How to Stop Being a Vegetarian

5 Sep

Ladies & gentlemen, I have meat back in my life.

After a successful trip 90 miles to the nearest co-op this weekend, along with some great advice from my colleagues for a more local source of grass-fed, chemical-free meat, I will finally be able to happily eat humanely-raised, good-for-me-and-the-planet meat again. A celebratory recipe post will surely follow.

As I mentioned when I first wrote about the drought of sustainable meat in my little town in Kansas, it’s actually not that difficult for me to go without meat for awhile. We all know that my seven years as a vegetarian were not all spent cooking and eating well, but they did successfully help me break myself of the notion that a meal must have meat to be complete.

But I really like meat. I cannot describe to you all how excited I was to put a package of Applegate Natural’s Sunday bacon in my basket at the co-op on Saturday (well, maybe you can understand. See header photo). I also got some new meats to try, including ground turkey and buffalo stew meat (I’ve had both turkey and bison before, just not in those forms). So in honor of the fact that I can eat meat well again, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s “advice” post to an issue that seems to drive a lot of traffic to the site that I’ve never directly addressed:

How do you re-incorporate meat into your diet?

In fact, I’m a bit surprised it’s taken me this long to think about writing on this topic. Two years ago, when I was considering making the transition back into meat-eating, I spent a lot of time looking for advice, even other individual stories, on the internet — and I really didn’t find much at all. So let me share with you all some of the things that did and didn’t work for me. Hopefully this post will answer questions for vegetarians thinking about making the transition, but I think it should also prove useful to anyone who would just like an insight into the issues of health, sourcing and ethics that go into dietary choices.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a health or nutrition expert. The advice in this post is based on my individual experiences ONLY, and anyone with health considerations should consult a physician or nutritionist before switching their diet dramatically.

What should I eat? How will my body react?

We’ve all heard those horror stories of vegans who accidentally swallow a sip of beef broth and vomit for three days straight. We’ve all also probably heard stories of people who spent nearly a decade as a vegan and then downed an entire package pf pepperoni in one sitting without so much as the hiccups. So it can be difficult to know how your body will react to a reintroduction of an unfamiliar food. The approach that worked for me here was to start small,start slow and stay in your comfort zone.

When I visited Africa with my mother in the middle of my time as a vegetarian, I ate a bowl of soup that had been cooked with meat in it — I didn’t eat any actual meat, but I was basically eating goat broth. I was violently ill, in uh, more than one way, for a few days after that.

In contrast, my first meal with meat after seven years was pasta with my Nonna’s red sauce with cut up bits of a chicken breast mixed in and a side of green beans. I was perfectly fine, and didn’t experience even a minor bout of indigestion.

I think the difference between the two meals was that one was almost entirely familiar to my body, while the other was foreign. But it was Adjoa’s (delicious) super-spicy pepe soup that was unfamiliar. Even though I hadn’t eaten chicken in years, the rest of that meal was something I ate often, so my body hardly noticed the addition of a small amount of meat. But  my body very much noticed, and violently reacted to, the hint of meat when in combination with spicy food, unfamiliar ingredients, and days of 120 degree heat.

The lesson here is eat something you are very used to eating. Cook it yourself to ensure that all the ingredients other than meat are familiar to your digestive system. And only eat small amounts of meat to start, gradually building up to whatever you consider “normal.”

How should I prepare my meat?

I have to give a big shout-out here to Scott, the person who actually cooked that first chicken breast for me a few years ago. This is an issue I don’t think most vegetarians consider when they think about going back. But the seven years I spent as a vegetarian were ages 19-26. Which meat that I’d gone from my parent’s house to a college dining hall to a vegetarian — which meant that at age 26, I did not know how to cook meat.

Because with meat there are very real food safety issues, I think it’s a great idea to have a trusted carnivore around to help you out, not just the first time, but the first few times (since different types of meat have different requirements).

If it weren’t for Scott, I wouldn’t know, for example, that you shouldn’t use the same plate or fork to carry the raw meat and the cooked. I wouldn’t know that pink in the center is good for steak but bad for chicken. On a more practical level, I wouldn’t know how truly disgusting meat packaging smells in the garbage after a few days. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been prepared for — that I wouldn’t even have thought to look into. I still sometimes send him a picture message asking whether the center of a lamb loin is supposed to be that deep purple of a color, or what it means if the chicken smells like feet.

How long until I can eat normally again?

Even after reading about the dramatically different reactions people can have to a reintroduction of meat, many people want to speed ahead to the time when they can officiallysay they are no longer a vegetarian. They want to get “back to normal,” to stop being the annoying friend who needs to make sure everyone eats out somewhere with vegetarian options, they want to go to Taco Bell again.

I do have an answer to that question, but first I want to take a moment here to say: never lose those standards. Retaining some of the habits of vegetarianism is one of the things that’s made me such a healthy, sustainable omnivore. Do not go back to eating fast food. It’s not good for anyone. Don’t let up on insisting that a restaurant at least offer a few vegetarian options — any place that doesn’t is behind the times, and less likely to offer sustainable, local or organic options. Apply the same principles of health and ethics that you did to vegetarianism to meat-eating again, and above all, don’t just revert to eating meat with every meal.

All that being said, you should take your time in ramping your meat consumption back up from zero to sixty. After my completely innocuous and pleasant experience with the chicken pasta, I was feeling pretty good. I thought sure I’d crossed the threshold and so two days later, at brunch out, I order a quiche with little bits of local, uncured bacon.

Later that day I experienced some… digestive issues. Nothing major, but unusual for a leafy-green eating vegetarian, and I largely attribute that to the bacon. Even though it was a small amount, and a healthy bacon (as opposed to packaged Oscar Meyer), it was unfamiliar to my system, and as a processed meat, a leap from a chicken breast.

I would say for at least a few weeks, eat meat less frequently than you think you “normally” would (only 3-4 times a week, maybe, instead of every other meal) and cook it exclusively at home. That way, the meat is the only unfamiliar ingredient. This is all precautionary, of course, but when it comes to my digestive health, I say better safe than sorry.

How will I feel?

This actually isn’t a question a lot of vegetarians ask — or if they do, they are refering to a physical feeling. But I want to take a minute here to talk about the emotional impact of eating meat again.

I think to make the transition away from vegetarianism, you need to be able to be honest with your feelings and intentions. Don’t just pretend you changed your mind, or that it’s not a big decision. It is, and should be treated as such. Spend some time, whether with yourself, or a friend, talking about why you became a vegetarian in the first place, and what made you think about bringing meat back into your diet. Whether these are issues of ethics, or simply of health or taste preferences, important issues will come up in these discussions that will help direct you towards the kind of meat-eating (the style, the frequency, the sourcing) that you want yours to be.

Before I decided to eat meat again, Scott and I spent an entire Saturday morning talking about all of the issues that were tied, for me, into the notion of meat. Acknowledging that I still objected to a factory farming system helped me decide on the standards I would set for farms I’d source meat from. Debating the role of protein in the development of the modern human  body helped me figure out how often I saw myself eating meat. And being open about the real reasons I wanted to stop being exclusively a vegetarian, what I was eating that simply was not “natural,”  pointed me down the path of selective omnivore, the path that led me here.

And after about three hours of talking, including some of my patented off-the-wall references to primatology, I knew I was ready.

The process of reintroducing meat should be a slow one, should be one of trial and error and the discovery born of that experimentation. Allow yourself the time and space to do it right, and you never know what you will find.

Have you made the transition into or out of vegetarianism? Was it smooth, or rocky? What obstacles did you hit? What advice do you have from others? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

If you’re thinking about making this transition and have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with me by email: marissa@wemeatagain.com

13 Responses to “How to Stop Being a Vegetarian”

  1. Cristina @ An Organic Wife September 6, 2011 at 8:50 AM #

    Thanks for writing this important post. I read recently that 95% of vegetarians and vegans end up going back to meat (and I don’t mean accidentally).

    On another note, I’ve had buffalo stew meat and it’s very good. You’ll enjoy.

    • Marissa of We*Meat*Again September 6, 2011 at 3:53 PM #

      Thanks, Cristina! I know when I was making the transition, I was surprised at how little information was out there. I think vegetarians probably feel too guilty to publicly admit to making the change back, so I wanted to try and open it up.

      I’m really excited to try the buffalo stew meat. I love the richness of the buffalo meat I’ve had (mostly as burgers, but also a tenderloin once) so it seems like it will really lend itself to a stew. Now I just need cool weather to cooperate…

  2. Jesse September 18, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

    Thank you so much for addressing this. I’m still a Vegetarian and have been for the last 3 years or so. Starting, looking for advice on reintroducing meat about a year after I stopped eating it. I have read and heard all the horror stories about adding meat back. I have experiment with chicken in very amounts without any ill effects but have never gotten past the point. Still, I have the fantasy that someday I might be able to eat a “normal” diet. Maybe, I’m waiting for “normal” to change. Thank you again.

    • Marissa of We*Meat*Again September 19, 2011 at 6:59 AM #

      Thanks for the comment, Jesse, and glad I could help! I know when I was looking to transition back to meat-eating, I was eager for advice and couldn’t find much, so I thought I’d chime in. Just remember to take it slow, and make incremental increases. Keep cooking at home for awhile. And feel free to drop me an email (marissa@wemeatagain.com) if you have more questions!

  3. Clare September 8, 2012 at 10:15 PM #

    Thanks for writing this and your advice on the emotional side of it. I have been vegetarian for about 20 years, but have now (just about) made the decision to go back to eating meat. At the moment it feels kind of overwhelming because I’m not even sure I’ve changed my mind that it’s wrong to eat animals – when I actually picture a live chicken or pig or cow, I can’t bear the thought of eating it.

    But I think I do want to go back to a “normal” diet. I travel a lot and I’m so sick of struggling to find anything to eat at all. I’ve had experiences of sitting in restaurants literally eating plain rice while everyone else eats a five course meal, or of eating pizza twice a day for an entire week because it was the only thing I could find. I love travelling, but there are countries where my diet makes it so hard, where locals can’t understand what you mean when you ask if they have something without meat. I also struggle with low iron levels, and yes, I do all the things I’m supposed to to contemplate, but a lot of times it isn’t enough.

    But now I (think) I’ve made the decision, I don’t really know how to do it. I went vegetarian when I was quite young, so I’ve never really cooked meat. I also still struggle with the ethical issues and I don’t really know which friends or family I can turn to. My mother is overeager about me turning back because she’s always been worried about the health implications and all my carnivore friends and family will just want me to be “normal”. I don’t feel like I can talk to my vegetarian friends cos I’m worried they’ll think I’m betraying our beliefs.

    I also feel embarassed, like I’ve been doing this for so many years and having principles and ethics and now I;m just abandoning that. This has been a big part of who I am for so long, I don’t know what it says about me that I’m giving it up. One the one hand, I feel like how I felt about an ethical issue as a child isn’t necessarily something you would or should feel the same about twenty years later, but it’s also something I was always proud of, that I cared enough about helpless animals to suffer myself.

    I don’t know where that leaves me really and sorry for the brain dump, but it’s really helpful to hear about other people out there going through the same thing.

  4. Ricky Wilks December 26, 2012 at 8:58 AM #

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve decided to go back to eating meat and just ran across it this morning.

    Five years ago, it took less than a split-second for me to decide to stop eating meat, but it is taking over a year to get up the gumption to go back to being an omnivore. I tried last year, but my roommate thought turkey soup would be a good first meal – and he left the carcass in the soup! I couldn’t go near his soup and now, a year later, I’m about to try again – on my own terms, with my own cooking. (i.e. nothing with bones for a loooooong time.)

    I appreciate your addressing how you dealt with the emotional concerns. The physical stuff doesn’t bother me because I know my body will be fine; it’s the emotional part that is going to be a doozie.

    • Lynne January 9, 2013 at 8:58 AM #

      Thanks for all of this. I am also thinking of introducing meat into my vegetarian diet after twenty years and am having all of the same emotional turmoil that everyone mentions here. I couldn’t figure out why I reacted so negatively when my boyfriend told me to buy a chicken and make my own broth – but it’s the same as others here, I became a vegetarian at a young age and never learned anything about cooking meat (such as the tips that you mention here!). I have requested an appt with a nutritionist to see if they can help me figure out how to add meat back in a way that is not to painful either emotionally or physically.Clare, how did you end up telling family and friends? That is also a big concern of mine. Thanks all and wish me luck (I wish you the same)!

  5. Clare January 13, 2013 at 8:04 PM #

    Well I’m pleased to say I went ahead with eating meat again and it’s been going quite well. I am still sticking to “normal” food – so basically chicken, ham, beef and I’ve been trying to include it into food I was already eating e.g. spaghetti bolognaise, but with meat instead of soya, putting ham on a pizza, that kind of thing. I can’t bring myself to eat fish or seafood, or anything weirder e.g. rabbit, venison, etc.

    I didn’t really get any physical effects at all. I used to eat meat substitutes e.g. Quorn or soya burgers and I wonder if they were similar enough that my body was used to processing it. I tried starting slowly with e.g. ham on a pizza, but I could basically just jump straight in.

    Telling family and friends wasn’t as bad as I thought, Lynne. I didn’t make a big announcement, just kind of let people catch on when it came up. So some people I haven’t eaten out with still don’t know. It kind of made it easier, cos then you can dismiss it more, like “oh yeah, that was 6 months ago”. And I found people were quite accepting, in a slightly smug “I knew that all along” kind of way, but you can grin and bear it.

    I have found that I am less hungry now and less tired, so I think overall it has been beneficial. But to be honest, I still feel vegetarian and I don’t think my ethics have changed – I just eat the meat anyway, if that makes sense. I was veggie for 20 years, so I guess it takes time to adjust.

  6. Kaitlan O'Hare February 24, 2013 at 12:04 PM #

    Hello! Thank you so so much for posting this, I have been searching everywhere for some first-person accounts of the transition back into eating meat. I have been vegetarian for 9 years (from age 11-now, age 20). My reason for wanting to re-introduce meat into my diet is for overall health – I am fairly healthy and very active, and I do take supplements for some of the vitamins I may be missing out on (like B12) however.. and maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong… I still feel like those supplements are no replacement for actually eating meat. People around me observe that I get sick a lot (colds, etc).. and by a lot I mean.. maybe one BAD cold/illness every 5-6 weeks.. which is taking a toll on my job and school work. I work with children 9 hours a day and SHOULD have a great immune system but I’m wondering if my body is just missing out on too much. Can you speak a little to the health benefits of re-adding meat to your diet? What did you notice? Did your energy change? Your mood? Your overall physical health?
    I would really appreciate it :) Thanks for such a great post.
    -Katie

    • Marissa of We*Meat*Again February 24, 2013 at 12:54 PM #

      Hi Katie,

      I’m so glad you found something useful in this post. What I discovered as far as the health benefits go was certainly unique to my situation, but I can offer some advice. Basically, what I discovered is that neither vegetarianism nor omnivorism is inherently healthier than the other — there are ways to be a very healthy eater of meat (to avoid the heart and cholesterol issues that so often plague meat-eaters) and there are ways to be a very unhealthy vegetarian (to, as you noted, not get your vitamins and nutrients from natural, whole food sources).

      I am much healthier as a meat-eater because it was eating meat that forced me to learn about basic nutrition and a balanced diet — not because it’s inherently better for the human body.

      My advice would be, whatever dietary path you choose, spend some time researching best nutritional practices. See a nutritionist perhaps, or just read some literature on a well-balanced diet. It is certainly possible to get all your necessary nutrients (including B12, Omega-3 fatty acids, etc.) from purely plant-based sources. It’s also possible to eat meat and still not get enough of those nutrients. The best way to avoid that is to develop an understanding of what your body needs and what actual food sources — whole plants and animals, nothing else — can best provide those.

      Once you’re armed with that knowledge, you can make the decision you feel most comfortable with regarding meat in your diet, because you’ll know exactly what you need/want from it, rather than just assuming it will fix the underlying health issues of your vegetarianism.

      Good luck!

      • Kaitlan O'Hare February 25, 2013 at 11:41 AM #

        Thank you very much, I appreciate it! :)

  7. Karen March 15, 2013 at 9:24 AM #

    I want to thank you for writing this post and everyone that commented on it for the helpful insight. I have been vegetarian for 10 years (age 10-20) and am now seriously debating adding white meat back into my diet (chicken, turkey). This is a decision that has been on my mind for a couple months due to feelings of fatigue, low iron levels, and numerous sick days (similar to Kaitlan). I am a marathon runner and can say that part of my reason to add meat back is the protein. I struggle often with getting adequate protein into my diet and have a feeling that my muscles are begging for some more. About 3 years ago I added egg back into my diet for protein reasons but with my running I feel as if it’s not enough (plus how many egg white can one eat in a week without getting sick of them). One of my worries was that I would experience GI issues as I already have IBS (I cannot digest corn, including corn syrup, at all!) so all the comments have been helpful. I will let you know how the transition goes. I will probably never eat any pig products in my life, nor have anything off a bone or with skin, but hopefully incorporating “mild meat” will bring about the positive health side effects I’m looking for.

  8. Ray April 14, 2013 at 2:42 AM #

    I’ve spent the vast majority of the last ten years vegan, but there have been a couple times I decided I’d reintroduce animal products such as honey, eggs, fish, poultry and meat into my diet to varying degrees, but on both occasions, after a short time I returned to a vegan diet.

    I became vegan after broadening my concern for egalitarianism and opposition to domination & oppression to non-human animals, due to their exploitation via factory farms, their processes and animals’ treatment wherein, as well as conditions in slaughterhouses. My feelings there haven’t changed, but I have no qualm with meat-eating in itself and want to eat a diet more closely akin to that which we generally evolved to need while financially supporting only the most “ethical” animal agriculture.

    Scavenging, fishing, or trapping and hunting would be my best options, I feel, but in any case, I can’t manage to obtain animal foods I consistently feel comfortable enough buying and consuming. This, and for myself, money is a big issue pertaining to the accessibility of pasture-raised, organic meat, pole-caught fish, cage/confinement-free eggs, etc. It’s trying on my conscience (and on my health), but the truth is that nothing “green” or “sustainable” has or ever will come from industrial civilization. Whether or not I’m vegan, vast numbers of species are driven to extirpation on a daily basis so that we may have our factory farmed meat or dairy, our palm oil, tofu, petroleum, or computers.

    What I’m getting at, is whether or not we’re carnivorous omnivores or herbivorous omnivores, we’re complicit in unforgivable crimes against animals others, humans in large (though particularly tribal peoples), and our biosphere. To speak meaningfully about health or compassion given the larger context is all but a hollow gesture. Listen to your body, not the specialists or the ideologues.

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