We Meat Again!

I hadn’t eaten meat for seventeen months, not since September 2015. Then, two weeks ago, I terminated my vegetarian No Meat experiment in spectacular fashion: scoffing the biggest, fattest steak I could find.

Sometimes positive constraints are so successful that you never want to live as you did before. Since 2010, I have never once wished I was on an aeroplane instead of on a train, boat or my own two feet.

But while I haven’t longed for a bacon butty, a sirloin steak or pan-fried liver, I have occasionally wondered whether my previous meat and beans diet was, contrary to all conventional dietary advice, actually healthier for me than my vegetarianism.

Could meat really be healthier for me than veg?

To be honest, my evidence for this suspicion is pretty thin (pun alert). However, in September 2015 I weighed a moderately healthy 66kg; by May 2016 I tipped the scales at only 61kg – a startling loss of over 7% mass. Never a porker, my BMI was slipping perilously close to the Underweight category without me really noticing.

My weight loss had a knock-on effect with the medication I take for an underactive thyroid. With less Me to activate, my thyroxine levels rose into excessive territory. I noticed I was becoming hot, tired, insomniac, irritable and fretful more easily and more often.

After a battery of blood tests, I reduced my thyroxine medication and felt a little better. The reduction in thyroxine arrested my weight loss and after a few months it has stabilised to around 63kg.

Then, for the first time in my life, I was assaulted by Irritable Bowel Syndrome and bed-ridden with nausea until I cut out Fermentable Oligo-, Di- and Mono-saccharides And Polyols (FODMAPs) from my diet. Six weeks of gluten-free, lactose-free, fun-free eating later, I knew a heck of a lot more about my gut and the biochemistry of food, but I wasn’t exactly a model of health.

I know I’m not the only person to have found this winter particularly hard, but I’ve basically been knackered since November. Being a hypochondriac with a love of spreadsheets is a mixed blessing. I know exactly how many days have been lost to my malaise. As of today, 34 in the last 151 days; 23% of the last four months have been spent sneezing to greater and lesser degrees of violence. (And yes I have been supplementing with Vitamin D.)

I don’t publish this as a hideously public whinge-athon, merely as a partial explanation of why I might like to experiment with eating meat once more.

Nobody ever said that vegetarianism is wholly good for every human, all the time. Having spent 17 months in a primarily plant-based dietary experiment, I feel I am now in a position to ask and answer a fair question: Am I better off eating meat?

(Yes, I am deliberately making this about me because there is one thing that does seem to be clear: eating meat is TERRIBLE for the environment.)

So here I am, almost two weeks into a 30-day experiment with eating meat once more. But first –

What did I learn as a vegetarian?

It’s hard to do justice to the contrast between my diet today and my diet seventeen months ago. For most of 2013-2015, I’d estimate that 90% of my nutrition came from nothing but the following foods:

  • Beef mince
  • Tinned tomatoes
  • Beans (butter or black, with kidney a distant third choice)
  • Hummus
  • Coleslaw
  • Fruit (bananas, apples, satsumas)
  • Cheese (cheddar, grated)
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Cream (often drunk straight from the tub)
  • Milk (by the pint)
  • Cake and biscuits

That really was it – barring occasional meals cooked by friends, family or restaurant chefs. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. If there was anyone who desperately needed a positive constraint to add variety and flexibility to their diet it was yours truly.

So without a doubt the number one thing that I’ve taken from my time as a vegetarian is, well, food.

Spreading my culinary wings really took a shot in the arm from my medically advised FODMAPs diet. The baffling restrictions forced me – in classic positive constraints fashion – to cook with all manner of new (to me) vegetables – parsnips, pumpkins, plantains. And that’s just the Ps.

Eating, I’ve learned, is a lifetime’s endeavour. Its variety, flavour and tradition is breathtaking. (If only for the reason that you should never try to breathe while swallowing.)

Vegetarianism, Meatarianism, Flexitarianism?

No matter whether I end up on a primarily meat- or plant-based diet, I will be forever grateful that vegetarianism has taught me so much about food and how to cook. Herbs! Whoever knew that fresh herbs could make things so tasty? I now keep a caddy of mixed chopped parsley and coriander in the fridge for delicious green sprinkles.

Vegetarianism hasn’t been perfect for me. I’m convinced that I’ve had more gastric distress – even before the IBS kicked in last year. I’ve tended to eat more gluten as a vegetarian, which may or may not have been giving me sharp, all-day headaches. Perhaps too my wintry sluggishness is down to some unidentified nutritional deficiency from a lack of meat.

But I know meat isn’t perfect either. Quite apart from the embarrassment of serving up meat and beans to your friends every mealtime. Last Tuesday, I ate tripe for the first time in my life and spent the whole night in the toilet dealing with the consequences. Moving swiftly on.

Nevertheless, for the next couple of weeks I’m aiming to add meat to at least three meals a week. Experiments are only experiments as long as you observe and respect your results. Time will tell, but I’m hoping that this flexitarianism might a least help me put some weight on these skinny bones.

And even if not, then at least I’ll know I’ve tried something different.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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