On being vegetarian (or not)

V for vegetarian

V is for vegetarian.

I am a vegetarian. Well, actually, I’m a 27-year-old woman who lives in Melbourne, loves reading, hates hanging out her washing, and happens not to eat meat. But, I’m known to many as a vegetarian. My non-meat-eating ways aren’t actually something that I define myself by. I’ve been a vegetarian for so long that it’s just part of my everyday life. I don’t put conscious effort into not consuming meat. I don’t spend my mealtimes wishing I was eating chicken.

I really just don’t think about it all that much, until someone asks me why I’m vegetarian. When that happens, I panic. The following thoughts run through my head in this order, every single time: Do they seem like they just want to have an argument? Are they currently eating meat (like, knife and fork in hand, about to chow down on a tasty steak)? What reasons should I give them?

I feel silly even just writing that but it’s the truth. A part of me wishes I could eat with others and not spend half of the meal feeling like I need to justify my decision to not eat meat. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very aware that this pressure is all in my head and most people are simply curious to learn something new. I just feel this ridiculous pressure to explain exactly why a vegetarian diet is the best way to eat when the reality is that I don’t think it is. At least, I don’t think it is the only ideal diet. It is just what works for me.

When I first made the decision to cut out meat, I was absolutely convinced it was the bees knees of diets and that no other way of eating could offer the same benefits. Four years and much research later, I now understand that it is way more complex than that. All around the world, you can see examples of people who eat vastly different diets and all are thriving. The key point to make here is that these diets do all have one thing in common: they are made up of whole, natural foods. They don’t contain any of the processed, chemical-drenched ‘foods’ that make up the majority of the typical Western diet.

Michael Pollan explores this in Food Matters and In Defense of Food (which, in my mind, are two books that everyone who really wants to understand what it means to eat real food should read). He says, “People eating a great variety of traditional diets do not suffer high rates of chronic disease. These come from the Western diet.” A great example of this is the Inuit people in Greenland whose diets consist of around 75% seal blubber. 75%! Despite consuming enormous quantities of saturated fat, they have almost no incidence of heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Compare that to the standard Western diet, where, according to Pollan, “Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet.”

What to do? We need to take a giant step back from trying to work out which single nutrient is causing all of our illness and face up to the fact that it is our diet as a whole that is getting us into this mess. We can swap low-fat processed food for high-fat processed food or high-carb for low-carb options all we like but at the end of the day, until we get back to eating real food, we’re just falling deeper into this lardy disease-ridden hole we have created for ourselves.

So, do I recommend a vegetarian diet? Yes, but let’s be clear: I’m talking about a diet that is abundant in vegetables, leafy greens and fruit, not a diet that is primarily based on stodgy carbs and processed meat-replacement products. Do I recommend a meat-based diet? Sure, but, again, I’m not talking about the factory-farmed, hormone-filled variety of diets that is so prolific in the Western world.

If you start eating real food, you can stop worrying about dieting and start enjoying true, vibrant health. In the words of Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.