As you all know, I have a number of vegetarians in my life, and there are many present and active in our MDA community. I empathize with the thinking that goes into their commitment, but I choose to eat meat and obviously encourage others to do the same for the sake of optimum health. I get a fair amount of emails from vegetarian readers who want to reintroduce meat into their diets. Although they see the health benefits of reclaiming omnivorism, they’re hesitant about the transition itself. Have they been herbivores too long? Will they really be able to follow through? The Primal mind is willing, but the flesh remains unsure. I’ve found their concerns generally fall into four areas that I’ll label taste, digestion, morality, and psychology. For all the vegetarians out there interested in rejoining the omnivorous side, let me take up your concerns and offer some Primal-minded suggestions.
Some vegetarians after many years are still nostalgic for certain meats (bacon seems to be the most common), while others have entirely lost any semblance of craving. Maybe they’ve managed to satisfy their taste for umami so well, they learned to live happily without any meat source. Alternatively, they may have vehemently talked themselves out of the taste long ago.
Faced with the interest in reclaiming meats’ nutritional benefit, they wonder how to rebuild a positive relationship with their estranged fare. We are, all of us, creatures of habit, and we tend to lean toward the familiar. As hard as it may be for meat lovers to understand, giving up a food group for years (and in some cases decades) means wholly disengaging from it. One’s associations with meat may become apathetic at best and full-on revulsion at worst. One reader worried because he’d come to hate the smell of grilled meat that wafted through his neighborhood from the corner restaurant. “If I can’t even take the smell,” he said, “I wonder how I’m ever going to stand the taste again.”
Readers will undoubtedly have good advice on the subject, but let me offer a few suggestions to ease the taste transition. It goes without saying (except I’m saying it) to take it slowly. Use small bits of meat (shredded or ground) as filler in what are already favorite dishes. Add a bit of shredded lamb to a ratatouille. Include small bites of chicken or shrimp in a Greek salad. Throw a little ground beef in a veggie stew.
Alternatively, let someone else do the cooking for a while. Make your first forays in a restaurant. Look around the room and see what other people are eating. Go with a visually appealing dish or something that just sounds good on the menu. Bring an experimental mindset. If the restaurant thing doesn’t do it for you, ask some meat-eating friends to share a couple of their best dishes. Host a potluck. Aim to try as many things as you can. Who knows, Mikey might like it.
Beyond the scope of mere aesthetic appreciation, many vegetarian readers share a trickier concern. They worry – either because they’ve heard they should or (in some cases) they’ve experienced trouble in the past – that their bodies can’t digest meat anymore. Let me say there’s a lot hooey thrown around on this issue.
Do I suggest a 10-year vegetarian reignite his meat-eating lifestyle with a large t-bone steak or a blood sausage? No. But I think there’s a way for just about anybody (there’s probably some random outlier somewhere) to integrate meat again if they take it slowly enough.
Most of the clamor revolves around stomach enzymes. People declare their stomachs simply don’t produce meat digesting enzymes anymore, and they’re forever confined to a plant-based diet. Most of the time I hear this claim coming from people who’ve been vegetarians for five years or less.
This is one of the those times when I wish I could point to a group of studies and say, “See, there’s really no need to worry that a few years has selectively demolished your digestive profile.” Unfortunately, I have yet to come across any particular study with this focus. (If you know of one, please send it my way.) Nonetheless, reason and experience can often tell us what scientific research can’t. While long-term, strict vegetarianism or veganism can possibly lower the production of certain protein-directed enzymes, it shouldn’t be enough to halt it, let alone undo the genetic potential one has to produce them.
That said, I can see why people don’t want to jump in the deep end of the pool right away. Some people, particularly if they’ve been vegans or vegetarians for many years, do experience digestive upset during the first few days or weeks of including meat again. (Similar in some way to a sugar-burner turning fat-burner during the low carb flu period.) Rest assured it doesn’t mean you’ll always be plagued with nausea. In my experience, most people who take it slowly say they have little to no digestive issues during the transition.
Nonetheless, here’s a modest proposal for easing back into efficient meat digestion:
- Start with good gut bacteria. Incorporate fermented foods, and go with a probiotic supplement for at least a few weeks before and after starting meat again. A healthy gut environment sets the stage for optimum digestion (among other benefits of course).
- If you’ve had digestive issues with meat before, try broth, particularly bone broth, for the first week. It’s good nutrition, and it might be easier to handle. Continue broth until you’re ready to move on to solid meat.
- Eat meat or fish alone, and don’t eat again for a few hours. (Be sure to eat it earlier in the day rather than at night.) Allow plenty of time for digestion and stomach emptying if you want to gauge how it will make you feel.
- Use a marinade that contains an acid like vinegar or a natural meat tenderizer like the bromelain in pineapple.
- If you experience ongoing problems, try a short-term course of HCL or enzyme supplement.
I’ll admit there’s no sugar coating the basics. Yes, it was an animal and – unless you forage for roadkill – it died to become food. As bad as a person may feel about this act, it’s the way of life of course. Nature isn’t a gentle, magnanimous force. We evolved to eat both meat and plants, regardless of what some people say. Meat eating (particularly after cooking was added to the mix) was a significant boon to our species. Yes, we can live without it, but we live better with it.
All that said, I can understand many people’s discomfort with the modern meat industry. In a fitting correlation, the livestock practices that produce the healthiest meat also tend to be more humane and less environmentally destructive overall. It’s not a perfect scenario, but it’s a better one.
These days it’s possible for most people to find more humanely raised, pastured meat either within driving distance, through local co-ops and buying clubs, or by direct mail. If local stores don’t offer what you’re looking for, research the area farms and natural buying clubs available to you, and check out direct farm to consumer mail order options. You should be able to find out how the animals are raised, what their diet is, and even what facility handles the slaughter and processing. Consider the facts, weigh the financials, and choose the best you can.
Then there’s always the do-it-yourself approach. As unappealing as killing an animal must sound, the option provides the best chance to ensure an animal has had as natural a life (and humane a death) as possible. Some people fish for their dinners or raise their own chickens for this exact reason. Raising a small herd of cattle or sheep is obviously more complicated, but I’ve known a few folks who do it. People also hunt, of course, for this among many other reasons. I’ll admit that I’ve done a mental 180 in recent years around the hunting issue. There are of course hunters who are cruel and irresponsible, but friends and MDA readers (among others) have helped me see how hunting – when done with respect and skill – offers a humane and even reverent way to relate to the animals we eat.
Last, take a look at opposing views on the ethics of eating meat. As Denise Minger recommended in her Ancestral Health Symposium talk, Let Them Eat Meat puts forth some interesting arguments. And Lierre Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth is highly recommended.
Oftentimes, people’s emotional reservations are caught up primarily in the previous factor. Sometimes, however, there’s another level to the aversion – a heebie-jeebies kind of feeling. It’s more common in people who have been vegetarians/vegans for many years or who focused on the “repulsive” fleshly aspect of carne to maintain their commitment.
At some point, of course, you just have gird up your loins and sink your teeth into some. Some vegetarian readers have told me they try to ignore the meat in the dish. They tell themselves – in vain – that it’s just another ingredient. Their efforts to disconnect thought from sensory experience ends up making the situation worse. The flesh is all they can think about.
Although I can see why they would want to put it out of their minds and just do the deed with as little thought as possible, maybe the opposite approach is in order. Fire up the grill or, better yet, campfire. Give the occasion its primal due. Make a ceremony out of it. Think about that animal and all it offers to you now. Think about your ancestors and what they sacrificed through the ages to achieve basic survival. Toast them all. Celebrate the choice you have to indulge today. Eat with your hands. Feel the meat’s life-giving energy, and relish its connection to what’s essential and wild. After all, we’re all animals at the end of the day.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have you made the meat-eating transition? Know someone who has? What’s helped (or not)? I’d love to hear your thoughts.