This is the story of my journey from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan, driven by the motivations of health, compassion, environment and instinct.
21 years as an omnivore “fussy eater”
I was conscious, as a child, of neatly fitting the label of “fussy eater”. This manifested mostly in an innate reluctance to eat meat (conveniently, my brother preferred meat to vegetables, so a little mealtime swapping generally reduced the problem for us both).
The meat I recall from my childhood was not the best, so this may have contributed to my prejudice: liver and kidneys (with, horror, “tubes”, which I presume were arteries), “braising steak” (chewy, fatty lumps of beef, generally disguised within Irish stew), “spam” (a very unwelcome addition to the standard Northern Irish salad (i.e. lettuce + tomato + cucumber + salad cream). None of this meat was “tender” or “succulent”, or any of the other positive adjectives people associate with eating bits of dead animal. It was also, to me, very clearly part of a (hopefully) recently-expired corpse.
And so my unhappy childhood diet continued with me picking or swapping my way through dinner and often resorting to hiding items under my knife and fork (not to mention secreting globules of half-chewed food under the kitchen table or spitting them out in the toilet after mumbling an excuse to leave the table).
When I was around 14, an enterprising R.E. teacher decided to educate us on the horror of abattoirs, having presumably exhausted the entertaining possibilities of actual “religious education” (I was already pretty much already an atheist by this point, so this was a welcome change in subject). Over a number of weeks, our class sat transfixed with horror (and that’s saying something for a bunch of averagely-cynical 14 year olds) as the gentle female voice of the narrator on the video described the very evident distress of the animals in various scenes unfolding in front of us: pigs chased around pens and then stunned by electric prods before having their throats cut, chickens de-beaked and processed (hung by feet on a moving assembly, feathers removed while often still alive), cows awkwardly hoisted into the air by their hind legs and stomachs ripped open with a knife so that their pink innards slumped onto the abattoir floor, worthless fluffy chicks dropped into a metallic grinder. It was truly awful and unfolded to a Pink Floyd-like soundtrack which added significantly to the overall eeriness. This “lesson” was also scheduled for the period directly before lunch! Nevertheless, I would then stand in the lunchtime queue and receive something meaty. I recall that one of the least offensive (i.e. removed from the reality of the ingredients) items I would opt for was some sort of battered spam fritter, along with a dollop of lumpy mashed potato, and afterthought side-serving of anaemic vegetables. I would chew my way through this whilst actively trying to disassociate the meat from the scenes I had just witnessed a few minutes before, and not entirely succeeding.
When I was 18, I went to university, and now had the freedom (but none of the necessary information) to finally choose my own diet. Assuming meat to be a necessity (it had certainly always been described to me as such), I recall buying chicken breasts in Tescos which I dissected with medical precision to remove 75% of the corpse-associated mass (veins, fat etc.) leaving me with the purest, abstract remnants of meat I could tolerate. Not the best use of time and material, but I didn’t think I had any other option.
1991 – on becoming a vegetarian
After graduating from my first degree (English Studies, at Stirling University) I spent the best part of a year working at a little nursery (for heathers and alpines, mostly) in Callendar in Scotland, in order to save a little money (and pass some time) before going to Canterbury to start my MSc in Computer Science. This little job was, incidentally, absolutely the most satisfying work experience I’ve had before or since, but that’s a story for another time.
The foreman of the nursery was a fascinating and inspiring character; an amusing, sincere, down-to-earth genius from Glasgow with an infectious passion and truly encyclopaedic knowledge of plants: Graeme Butler. Every day, he’d pick me up in his grey Ford Fiesta (registration: B434 BYS, I recall!) and drive us both to the nursery for another day of taking cuttings from heather and alpine plants, and developing increasingly larger plugs in polystyrene trays and then pots for onward sale. It was like alchemy, and very much appealed to my competitive nature (how many cuttings can I take and plant per day?!) and early interest in process optimisation.
One of the many intriguing aspects of Graeme’s character that I got to know was that he was a vegetarian, and, more specifically, he was vegetarian for primarily ethical and religious reasons. I’d never met a vegetarian before. I was aware of their existence, as an abstract and basically crackpot concept, and fully expected that they would be wiry, pallid hippies. By comparison, Graeme seemed to be full of boundless energy and youthfulness, and looked “normal”. This was not at all what I expected. I learnt that Graeme’s wife, Hilary, was a co-owner of a vegetarian restaurant in Stirling (an enterprise several decades ahead of its time!) and that they were bringing up their young son, Shaun, as a vegetarian. One evening I was invited around for dinner…
There are few moments in life that you can describe as life-changing, but eating the delicious vegetarian food that I was presented with by Hilary Butler was one such moment. I realised that evening that I wasn’t a fussy eater; I was able to clear my plate, with enjoyment, and repeatedly, just as long as there was no meat on it. It was as simple as that. And so, from that day onwards, I was a vegetarian.
2016 – on becoming a vegan
I think it was around August 2016 that I decided to take the additional step from a vegetarian to a vegan diet. For some additional context, it’s worth saying that this was a relatively small step: I had generally avoided eggs (finding them nauseatingly similar to meat), wasn’t a big fan of cheese (as an aside, it seems that the concentrated levels of casein protein in cheese breaks down into casomorphine when digested, producing opiate effects, so it’s understandable that people can become addicted to cheese, ironically via a mechanism evolved to keep calves nuzzling their mothers for milk), and I only drank “proper” milk (“cow squeezings” as my father had once called it!) in coffee (generally preferring soya or almond milk for general milk use e.g. in porridge). And so, I basically started drinking my coffee black and more actively avoided egg and dairy ingredients (e.g. in cakes) where possible. I’m still “nearly vegan”, but I’m as vegan as I can practically be. Incidentally, there are non-dairy creamers (not “Coffeemate” unfortunately, as it does contain a milk-derived extract); I’m currently experimenting with coconut cream (which adds, not surprisingly, a pleasant coconut taste!).
So, the question really is: why?
I used to joke that I wasn’t a “moral vegetarian”, but I have to say that the “compassion” aspect to giving up dairy has played a larger part in becoming a vegan. From the research I’ve done (and based on common sense), it seems significantly more cruel to torture animals for the length of their unnatural lives as dairy/egg-producing factories, that it does to simply slaughter them. And neither is necessary: I’m a walking, talking, healthy proof of that.
I believe that the motivation for a vegan or vegetarian diet largely involves the following factors:
- Compassion – the desire to reduce needless animal suffering in a context where we arbitrarily denote some animals worthy of care and affection (e.g. dogs, cats) and others as entirely unworthy (cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, fish etc etc).
- Religion – if one’s religion dictates the practice as a method of accruing credits in the afterlife. Not at all a factor for me.
- Environment – the desire to eliminate the massively inefficient waste associated with meat/dairy production in a world where many people, in a growing population, don’t have sufficient to eat (and would, if fed the grain currently fed to livestock), combined with the desire to reduce the significant methane greenhouse gas emissions associated with the breeding of cows, in particular.
- Health – promoting health and avoiding diseases associated with meat/dairy consumption.
- Instinct – innate (to some nature/nurture ratio extent) preference for one food or another.
My own motivation factors would look something like this:
But, I still haven’t fully answered the “why” question. Here’s a few supporting opinions I hold (and please feel free to research them yourself, and disagree):
- There is a massive food/dairy industry and a healthcare/pharmaceutical industry that has zero interest in your leading a healthy life. In fact, the more addicted to processed foods and the more dependent on drugs you are (e.g. statins to reduce bad cholesterol that your diet has contributed to), the more profitable this symbiotic pair of industries is.
- There is really no such thing as the happy animal you see on the packaging of your food. It’s marketing.
- We do not need milk for “calcium”: this is available from many plant-based sources, directly rather than secondarily through the secretions of an animal. In fact, one worldwide study shows a direct correlation between national dairy consumption and national osteoporosis levels (referenced in the documentary “Forks over Knives”), apparently showing that dairy consumption weakens bones.
- We do not need meat for “protein”. A gorilla only eats plants, and isn’t lacking in muscle. Again: plant-based sources are the best direct source of the (small amount of) protein you need. Have you ever heard of anyone suffering from a “protein deficiency”? I certainly haven’t. Add to the mix the increasing amount of antibiotics that are pumped into livestock, and which find their way directly into the meat on your plate, and it surely makes for an unappetising proposal. Is fish safe? Well, again: it’s nutritionally unnecessary, and you probably know someone who has had severe food poisoning due to the high mercury levels occasionally found in fish, not to mention parasitic worms and possible radioactivity (exactly where having your fish been swimming?).
I’ve attempted (maybe not entirely successfully!) not to preach in this little article, but it’s very difficult to hold back when I’m so utterly convinced of the many benefits of avoiding meat and dairy. I’d ask you to approach the subject with an open mind and do your own research. As I mentioned in another post: my conviction is that health is 80% diet and 20% exercise. Make sure you’re happy with your approach to the 80%.
Two excellent documentaries I’d recommend on Netflix are:
- “Cowspiracy” (this primarily covers the environmental argument).
- “Forks over Knives” (this primarily covers the health argument).
Other resources I’d recommend on Youtube are:
- “101 – Reasons to Go Vegan” (if you watch one thing, watch this).
- Mic the Vegan (for short, entertainingly presented, and clearly-argued debunking of many vegan myths).
- Gary Yourofsky (for a set of very passionately argued, mostly ethical arguments for veganism: the auto-playing “Killing ’em with kindness” clip on his homepage tells a story that will stay with you).
And very finally, these are the supplements I take to address nutrient deficiencies in my diet (NB: the “probiotics” need could be covered by eating non-dairy [e.g. soy] yoghurt daily, and the “K2” need by eating natto, but I generally don’t, hence the need to supplement):
- Micro Algae