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Long-time loyal readers of this blog will be aware that I take a month off of eating meat every year. I do this for three reasons: 1) I think it’s healthier not to eat meat. 2) I think it’s better for the planet. And 3) I think it’s a good to exercise your will from time to time to deny yourself things that you really want. I’ve been doing this for over ten years.
Normally, I struggle through this month of vegetarianism and while I think it is good for me, I usually quickly rebound to my old carnivorous ways as soon as the month is over. But this year, I tried something different. I decided not to be so strict. I would eat vegetarian whenever possible but I would allow myself a few exceptions:
- Since my wife was not on the diet (and she usually makes dinner for the family a few times a week) I would eat meat when my wife was cooking. In this case, I would eat a bit of meat, but I DRASTICALLY reduced my portion, eating just a little bit of chicken or fish while doubling up on the vegetables.
- I would choose meat if it was the healthier option. I usually feel like my vegetarian “lent” period ends up not being very healthy because I eat a lot of pizza and pasta and other ultra-carby foods. This year I decided if it was a choice between ANOTHER slice of veggie pizza and something that might be healthier even though it had meat in it, I would do what I thought was best for me and not be so dogmatic about not eating animals.
- If I was really dying to have a taste of something with meat in it, I would. I might not order a steak, but I would have a bite of my wife’s and not stress about it.
Approaching my diet in this less rigid way probably means it was not as strong of a willpower exercise as it normally is. After all, I was giving myself the ability to cave in pretty much any time I felt like it. But I managed to stay pretty good about eating mostly vegetarian and I only “cheated” a couple times a week.
But here’s the thing. Because I made my diet easier on myself, I didn’t bounce right back to carnivorism when the month ended. In fact, I found I could continue my mostly vegetarian diet relatively easily. Not only that, but as I continued through my second and then third month, I began to realize I was craving meat less and less. And when I do eat meat, I haven’t been enjoying it as much.
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I recently saw an incredible lecture by Melanie Joy on “The Psychology of Eating Meat.” I highly recommend it to anyone, especially if you are considering the role of animals in your diet.
In the lecture, she outlines different perspectives towards food, listing Veganism, Vegetarianism and what she calls “Carnism.” She describes carnism as the opposite of veganism and a belief system characterized by denial about the realities of our food system.
But what I’m realizing is there is a HUGE gap between vegetarianism and carnism. There is a lot of territory in between eating no animals (vegetarianism) and the typical American diet where meat makes up the lion’s share of every single meal. As compelling as Dr. Joy’s presentation is, it is hard to get someone to go from the typical American “carnistic” (is that a word?) animal-centric diet to a vegetarian diet.
Why? Not only do you have to overcome all of the culturally ingrained myths about the importance of meat in your diet (which Joy does a good job of covering in her lecture) but it is hard to be a vegetarian in a carnivorous world. Restaurants, supermarkets and your own social circles are all conspired against you.
A much easier shift away from carnism would be to move to a “vegetarianish” diet. The vegetarianish diet doesn’t mean you have to swear off meat altogether. It means you don’t eat animals as the default. You eat vegetarian most meals. Save your meat for special occasions. “Eat less and enjoy more” as some would say.
I still have not lapsed into full on veganism (I eat eggs and dairy.) And I am not a complete vegetarian (I still have small portions of meat from time to time.) But I’m vegetarianish. And it feels like a step in the right direction.
References and recommended reading:
Blatner, D. J. (2010). The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. McGraw-Hill.
Burwash, P. (1997). Total Health: The Next Level. Torchlight Publishing.
Campbell, T. C. (2006). The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health. BenBella Books.
Foer, J. S. (2010). Eating Animals. Back Bay Books.
Robbins, J. (1998). Diet for a New America. HJ Kramer.
The technique has worked for me too, Jeremy – except that I do it with breads and desserts instead of meat. (Meat is probably 25-30% of my food intake, and I try to bring that number lower too, BTW. But I’m not ready to be vegetarianism yet!)
Here’s my experience with it: each year for lent I give up sweets/desserts, bread and anything fried. While I don’t usually eat fried food anyway, that really doesn’t bother me. But I like my sweets and breads, and giving those up makes a difference in how I eat – and how I feel! And just like you, as soon as lent is over, I go right back to my old habits and probably have a lot more bread and desserts in the month after Easter than in the month before lent.
So now I’m working on eating bread and desserts only when it makes sense (ex: grab a sandwich and go), when it’d really make someone else happy if I had some (like if visiting with my Mom and she baked something for the family), or if I’m really dying for a piece. Other than than, I try to stay away. Just like you I cheat a little, but I find that having the rule is helpful to limit intake. Oh – and I no longer have desserts in restaurants – haven’t for a while because most of them have trans fat, which really kills my desire for them.
I’m doing a similar sort of thing, Jeremy. I am not buying any meat but will eat it if someone else puts it in front of me. It’s interesting because I’m developing more of a distaste for meat when before I used to eat it almost every meal. I’m not sure how long I will keep this up but it will probably be healthier for me overall.