In the Spring of 2013 I was working as a freelance copywriter at an advertising agency and piling the cash into our summer wedding fund. I never entirely liked working in offices. With my green smoothies and green tea and green salads I was always the odd kid, justifying my food choices in the staff kitchen to someone dejectedly rehydrating a pot noodle.
On this particular job I was thrilled to be round the corner from my favourite health food store, Planet Organic. Every lunchtime I would skip out the office into the sunshine and go drop a tenner on lunch from the counter. The dude would stuff my box with brown rice, kale salad and as many falafel as he could and still get the lid on. I’d grab something to snack on in the afternoon and go back to the office to soak up all the wellness blogs I was reading back then. I know, nerd alert.
Then something weird started happening.
Dozens of days and veggie lunches in, I totally went off meat. My hubby-to-be and I cooked an organic roast chicken once a week and I found I couldn’t eat it. It felt like leather in my mouth and rocks in my belly. So I stopped eating it. And then I stopped eating all meat. I felt great. I lost a bit of weight. I felt light and energised. And just like that I was a fully-fledged pescatarian. I happily ate (good quality) fish and (organic, free-range) eggs and a little dairy, but no meat. And it served me well.
As time went on, living a meat-less life became an ethical and environmental issue for me as well as a physical one. On my new side of the fence it was infinitely easier to have an opinion about the effect of our collective meat consumption on animal welfare, on the planet and on our bodies.
Recent findings by the World Resources Institute have confirmed what many of us have been hearing for years – that vegetarians are responsible for 50 per cent less per capita greenhouse emissions from food and land use than meat eaters. And, to curb climate change, we must eat less meat – particularly red meat.
Globally, meat production is the leading cause of deforestation, as swathes of rainforest are slashed and burned to make space for cattle rearing. Forests are the lungs of the earth, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen; carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming and we’ve reached dangerously high levels of it in the atmosphere. From rising sea levels to ocean acidification, crazy weather phenomena, crop failure and species loss, it’s wreaking havoc.
Beef production is also a massive waste of resources. Only 1 per cent of the feed cattle consume is converted to calories eaten by consumers. While the developing world is experiencing desertification, drought and famine, in the West we allocate 15,500 litres of water and 3kg of grain to produce just 1kg of beef. In one year a single cow produces the same amount of methane (another greenhouse gas) as a car driven 7,800 miles.
And that’s just the environment.
As I drifted ever further from my childhood days of lasagne and spaghetti bolognese, I allowed myself to absorb what we conveniently hide from, and what supermarkets try their best to hide from us with their neat filleting and packaging – that we are animals eating other animals, flesh eating flesh. And that as meat consumers we are complicit in varying degrees of cruelty again other creatures.
You don’t need me to explain the way we, as a global community, treat the animals we come to eat. And I don’t use that ‘We’ lightly. It may not be you or I who is farming, fattening and slaughtering animals, but it is our dollar creating the demand for it. If you eat meat you are a fundamental and inescapable part of that cycle. Even if you’re vigilant about sourcing meat from ethical producers who raise their animals on pasture, quality feed and natural medicines, an animal is still an animal.
Here in the UK we also have a National Health Service groaning under the weight of so-called Western Diseases: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. And we know that inflammation caused in part by a diet rich in meat, dairy, sugar, salt and alcohol plays a role in those conditions.
We are, individually and globally, quite literally dying for meat.
And, a few months ago, so was I.
Hot on the heels of the brand relaunch, a few months of teaching A LOT of yoga, adjusting to life with an enormous, anxious rescue dog, the sale of our flat being squashed under the huge heel of Brexit, I pretty much crawled into August on my knees.
I was slumped in the passenger seat of the car one particular sunny Sunday, feeling insanely tired. Having experienced serious burnout as an athlete in my twenties, I know my signs: 1. Fatigue. 2. Sore throat. 3. Mouth ulcers. And I’d reached stage three. Then, my doctor hubby, who was driving, said something insanely sensible to me, and it went a bit like this:
‘Look, I know you’re all holistic and everything, but if you walked into doctor’s surgery right now, told them your symptoms and the fact you’re a vegetarian, they’d just tell you to eat meat.’
I crumbled to the straight up truth of it.
I like to think that when it comes to food, I know my shit. As a pesce I was pretty diligent about getting enough protein. I ate fish a couple of times a week, eggs almost every day, all the serious veg, scoops of plant protein in my smoothies and porridge, and fermented tofu, sprouted beans and grains when I was feeling organised. I took B12 supplements. And iron. And spirulina. But something wasn’t working.
When I went veggie I was spending all day tap, tap, tapping at a keyboard. There wasn’t a lot of interaction. It wasn’t physical or demanding. At all. My life now is vastly different. Networking. Speaking gigs. Coaching. Teaching yoga in 30-degree heat. From my breath to my advice to my energy and my listening ears, I spend all day giving. I needed more fuel.
I remembered a story Joshua Rosenthal – the founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where I trained as a wellness coach – told about his transition away from veganism. As a macrobiotic counsellor living in laid back upstate New York, he thrived on his strict macro diet (think brown rice, greens, miso and sea vegetables), but when he felt called to make an impact on the health of the world by founding a school that would train thousands of coaches, he knew he needed to reintroduce meat back into his diet. He needed the strength.
So it was that I ended up, mere minutes later, at the meat counter of Waitrose. I’d told myself I was going to buy trout, but visualising the delicate flaky flesh I felt weak and empty. I left with two sirloin steaks.
Go big or go home, right?
So I went big, then I went home, where my husband, generally in charge of cooking protein in our household (he makes the best scrambled eggs), handed me my seared steak along with an unhelpful comment about the likelihood being dumped by my vegetarian friends, which in my line of business I’ve amassed a veritable army of.
I tentatively took a bite. Would I puke? Would my digestion go bonkers? Would I feel animal suffering running through my veins?
None of the above.
It was like no time had passed at all between that moment and the one, three-and-a-half years earlier when I’d put down a steak knife for the last time. I felt energised almost immediately.
Within a few days my mouth ulcers had gone. Within a few weeks my skin softened and my joints eased. September was my most successful month in business, ever. Yay!
The months between then and now have given me the time to reflect on a few things. The most important is this:
There are many, many different ways to eat and hundreds of dietary theories out there to follow. What matters above all else is that we learn to tune into our bodies and eat in a way that responds to the messages we receive.
What I do as a coach isn’t make my clients eat a certain way, it’s to help them find their way. I’ve coached people onto a paleo diet and seen them thrive on steak and greens; I’ve coached people into a primarily veggie diet and seen their IBS symptoms and a host of other health issues melt away.
When I see people in the various Facebook groups I’m part of clinging desperately to their ethically-driven vegan or vegetarian diet despite experiencing chronic fatigue, dull skin, bad digestion, weight loss or weight gain and – for women – absent periods, I want to shake them. Is that a way to live your life? It certainly isn’t the way I want to live mine.
In order to live our destinies as humans – to serve and care for other humans, creatures and heal the harm we’ve done to our planet, we must be our best and strongest selves.
Some of us are entirely physically equipped to do that on a vegan diet. I certainly know a good many shiny-haired, thriving and inspiring vegans. Some of us need dairy. Some need a little fish. Some need meat.
It’s a maddening paradox that global vegetarianism could almost stop the earth’s downward spiral in its tracks yet leave so many of its inhabitants sick and tired.
There’s no easy answer. Or maybe there is:
EAT WHAT YOU NEED TO THRIVE, IN A CONSCIOUS WAY.
Perhaps your body needs meat – hey, mine does apparently. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think it needs it every day. Maybe not every other day. Maybe not every week, even.
There are entire industries dedicated to making us consume certain products in certain ways, and meat is not exempt from that. We’ve been sold a myth that our growing families require a daily animal protein injection; one that – wouldn’t you know it – supermarkets with their buy-one-get-one-free deals on water-logged, factory farmed chicken breasts can satisfy.
That’s not what I want in my body and on my conscience.
I consider my return to omnivore-ism to be therapeutic, meaning I’m incredibly selective about the type, quality and frequency of meat I eat. Out of 21 meals a week, I guess maybe 5 include meat; 1, sometimes 2, will be red meat. Organic – always. Pasture-raised – if I can find it. I only eat meat in restaurants that can fulfil those requirements, otherwise I stick to fish. Processed meat (bacon, sausages, deli meats etc) is out. We waste nothing – Bruce (aforementioned dog) gets the meat juices and I make broth from the bones.
In my meat free years people would ask me if I could see myself returning to animal protein. My answer was always the same – ‘Never say never’. I didn’t need meat for a while. Now I do. That’s how it goes. What’s important to me is eating it in a way I can feel comfortable with.
All of us will need to eat differently during different phases in our lives. Growing up and growing old requires different nutrition. Our fertile and fallow periods, different again. Our sex, our climate, our level of physical activity – all demand that we eat in a way that may be different to our friends or neighbours or different to what we ate yesterday, or last week, or last year.
Returning to meat has given me a beautiful opportunity to practice what I’ve been ardently preaching:
There is no right way, simply your way, today. Listen to your body, feed it what it asks for, and go do amazing things together. Become strong and stay flexible, for there is much work to be done on this crazy, beautiful planet of ours.