there are certainly very earnest vegetarians who really take the time to think about what they’re eating – my diet ended up filling up with a lot of pasta, and rice, and bread, and so over time, this effort that I had made to make sure I was having, say, tofu or eggs from time-to-time, (of course those had to be limited as well,) or beans and rice in combination, and so on, that had sort of fallen by the wayside of being busy with school and work and building my career and all of that.

11. How did you go about reintroducing meat into your diet?
I remember it very clearly; I was at a pub with some friends, and we were ordering food and I always had the same sort of food, over and over and over again, and I ordered a tuna sandwich and I ate it and it felt very strange to be eating tuna. It was obviously a very different texture than I’d had in a really long time, but within, like, 15 minutes, I felt so good. I just had such a rush of energy, and I just felt so much better. From there I slowly reintroduced seafood and then poultry and then eventually I reintroduced beef and lamb and other foods as well, over the course of about six months.

12. So you felt better right away after dropping the vegetarian diet?
Yes, absolutely. My energy really returned very quickly, and now, again, retrospectively, having thought about it over the years, I can see now that it’s because the meat I reintroduced, the protein sources I reintroduced bumped out some of the grain products that had taken up so much of my diet. There was more balance.

13. Did you have any regrets when you decided to go back to being an omnivore?
No, because I know a lot of people would say, you know, the counter argument, that they noticed an immediate difference when they stopped eating meat, and certainly my experience is not necessarily reflective of anybody else’s. But for me, it was really the exact opposite. Even when I think about the first few years when I was a vegetarian, you know, I was very careful. I spent a lot of time reading and getting books out of the library, and I read about how to be balanced, what foods to eat and, I mean, there’s no point in regretting things, but I think that being a vegetarian for that long, at least in the way that I was being a vegetarian, I would say significantly damaged my health over the long run.

14. Did you take supplements while you were on a restricted diet?
Yeah, I’ve always taken a multivitamin, and I’m pretty sure I was taking a B-complex for a really long time because that’s something that I’d heard was hard to get in a vegetarian diet.

15. What was the best part of being vegetarian?
Cheap groceries! It costs a lot less to buy food when there’s no meat involved. That’s one. Feeling like I was doing the right thing ethically, that’s another.

16. What was the worst part of being vegetarian?
The worst part was feeling like I was doing everything right, the way that I’d been taught to eat, and yet getting progressively less well. And I don’t mean in any huge kind of way, but I mean not being as energetic as I could have been, not being as healthy as I could have been, not maintaining my strength. I think I probably lost muscle tone over that period. If you’d asked what was the worst part of being vegetarian at the time I was vegetarian, I probably would have just said having fewer choices.

17. Did you ever feel you were doing the “right thing” when you were a vegetarian?
I absolutely felt like I was doing the right thing in terms of humane treatment of animals. Every person that became a vegetarian would be lowering the demand and therefore the supply (of meat) and therefore the number of animals being fed through these kinds of facilities. In Fast Food Nation, for example, which is a great book, (the author) talks about factory farm operations, specifically for cattle, and it’s genuinely horrifying stuff. There’s no question that food in North America is really not produced in the way it should be, so I absolutely felt like I was doing the right thing. I did feel conflicted about that when I started eating meat again, and I still do, to a degree, now.

18. What would you say to your kids if they decided to go veggie?
I would support them. I would sit them down and talk to them about why I wouldn't think it’s a great decision necessarily, for them. But I feel really, really strongly that there is no 100 per cent right way for anybody to eat. We’ve really over-simplified the human body with this notion that everybody around the planet responds to food the same way, and responds to their environment the same way. We’ve even over-simplified the concept of how food is digested by our bodies. So I would never, ever say to somebody else, ‘Don’t become a vegetarian.’ I think there probably are people who, because of individual genetics, their bodies, their systems, probably do work best eating that way. For me, personally, it’s just not the right way to eat. And I’ve just seen too much evidence of that to ever even consider becoming a vegetarian again.

19. So you’d never consider going back to a vegetarian diet?
No, absolutely not. Never.

20. Do you think it’s ethical to eat animals?
The question, for me, is not, “Is it ethical to eat animals?” To me, it is. A lot of people would disagree and call me cruel and heartless or whatever – I have no problem with the concept of eating animals. But the way in which we do it right now in North America is not sustainable, it’s not equitable, it’s not fair, it’s not healthy… I think, fundamentally, evolutionarily, from a health perspective, our bodies actually need meat. We need seafood, and we need beef, and we need all sorts of animal proteins. I just believe that fundamentally now, and I didn’t when I was younger. However, the question becomes, ‘How do I do that in a way that is beneficial for the environment and for the animals and for the entire system?’

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