Confession: I used to be a dickhead. That probably isn’t how you expected this to post start, but bear with me.

Sometimes I look back on my life so far and dwell for too long on all of the stupid or embarrassing things I’ve previously said and done. My brain usually finds the best time to do this is at 11 pm when I’m trying to sleep, but occasionally I also reflect on how much I’ve changed during my waking hours too.

You see, I used to be an immature asshole. I used to make juvenile jokes about lots of things a teenager who wrongly thinks they’re clever makes fun of, and one of those things was vegetarianism. I’m not proud to admit I’ve joked about plant-based diets being nothing but salad, how veggie food is basically just bird food, and how someone who didn’t eat meat had probably just never had a good steak in their life.

Little did I know I would grow up to become a vegetarian myself, and that I would end up eating my words instead of animals.

How it started

I’ve had friends who were vegetarian since I was at school, so the concept wasn’t foreign to me. I’ve also lived with vegans long before the diet was as accessible as it is now, and while their meals always looked incredibly fresh compared to my then beige-plates of oven-ready excuses for food, I’m ashamed that I never took the chance to learn more about their choices then.

I started to really think about my diet only a few years ago. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realised my perception of what I ate was flawed, but it was during my trip to Lisbon that the change started. I spent five days in the city devouring the best seafood on offer and I realised I’d felt much better for it physically, and it was then I decided to try and keep it up, and cut down on my meat consumption back home.

When I returned, I started with a meat-free Monday meal – one day a week that I wouldn’t eat meat. That eventually became the reverse, a meat-full Monday, I’d dubbed it, which was one meal per week that contained meat. Then I became a pescatarian, reasoning that it was a healthy diet and I could at least bring myself to kill a fish. And now, the end of this year will conclude my first year as a full-time vegetarian, having given up meat and fish completely.

I’m far from the first person in recent years to become more conscious about what they’re putting on their plate, but over the course of a few years, I feel like I’ve finally seen the light. When I hear other people who are still in their dickhead stage joking about the vegetarian or vegan diet like I used to, I don’t feel annoyed or self-righteous, because honestly, I get it. I understand now what I didn’t use to – sometimes things are stupid, but most other times they just appear to be because you haven’t learnt enough about it yet.

So as a former meat-eater, here’s my confession of what I had wrong about being a vegetarian, and what I wish I’d understood sooner.

‘Vegetarian food isn’t real food’

When I used to eat out at restaurants, I’d immediately scan the menu for the meat or seafood section and skip the vegetarian dishes entirely. Even when I did look outside of the box and find something that sounded nice, I never felt like a veggie option would be a ‘real’ meal.

I think part of this stems from meat-eaters tending to order vegetables only as a side dish, but it wasn’t until I started to think more about what I was eating that I realised just how ridiculous this was. I’d been conditioned to think that a plate of food wasn’t a proper meal unless it contained meat, and this realisation troubled me. How could I go thinking so blindly that a meal wasn’t sufficient unless an animal had died for it? Why does a plate of food have to contain meat for it to seem filling? I had grown up eating meat without questioning whether it was a necessity, and I was wrong.

‘Vegetarian food is boring’

When you close yourself off to trying new things and play up to the vegetarians-only-eat-salad trope, it’s no surprise that there exists a misconception about veggie food being boring.

In reality, there are some incredibly creative meat-free dishes out there, and I’ve come to realise that it’s actually meat-based meals that tend to be more basic – you’ll need to do more than just cook up a plate of meat-and-two-veg to impress a vegetarian.

I’ve since had some of the tastiest veggie meals I’ve ever tried from all kinds of different places at home and abroad, and they’re only getting better and easier to find.

‘Humans are carnivores and need to eat meat’

Although more and more of us are starting to think harder about what we eat, plant-based diets are far from being a new phenomenon. Evidence of non-meat diets have been found from over 2,000 years ago, and while we have evolved to become the modern-day humans we are now in part due to our consumption of meat, the idea that we cannot live without it today is untrue.

I’m certainly not going to claim that a meat-free diet would be suitable for everyone, but it’s become clear to me that the average person absolutely does not need to have meat as part of their diet to be healthy. There are so many vegetarians and vegans from all over the world who stand as proof of this, and if there are world-class athletes who don’t need to eat meat in order to perform at their best, then I certainly don’t need it either to do my desk job and daily chores.

It’s just as much of a choice now to eat meat as it is not to, and realising this was a real turning point in my motivation to give it up.

‘A veggie diet lacks nutrients’

One of the biggest claims against veggie or vegan diets is that it’s not nutritionally complete, with protein being the main factor that people always worry about lacking when going meat-free. I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not here to spout science as if I’m some kind of expert (there are plenty of resources you can find elsewhere for that), but with protein being linked so heavily to meat, one common oversight I wasn’t aware of is that there are actually many plant-based protein sources out there, too. The same can also be said for calcium in milk if you’re vegan, and all of this again just means that you do not need to have meat or animal products in order to have a nutritionally adequate and healthy diet.

Sure, you may need to plan your diet more, but the fact is I’m much more conscious about what I eat now than I ever was when I consumed meat, and the funny thing is, nobody ever questioned whether my diet was nutritionally complete or healthy until it became different to the norm – and that’s just another nuance about vegetarianism that we don’t always recognise.

‘Eating meat is manly and cool’

How many times have you heard someone boast about enjoying a large steak or a stack of ribs with an air of bravado? Toxic masculinity is a separate issue altogether which I’m not going to go into, but I have personally known men who literally won’t order anything other than steak at a restaurant. I’m not here to bash men, especially as this is certainly not exclusively a male-issue – as I’ve said, I used to be a dickhead and I’ve probably joked about a plate of vegetables missing meat on it. But the truth is eating meat has always been seen as cool, and the bigger the portion the better – think Man Vs Food, eating challenges, barbecues etc.

We may have once been hunter-gatherers who went out stalking animals to kill for our meals, but nowadays we’re supposed to be an evolved species who are capable of making informed decisions about our lives based on knowledge, reasoning, and our own moral compass, so the only difference now between one person eating a cow steak and another enjoying a cauliflower steak is what you pick out from the menu or off the supermarket shelf. Eating one thing doesn’t make you cooler than another and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.

BuT sTeAk!

If you’ve gotten this far in the post and are still shouting about steak, then I’m sorry I haven’t made my points clearly enough.

But here’s the thing, I’m not here to try to convince you how to live your life – frankly, I couldn’t care less what you ate. This is just my confession about all the tired tropes I used to blindly follow, and the thinking behind my own decision to give up meat, one year on.

Why I chose to stop eating meat

As I’ve already mentioned, my reasons for cutting down on meat started for health reasons, but there are more.

Despite making jokes about not eating meat, believe it or not, I’ve actually always been a very guilty meat eater. You see, I love animals, and I’ve long known that if I had to kill my own meat for food, I would have turned vegetarian a lot sooner. I used to think that as a society we’ve just developed to not need to farm our own food, but I do believe in the argument that if you wouldn’t be comfortable killing an animal yourself then perhaps you shouldn’t eat it either. We’ve grown so accustomed to calling our food ‘pork’ and ‘beef’ that we’ve forgotten they’re in fact pigs and cows that have died to be on our plate, and we’ve not really stopped to consider how we might feel about that. Without acknowledging the paradox, we take our children to pet cute farm animals while simultaneously feeding them chicken nuggets as if they’re totally separate things, and then like us, they grow up to be blinded by what it really means to eat meat too.

Ethically, I also no longer felt like I could be fully against animal cruelty when I was happy for an animal to be slaughtered unnecessarily for my plate. I always tried to buy high-welfare meat when I used to eat it, but the reality is even free-range meat is no guarantee of decent living conditions for an animal, and if I’m honest, it became another way in which I rationalised my choice to eat meat. I’ve been a cruelty-free shopper for over a decade now (I don’t buy any products that have been tested on animals) – a lot longer than I have been cutting down on my meat consumption – and for me, it was time I took another step to commit to a cause I’ve long been passionate about.

Then there are the environmental reasons for giving up meat. Unless you’re a climate change denier – a totally different type of dickhead – we should really all be trying to do our bit for our planet, and cutting down on meat consumption is just one of the ways we can help. The amount of land needed to raise the meat required to feed a few hundred people could sustain thousands of those on a plant-based diet, and that’s without even considering the resources required to actually feed the livestock themselves, or the need to improve the standards of living for livestock which creates even more burden on land and production. And if you’re someone who questions why we would even bother worrying about the quality of an animal’s life when it’s just going to be slaughtered anyway, then remember that you too will die someday, and consider whether you still want to live a comfortable life until then.

Veggie stuffed peppers served on a beach in Santorini

Veggie stuffed peppers served on a beach in Santorini

Giving up meat for a week in Lisbon helped me to realise how much better I felt without it physically, but for me, there are bigger health reasons for cutting down on meat too.

Should you choose to listen, there is plenty of research out there on how eating too much meat can increase our risks of certain illnesses. These are usually reported alongside interviews with members of the public who proudly exclaim how they’re never going to give up their beloved bacon sandwiches, how their grandmother ate a dozen rashers of it a day and lived until she was 150, and how ‘everything gives you cancer nowadays anyway’.

We all have a choice on what we do with the information we’re given, however scare-mongering it might sound, but with a family history of health-related issues (some of which specifically came with the advice to cut down on red meat), I’m personally very conscious about maintaining my health. I’m not saying I think giving up meat is going to stop me from getting ill, but I do believe the findings that says you could benefit from cutting down, and you bet I’m going to at least do what I can for myself.

The changes

My ideas about food have shifted completely as I’ve stopped to consider why I eat what I eat, and learn more about other options aside from the one I’ve grown up to know without questioning.

Personally, I couldn’t be happier to have made the change, but it’s not been a perfect first year. While I haven’t missed meat, I have made mistakes – I bought and had some pesto which contained parmesan, something I didn’t realise wasn’t vegetarian, and I also had a sweet chilli dip which contained fish sauce.

As with every new change, there will be mistakes; I’m still learning, but I know I can and will do better.

Will I go vegan at some point?

Maybe. I’ve swapped out dairy milk for soy milk a long time ago, but I don’t currently have any plans to cut out eggs and cheese to become vegan, although I definitely think I might take that step in the future.

My tips on cutting down on meat

If you’re also thinking about cutting down on meat or giving it up altogether, here are my tips on making the change.

  • Start gradually and go from there – just one day or even a single meat-free meal a week is a good start
  • Don’t punish yourself if you miss a day or slip up – you won’t stick with it in the long run if it feels like a chore at the start
  • Find some good veggie recipes you enjoy. The hardest part I found at the start was not knowing what to cook when I’d relied on the usual staple dishes for years. The easiest first step is just to substitute the meat in your go-to recipes with alternatives like Quorn, but personally, I found this sometimes made it harder because you end up focusing too much on how it tastes compared to real meat, when really veggie food doesn’t need to taste like meat at all, just as long as it tastes good.
  • Go to a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. A good plant-based eatery will open your eyes to how good meat-free food can be, and I guarantee you’ll find something delicious you’ll love.

And if you’d rather stick to a meat diet then know that I’m not judging you either – you should do what you want, but maybe just don’t make jokes about it like I did, because like me, you just might come to regret it later on.