And then they're curious. “How do you feel? Don’t you miss it?”
My answers to these questions surprise even me. Giving up meat taught me something about myself I didn’t know - something that has little to do with meat and a lot to do with the process of giving up a habit I’ve had for almost 50 years.
“Why give up meat?”
Then, in 2010, I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan’s not a vegetarian by any stretch (spoiler: he kills and cooks his own wild pig in the end), but he made me think - perhaps for the first time in my life, where my food comes from and how much meat in particular I was eating. (When my mother was growing up, meat was an occasional luxury, but I was eating it 3 times a day.) Pollan made me aware that how the food was produced and under what circumstances made a nutritional, environmental, and moral difference.
"It’s okay", I thought, "I’ll just pay more at Whole Foods and get 'good' meat."
Then I watched “Food, Inc.” and saw where meat comes from and how animals are treated in all but the most exceptional conditions. I knew I didn’t want to be part of some ghoulish systemic torture system and I was too chicken (pun, alas, intended) to kill anything myself, so I starting eating less and less. Finally, when someone at work blogged about being a vegetarian for 30 days, I decided to stop eating meat altogether.
“How do you feel?”
The person who asks how I feel usually wants to hear that I’m either radically healthier or I’m suffering from some acute protein deficiency. Neither is true. I feel the same and my recent check-up shows everything is normal. The only real change was my LDL cholesterol went down by 10%.
I will admit to feeling smug at times but I realize that’s pretty ridiculous. I still eat fish, after all, and I have no issue with anyone else who eats meat, including my kids. So giving up a few foods is really a trivial sacrifice compared to what else I could be doing.
“Don’t you miss it?”
No, I don’t miss it. Occasionally a certain smell may trigger my appetite or old cravings, but my brain has been re-wired. Now, those positive associations are quickly overtaken by more negative thoughts and images related to the animal being cooked. (I'll spare you the graphic details. But once you've seen the inside of an industrial animal farm or meat factory it's hard to think "yummy!" when you see and smell a burger.)
The process for changing a habit
The most interesting part of the entire experience wasn’t changing what I ate, it was learning that I could change even a long-rutted habit. And there were 5 key elements of the process:
Increasing awareness: learning more about the negatives of our food system as well as the health and environmental benefits of being meatless.
Setting small achievable goals: I stopped eating meat at breakfast (easy), then lunch (less easy), then altogether (not easy).
Doing it regularly for 30 days: it’s short enough to consider trying anything and long enough to re-wire you.
Providing positive reinforcement: I shared early stories and connected with vegetarians and other meatless people and got joy from being a new person in that tribe.
Getting help: my wife is Japanese and introduced me to all sorts of delicious meatless dishes while providing encouragement.
When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted. So now I’m looking forward to some other goals. Next is getting off of a pill I take everyday to reduce my cholesterol. I thought I’d be on it for the rest of my life and just have to risk the side-effects. But my numbers are so low now my doctor said I can stop taking it if I exercise more and make a few additional dietary changes. Those are changes I know I can make.
The best part, though, is not just giving things up but learning and doing new things. Finally practicing yoga. Playing the piano (a lifelong dream). Being able to hold a real conversation in Japanese.
It turns out giving up meat wasn’t about giving up at all, but about opening up and creating new possibilities for a richer, better life.