Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.
Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.
After three weeks of No Meat, I feel like I’ve finally arrived as a vegetarian. Mainly thanks to a catastrophically meat-centric encounter at a restaurant. I’ve heard these sorts of stories many times from my vegetarian friends, about being served chicken or thin slices of ham, but I’ve never experienced vegetarian-does-not-compute dining myself.
Until last night.
I should preface this by saying that the meal was otherwise excellent; the two vegetarian dishes we had were superb. But the bread contained meat.
I’ll say that again. The bread contained meat.
We were enthusiastically tucking into hummus and baba ghanoush with hunks of warm flat bread, until my friend pointed out that this surprisingly delicious bread had a certain je ne sais quoi. Then we did sais quoi: ground lamb.
For the sake of the experiment, I took my hummus neat after that. Not too long after, we found a moth in the pomegranate salad. Suffice to say, we got a free dessert…
Observation #1: Identity Crisis
In other news, I’m having an identity crisis. At the restaurant and when others are cooking, I am forced to identify as a vegetarian. As a life-long (and eager) meat eater, this is very odd, especially as vegetarianism is not a neutrally-charged. In our society, being vegetarian comes along with some level of prejudice and judgement – not least by myself.
I’ve been surprised to notice that I like being a meat eater. It’s part of my identity. I like being a meat eater, not for the nutritional benefits of eating meat, but because I like the idea of being that sort of hearty, eat anything, eat everything, sort of person. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat frail: it feels like an absence, rather than an abundance.
I know that’s ridiculous, especially considering my previous meat and beans diet, but hey.
On the plus side, as a vegetarian, I can share food more often with my vegetarian house mates. Or with anyone, in fact, because no one wants to eat meat and beans all the time.
Observation #2: The Power of Meat
I now fully appreciate the power of meat. That first week was tough. The Friday, five days in, was terrible. I felt dizzy and had to roam the streets at night looking for vitamin pills.
Now I supplement like a Tour de France dope fiend. I take a full A to Z of vitamin pills, garlic capsules, fish oil, extra vitamin D3, as well as my pea protein, creatine and spirulina milkshake.
This brings me onto a related observation: most vegetarians I know eat meat. That might be a weekly fish supper, or monthly meaty treats. This was a surprise to me, but having lived on a purely lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for 3 weeks, now totally understandable.
It’s hard work making sure you get full nutrition on a No Meat diet. My friends seemed to be most worried about iron deficiency. I’m most worried about wasting away, especially with a half marathon next weekend.
Observation #3: The Laziness of Habit
To be honest, I was expecting to go back to meat after that first week, but for some reason I didn’t. That reason was laziness. I simply couldn’t find time to buy any meat, so just drifted on without.
This laziness shows, not only how much my condition improved after that first Friday, but also the power of inertia. Inertia usually works against us, keeping us wallowing in the rut of habit, lazily taking the same bike route to work every morning, annoying our house mates by leaving the washing up in the sink, or popping in for a swift half that always turns into five or six.
With this No Meat experiment, however, it was surprising how quickly inertia flopped over on to my side. It was an additional effort to buy meat, so I simply didn’t.
I also benefit from the positive nature of my decision. It’s not that I can’t eat meat – no one is stopping me. I simply don’t eat meat – it’s my free choice.
My own I don’t… was tested when I went for a take-away alone for the first time. I could have chosen anything from the extensive meaty and fishy menu. (The two vegetarians who were staying with me both had fish and chips from next door.) But I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it. I freely chose a vegetable masala. And bloody good it was too.
If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.
My Old Diet: Meat and Beans
For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.
Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.
This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.
This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:
What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.
Why No Meat?
So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.
Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.
Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.
Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.
Cowspiracy is unambiguous:
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.
But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.
At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.
This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?
The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!
Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:
All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.
In the scramble, I put:
Red onion (fried)
Black beans (boiled)
Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:
I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.
For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.
Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!
Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.
One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:
Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.
If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:
24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.
Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).
Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments
Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.
Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?
As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:
I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.
Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.
Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?
I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.
Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)
It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.
And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)
But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.
Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.
Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps
Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?
1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potatoe from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.
2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgiveable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?
3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.
Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.
4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?
5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilance until you get to your destination.
Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.
Why oh why oh why?
Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.
So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.
No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.
We are cursed, a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.
The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.
But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.