Flexitarian Me, or My Complicated Relationship with Vegetarianism

It was the morning of New Year’s Day 2001. I was riding with my mother through a McDonald’s drive-thru, and she asked what I wanted. “Hash browns,” I replied. I was (and am) a fan of all manner of chicken biscuit sandwiches, but I was on a mission that morning. I had been listening to Moby’s latest CD, and discovered, upon reading the liner notes, that he was a vegan. I decided that, while going vegan would be too much too soon, a vegetarian lifestyle was something I could live with. Never again would I consume the dead flesh of animals.

My first stint as a vegetarian lasted about 2 years. I was more accurately a pescetarian, sneaking in some fish every now and then, but otherwise I either found meat substitutes or figured out vegetarian dishes on my own. My parents had an awesome time trying to make couscous and lentils. But eating vegetarian at a community college in rural Tennessee had some challenges. After months of nagging from my friends (including one incident when a grown man waved chicken tenders in front of my face), I started eating meat again.

My meat consumption was still dramatically lower following the “chicken tender” incident. It helped that some friends (none of whom attended the same community college I did) were also vegetarian to varying degrees. I attended a small liberal arts college near Asheville, NC with a cafe that specialized in vegetarian dishes, so it was easy to find consistently delicious food that also happened to be vegetarian.

I never seriously reconsidered going vegetarian again until 2012, following a breakup. My ex’s diet was 50% bacon and 50% beef, and I wanted as clean a break as possible from that entire relationship. I think I made it to 2013 before abandoning total vegetarianism again. Since then, I’ve vacillated between being a lacto-ovo-vegetarian and a pescetarian. Now I’ve settled into “no mammals” flexitarianism, for reasons explained below. Also, some heart trouble earlier this year gave me cause for alarm, and red meat (along with added sugar) has a substantial correlation with heart disease. All the more reason.

I’ve had an interest in the ethics of food since my Moby-listening days in high school. Back then, most peers were ardent carnists, not interested at all in the well-being of livestock. “Cows and chickens are dumb, awful animals,” I heard frequently. “And steak is delicious.” While I’m sure many friends of mine had worked on rural farms and knew how unpleasant those animals could be, there is certainly some ex-post-facto justification for eating meat. Chicken tenders are delicious, so it must be okay to kill chickens for food, and everyone knows they’re aggressive and loud and poop everywhere.

While I don’t believe that most animals have the same internal, complex lives that humans do (with notable exceptions, such as whales), most feel pain. If we must cause animals to suffer, it should only be for our own survival (i.e. sustenance) or to prevent some ecological catastrophe (e.g. hunting deer to prevent overpopulation). And speaking of ecological catastrophe: cattle, in particular, are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, one reason why I avoid beef in particular.

Ironically, one reason I used to cite for going vegetarian (to lose weight) has been counter-productive. Personal experience has taught me that my body needs more protein to feel satiated, as my issues with fatigue and hunger on my last vegetarian stint were likely due to this. I would need to consume much more bean and nut mass to meet those needs, and while that would be a more ethical solution, I’ve found it more personally sustainable to eat poultry and fish for additional protein.

One philosophy I espouse: “perfect is the enemy of good.” Any change for the better is more useful than trying to be perfect all at once. If “Meatless Monday” is the best you can do on a long-term basis, that’s better than going vegan for a week and then eating nothing but bacon for a month after. And if people give you crap, or (heaven forbid) wave chicken tenders in your face, find a new group of friends.

(If you’re curious, my favorite vegetarian dish is Chana Masala on jasmine rice. There are some good recipes online, but I love making it in a slow cooker while I’m at work.)