How not to fail at being vegetarian

    Stealing Burger

    Last year I decided to go vegetarian. Nine months later and I’m back to being a full-on carnivore.

    According to the USDA, meat consumption in America is projected to be the highest ever in 2018. So why is it so hard for us to stop eating meat?

    I’ve examined my own experience to try and figure out why is it so difficult and suggestions for future success.

    Breaking the News

    I’d been thinking about going vegetarian for a while.

    The tipping point was a read of the heartbreaking book ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, after which I was suitably outraged and ready to give it a shot.

    Anyone that’s tried abstinence from either meat or alcohol, knows that the first and most irritating obstacle is explaining it to your friends and family.

    As soon as tell anyone, there’s an automatic ‘why?’ response and you’ll be expected to restate said reasoning, at every social engagement thereafter, and made to feel as if you’re the one that’s dysfunctional for not wanting to consume them. This creates a sliding scale of tolerance in your brain, which decreases with the number of times you have to explain yourself.

    Once you’ve stated your meat free intentions to friends and family, they generally react in one of these three ways:

    A) The ones that resent you for making them feel bad for eating meat. Your choice has offended them and now they assume you’re silently judging them. These are the friends that can barely conceal their simmering rage when you ask the server whether there are veggie options.

    B) The ones with no interest in joining you but as supportive friends, become militant defenders of your vegetarianism. These are the same friends that they may stab the server for transgressions like serving you fries on the same plate as gravy.

    C) The sympathetic ones that tell you, in between bites of their cheeseburger, how they completely understand and have also been thinking a lot recently, about going veggie too.

    Everyone that’s tried the veggie experience will have their own opinion on which is the worst category to deal with, but telling anyone you don’t eat meat, inevitably leads to a lot of fussing and unnecessary discussion around meal times.

    Suggestion for Success: Don’t Talk About Your Dietary Preferences

    • Whatever your cause is, you are almost guaranteed to ostracise someone with your opinion (mainly the people in category A).
    • Consider the risk vs reward of telling people your views and whether it’s really important. Nobody appreciates it when a mealtime becomes a sermon.

    • Remember that you don’t have to explain your dietary preferences if you don’t want to. If pushed for a reason as to why you don’t eat meat you can just offer something ambiguous and noncommittal like ‘I just prefer not to’. This generally shuts the conversation down politely, and stops follow up questions.
    • Not discussing your diet reduces your own social burn out and increases the likelihood of you sticking to it, whilst at the same time avoiding awkward discussions with those around you.

    Eating Plants

    What surprised me about not eating meat was how easy it was. Once you adjust your diet and find some easy to prepare dishes at home, after a few weeks you don’t miss it much. Except when someone pipe ups with the obligatory ‘but…don’t you miss bacon?’ comment and then suddenly that’s all you can think about for the next twelve hours.

    When I stopped eating meat, I realized that most of the meat I usually ate didn’t actually add anything to the flavor profile of the dishes and was there mainly to fill the protein quota. After the lack of bacon, you’ll discover that your lack of protein, is the highest concern among your meat eating pals.

    In fact, the actual Recommended Dietary Allowance of protein is only 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That’s just 56 grams for the average male and 46 grams for a female, (based on a sedentary lifestyle).

    Given that many vegetables, (especially beans), are high in protein and if you’re still eating dairy, (as I was), it’s easy to ensure that you’re getting enough protein. There are also soy based products like Tofu, Tempeh and the new wave of non meat proteins like Beyond Meat, which are high in protein. For example, one Beyond Meat burger patty contains almost half your proten RDA with 20g of plant protein.Beyond Meat Burger

    Unlike many other nasty tasting meat subsitutes, the Beyond Meat products are genuinely delicious and are a serious game changer in offering a viable non meat alternative.

    Although I managed nine months without meat, my lack of nutritional knowledge and preparation, was a big factor in my failure. I hadn’t done any research and wasn’t eating the right foods to meet my nutritional needs. As a lazy remedy, I started introducing some meat back into my diet and this eventually became a habit again.

    Suggestion for Success: Plan and Prepare Before Starting a Plant Based Diet

    • If you’re serious about switching to a plant based diet, make sure you plan and research the correct foods to eat before you start.
    • If you have any pre-existing health issues, you should also seek advice from your doctor.
    • Spending the time to educate yourself will ensure you stay healthy and give you a much better chance of staying on a plant based diet for the long term.

    The Identity Crisis

    Once you decide not eat meat, you quickly develop a fondness for vegetarian places. The main reasons being:

    • It’s simpler and there are more meal options
    • It’s a respite from the constant explaining of your dietary preferences.
    • The third, and most uncomfortable reason to admit, is that it actually felt good being around fellow non meat eaters.

    As a meat eater, I’d been in vegetarian cafes many times in the past, and had at times detected an air of self congratulatory smugness. I’d written this off as my own paranoia and impostor guilt. But having been on the inside now, I can understand how a vegetarian identity engenders those sorts of feelings and is most seductive when you’re with people who you assume are like minded individuals.

    This feeling is probably attributable to what’s known as the ‘in-group effect’ in Social Psychology, which is when someone psychologically identifies themselves as a member of a group.

    Being ‘in-group’ makes us feel differently towards those outside our group, (or out-group), and also leads to other interesting effects such as ‘Group Homogeneity’ and ‘Social Influence’.

    Ingroup Outgroup cartoon Tom Gauld
    Examples of ingroup and outgroup thinking
    • The effect of ‘Group Homogeneity’ means that if you are part of a group you tend to assume that you are similar to others in the group.
    • The effect of ‘Social influence’ means that you’re likely to be influenced by people in your group and may shift your own views to align with the group norms.

    ‘Group homogeneity’ helps to explain why I felt that icky smugness whenever I dined at a vegetarian cafe whilst ‘Social Influence” may be the reason why an initial decision to stop eating meat can escalate to tie-die pants and wind chime ownership over a lifetime.

    I’ve talked before about the danger of identifying with groups and labels in a previous post about introverts, but I genuinely believe that the ‘vegetarian identity’ is a barrier to converting people to a meat free diet.

    Let me use a scenario to explain.

    Imagine you’re due to meet someone tomorrow, and the only information you have is that they are American, male and vegetarian. Knowing nothing else alone, how would you guess they answered these three questions?

    • Did they vote for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton in the 2016 US election?
    • Are they for or against gun control?
    • Do they drive a Prius or a pickup truck?

    I’m guessing there’s a high probability that you answered: Clinton, for gun control, Prius.

    Paul McCartney vegetarian
    Paul McCartney: the liberal poster boy of vegetarianism

    Ideally, the correct answer to all three questions should be “I don’t know” since dietary preference shouldn’t be a predictor of social or political leanings. In reality, the word ‘vegetarian’ is heavily associated with a prescribed set of liberal leaning values and beliefs.

    This becomes a problem for promoting plant based eating if the social/political values and beliefs most often associated with the concept of being ‘vegetarian’ are not ones to which you subscribe.

    Suggestion for Success: Don’t Identify Yourself as a Vegetarian

    • Avoid calling yourself a vegetarian and encourage the use of more neutral terms like ‘plant based diet’ and ‘plant based eating’
    • If we decouple the act of not eating meat from a vegetarian identity, then we broaden its appeal.

    A Failing Message

    After floundering with my own quest to stop eating meat, I began to ask myself the question: Does not eating meat have to be a zero sum equation?

    If your primary concern is animal welfare, then the answer is likely to be yes. But targeting a reduction in meat consumption would surely be a more realistic and effective strategy over time in reducing both the amount of animal suffering and environmental impact from eating meat.

    According to the US Department of Agriculture, the the average consumer is set to consume 222.2 pounds (100.8 kilos) of red meat and poultry this year.

    So the rise in meat consumption suggests that despite the availability of better meat subsitutes, the current strategies for converting people over to plant based diets is not as effective as it could be.

    If the message focused on reduction vs complete abstinence then this could acheive massive gains for both animal suffering and the environment:

    Reduce meat consumption WRI
    Source: World Resources Institute (

    In my opinion, the promotion of plant based eating is not helped by organisations like PETA which use provocative images and slogans in their campagins, often designed to elicit an emotional response.

    These campaigns are founded on the zero-sum principle of eating meat in that you’re either ‘with us or against us’.

    Meat is Murder VegetarianThe implication being: If you eat meat, you’re the enemy.

    This sort of campaign succeeds only in reinforcing negative stereotypes of the vegetarian/vegan identity, (which I discussed above), and creates division.

    The consumption of meat is long established and a complex part of most cultures on earth. To demonise people who eat meat and tell them they are wrong, attacks identity and ego and leads to an emotional response which counters the desired outcome.

    When people feel that their identity is being attacked, they are more likely to defend their habits rather than change them.

    Suggestion for Success: Encourage reduction not abstinence.

    • Incremental changes to diet are likely to be more successful than a message of immediate, radical overhaul.
    • The ‘Flexitarian’ approach to meat eating still yields huge benefits in the short term providing that when you do eat meat, you avoid factory farmed sources and choose ethically reared meat.
    • A completely meat free diet is the end goal.
    • Have meat-free meal days and subsitute in non meat protein alternatives where possible, (Beyond Meat, Tofu etc.)
    • You experience the health benefits of a primarily plant based diet and gradually you reduce the amount of meat in your diet until you no longer eat any.

    In Conclusion

    Having failed once, I now feel better prepared for my next attempt. And I will start again.

    For the nine months I was eating a plant based diet I felt healthier, more ethicallly responsible and overall the benefits far outshone the bad.

    When you live in societies which are predominantly carniverous, it can be difficult to look at your consumption habits objectively. Regardless of your ethical stance on the treatment of animals or factory farming, it’s becoming clear that our meat consumption is environmentally unsustainable.

    Whether we choose or are ultimately forced to, there’s little doubt that a reduction in our meat consumption is inevitable.

    I believe that by being mindful of how we conduct ourselves individually and by talking honestly about the subject of plant based eating, we can decrease our meat consumption and ultimately stop eating it all together.

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