Health Reflecting on a year of vegetarianism 22 December 2021 • 8 mins reading time

The only new year’s resolution I made at the start of 2021 was to eat vegetarian for the month of January. Once January ended, I didn’t feel like going back to eating meat. It’s now been a year of eating vegetarian and I thought I’d reflect on the impact it’s had on me.

Background

Over the past few years I’ve become increasing disillusioned by meat. Starting from about 3 years ago, I’ve had a growing feeling that eating meat doesn’t sit well with me. Gradually that feeling built up to the point where I cut red meat out of my diet, then came fish and as of last year all that remained was chicken. Then in January this year, I stopped eating chicken.

I was now a vegetarian.

If you told me a few years back that I’d be vegetarian, I would’ve thought you were mad. It’s amazing how quickly your attitude can change when you keep an open mind. For me, the uncomfortable feeling that built up was that it felt unnecessary to kill an animal for food when I can easily get by without. Of course, there’s also now a huge amount of evidence that cutting out meat is one of the best things you can do to reduce your environmental impact.

Reflections

Peace of mind

The biggest benefit I’ve found this year is that I now feel at peace with my eating habits. Previously, I would always feel guilty whenever I ate or bought meat. I’m grateful that I’m now finally at a point where I feel proud that I am being the change I want to see in the world and that my choices are saving needless animal cruelty.

London is amazing for veggies

This year has also taught me that London is probably one of the best cities on the planet for the range of food available for vegetarians. Of course, I’ve not travelled to many of the places on earth, and certainly there are some cultures that place less emphasis on meat (e.g. certain areas of India).

I only appreciated just how good London is when I went to Spain this year and struggled to find much that I could eat. It would certainly be a lot harder to live there. The UK definitely seems further on the path to a meat-free diet than a lot of other places in Europe.

Having the veggie alternatives easily available from all supermarkets and restaurants make dipping your toe into the world of plant-based food so much easier, and naturally this leads to more people doing it full time. I’m grateful to live in East London where so many restaurants are pushing amazing plant-based food.

Diet adjustments

Obviously going into vegetarianism you recognise you need to adjust your diet — you’re removing meat after all! — however, I didn’t really understand what that would look like in practice. A year in now, I have a pretty solid understanding of what I need to do to have a balanced diet.

Towards the start of the year I made use of a lot of meat substitutes — it’s certainly an easy first step to simply swap out a chicken burger for a plant-based alternative when you’re starting out. Over the course of the year I explored more vegetarian cooking and began relying less on meat substitutes. Although, Beyond Meat burgers are still fantastic.

Another thing to be mindful of (regardless of whether you eat meat) is ensuring you’re getting all the right nutrition from your food and using supplements to fill in the gaps. I was aware going in that vegetarians often struggle with low iron levels so I was mindful of this, however it required some blood tests and trial and error to get a picture out what supplements I needed to accompany my diet. Currently I take multi vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin B12, creatine, and Omega 3. Everyone is unique here and a blood test can help you identify what you need.

One thing that I was well aware of going in but that turned out not to be an issue for me was sufficient protein intake. I have not noticed any issues in my strength training now that I’m vegetarian, in fact my training is going as well as ever. I do supplement with protein shakes during periods of particularly intense training. However for the average person, if you’re consuming eggs, beans and nuts on a regular basis you’re probably getting enough protein in your diet anyway.

I’ve become a better chef

One of the best side effects of being more intentional with what I eat is that I’ve sharpened my skills in the kitchen. In fact, fewer ingredients to work with is liberating — now that I’ve removed meat I’ve realised how many other wonderful ingredients are out there to work with.

I’ve also learnt so much more about other cuisines and the types of dishes each one features. Of course, being vegetarian isn’t a requirement here, but for me it was the turning point for me investing more effort into understanding the food I’m cooking and eating.

The final benefit is that I cook healthier food as being vegetarian naturally means that you tend to eat a lot more vegetables than you otherwise would. Working from home has also provided a great opportunity for me to cook more of my own food and to experiment with different techniques and cuisines.

Growing social pressure

It’s interesting looking from the inside out from the world of plant-based food, rather than from the outside in as I was before. This year has definitely confirmed to me that eating meat is unnecessary and that it’s easy to be more deliberate with our food choices. With the growing doom around climate change, it does feel like switching away from meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to live a more environmentally responsible life.

In the last few years it definitely seems like there’s been a huge shift towards eating less meat. Most of my friends have reduced their meat intake and a lot often go by the rule of “I won’t buy meat from the shop, but I’ll eat it out”. It’s encouraging to see younger generations so switched on to their eating choices and I expect this trend to continue over the coming years.

I’m still unsure where I stand with pushing people away from meat. I’m fairly liberal and believe that people should be able to make their own informed decisions, however it’s tough to stick to that position when those choices result in the environmental impact and suffering that they do. I do think it’s important to nudge people in a sensible direction and to gently educate them on the issues at hand.

Unfortunately, I think there’s a few key issues that are preventing a wider switch away from meat:

  1. Meat is so incredibly cheap in supermarkets for what it is. You can buy a whole chicken for a few pounds in Lidl, I find this startling.
  2. People are so far removed from the process of getting meat to their plates. Would people really eat as much meat if they had to kill the animals themselves?
  3. Our society is so incredibly divided that there’s almost no room for discussion between those who eat meat and those who don’t. We can’t simply criticise meat eaters, we must be able to listen to their opinions and communicate ours in a way that they can understand.

The future looks bright

While there’s clearly a long way to go for a lot of the population to switch to vegetarianism or veganism, I think it’s still worth reflecting on the progress being made here year on year. Statistics are hard to find when it comes to population percentage that are vegetarian some definitions are more strict than other (some claim you can’t be a vegetarian if you eat meat even once a year!).

However from the numbers I’ve seen floating around online, roughly 14% of the UK (7.2 million people) is currently meat-free, and in 2020 roughly half a million people became meat-free. Of the generations in the UK, there’s a noticeable shift towards younger generations who are meat-free, specifically:

  • 26% of Gen Z
  • 16% of Millenials
  • 15% of Gen X
  • 5% of Baby boomers
  • 4% of Silent gen

My expectation is that the trend away from meat will continue in the coming decade especially with the explosion in meat-free alternatives and investment into lab-grown meat. What percentage of the population will be meat free in 2030? It’s hard to say exactly, but I think that 40% of the UK will be meat-free by then.

These generational culture shifts take a long time but because this is something that touches everyone’s lives, the impact will be huge. It’s positive to see that we’re moving in the right direction and it gives me a reason to be optimistic about the future.

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