How to Stop Being a Vegetarian

If you’ve read the “About” page of this blog, or you’ve found your way to the site by reading some of my book excerpts, it should come as no surprise that this is the most frequently-asked question I encounter:

How do you re-incorporate meat into your diet?

A few years ago, when I was considering making the transition back into meat-eating, I spent a lot of time looking for advice, even other individual stories, on the internet — and I really didn’t find much at all. So let me share with you all some of the things that did and didn’t work for me. Hopefully this post will answer questions for vegetarians thinking about making the transition, but I think it should also prove useful to anyone who would just like an insight into the issues of health, sourcing, and ethics that go into dietary choices.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a health or nutrition expert. The advice in this post is based on my individual experiences ONLY, and anyone with health considerations should consult a physician or nutritionist before switching their diet dramatically.

What should I eat? How will my body react?

We’ve all heard those horror stories of vegans who accidentally swallow a sip of beef broth and vomit for three days straight. We’ve all also probably heard stories of people who spent nearly a decade as a vegan and then downed an entire package pf pepperoni in one sitting without so much as the hiccups. So it can be difficult to know how your body will react to a reintroduction of an unfamiliar food. The approach that worked for me here was to start small,start slow and stay in your comfort zone.

When I visited Africa with my mother in the middle of my time as a vegetarian, I ate a bowl of soup that had been cooked with meat in it — I didn’t eat any actual meat, but I was basically eating goat broth. I was violently ill, in uh, more than one way, for a few days after that.

In contrast, my first meal with meat after seven years was pasta with my Nonna’s red sauce with cut up bits of a chicken breast mixed in and a side of green beans. I was perfectly fine, and didn’t experience even a minor bout of indigestion.

I think the difference between the two meals was that one was almost entirely familiar to my body, while the other was foreign. But it was Adjoa’s (delicious) super-spicy pepe soup that was unfamiliar. Even though I hadn’t eaten chicken in years, the rest of that meal was something I ate often, so my body hardly noticed the addition of a small amount of meat. But  my body very much noticed, and violently reacted to, the hint of meat when in combination with spicy food, unfamiliar ingredients, and days of 120 degree heat.

The lesson here is eat something you are very used to eating. Cook it yourself to ensure that all the ingredients other than meat are familiar to your digestive system. And only eat small amounts of meat to start, gradually building up to whatever you consider “normal.”

How should I prepare my meat?

This is an issue I don’t think most vegetarians consider when they think about going back. But the seven years I spent as a vegetarian were ages 19-26, which meat that I’d gone from my parent’s house to a college dining hall to a vegetarian — which meant that at age 26, I did not know how to cook meat.

Because with meat there are very real food safety issues, I think it’s a great idea to have a trusted carnivore around to help you out, not just the first time, but the first few times (since different types of meat have different requirements).

If it weren’t for the help of friends, I wouldn’t know, for example, that you shouldn’t use the same plate or fork to carry the raw meat and the cooked. I wouldn’t know that pink in the center is good for steak but bad for chicken. On a more practical level, I wouldn’t know how truly disgusting meat packaging smells in the garbage after a few days. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been prepared for — that I wouldn’t even have thought to look into. I still sometimes text friends a picture message asking whether the center of a lamb loin is supposed to be that deep purple of a color, or what it means if the chicken smells like feet.

How long until I can eat normally again?

Even after reading about the dramatically different reactions people can have to a reintroduction of meat, many people want to speed ahead to the time when they can officially say they are no longer a vegetarian. They want to get “back to normal,” to stop being the annoying friend who needs to make sure everyone eats out somewhere with vegetarian options. They want to go to Taco Bell again.

I do have an answer to that question, but first I want to take a moment here to say: never lose those standards. Retaining some of the habits of vegetarianism is one of the things that’s made me such a healthy, sustainable omnivore. Do not go back to eating fast food. It’s not good for anyone. Don’t let up on insisting that a restaurant at least offer a few vegetarian options — any place that doesn’t is behind the times, and less likely to offer sustainable, local, or organic options. Apply the same principles of health and ethics that you did to vegetarianism to meat-eating again, and above all, don’t just revert to eating meat with every meal.

All that being said, you should take your time in ramping your meat consumption back up from zero to sixty. After my completely innocuous and pleasant experience with the chicken pasta, I was feeling pretty good. I thought sure I’d crossed the threshold and so two days later, at brunch out, I order a quiche with little bits of local, uncured bacon.

Later that day I experienced some… digestive issues. Nothing major, but unusual for a leafy-green eating vegetarian, and I largely attribute that to the bacon. Even though it was a small amount, and a healthy bacon (as opposed to packaged Oscar Meyer), it was unfamiliar to my system, and as a processed meat, a leap from a chicken breast.

I would say for at least a few weeks, eat meat less frequently than you think you “normally” would (only 3-4 times a week, maybe, instead of every other meal) and cook it exclusively at home. That way, the meat is the only unfamiliar ingredient. This is all precautionary, of course, but when it comes to my digestive health, I say better safe than sorry.

How will I feel?

This actually isn’t a question a lot of vegetarians ask — or if they do, they are refering to a physical feeling. But I want to take a minute here to talk about the emotional impact of eating meat again.

I think to make the transition away from vegetarianism, you need to be able to be honest with your feelings and intentions. Don’t just pretend you changed your mind, or that it’s not a big decision. It is, and should be treated as such. Spend some time, whether with yourself, or a friend, talking about why you became a vegetarian in the first place, and what made you think about bringing meat back into your diet. Whether these are issues of ethics, or simply of health or taste preferences, important issues will come up in these discussions that will help direct you towards the kind of meat-eating (the style, the frequency, the sourcing) that you want yours to be.

Before I decided to eat meat again, I spent an entire Saturday morning talking with a friend about all of the issues that were tied, for me, into the notion of meat. Acknowledging that I still objected to a factory farming system helped me decide on the standards I would set for farms I’d source meat from. Debating the role of protein in the development of the modern human  body helped me figure out how often I saw myself eating meat. And being open about the real reasons I wanted to stop being exclusively a vegetarian, what I was eating that simply was not “natural,”  pointed me down the path of selective omnivore, the path that led me here.

And after about three hours of talking, I knew I was ready.

The process of reintroducing meat should be a slow one, should be one of trial and error and the discovery born of that experimentation. Allow yourself the time and space to do it right, and you never know what you will find.

Have you made the transition into or out of vegetarianism? Was it smooth, or rocky? What obstacles did you hit? What advice do you have from others? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

If you’re thinking about making this transition and have any questions, please feel free to get in touch by leaving a comment, or via email on my contact page.

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