Within a month of going back to meat, I was shocked at how much better I felt.
At first, I added wild-caught salmon back to my diet, since this felt ethically acceptable. It was wild! And it was SO healthy, full of the purest form of Omega-3 fatty acids! But that was too expensive to eat regularly, so I also added in chicken and turkey.
This time, unlike my previous ventures into meat-eating, I was just as scrupulous about what I eliminated as what I put back in. No more processed food. No more soy substitutes. I cut radically back on my carbohydrates, not for weight loss but to deal with my sugar cravings and crashes.
I was surprised at how much better I felt--although I didn't have the haunted 'health food' cheekbones and scrawny arms I'd developed during my strictest vegetarian phases, my waist actually grew tighter and leaner. I looked muscular and sturdy and sculpted in a manner I didn't think was possible. I didn't feel bloated all the time from the seitan and soy--I'd grown so accustomed to feeling that way, I was shocked that it wasn't my natural state. I actually got asked by people I hadn't seen in awhile: "what did you do? Did you lose weight? There is something...different." But I hadn't needed to lose weight, and I hadn't. I just looked, well, healthy.
I became able to hold a headstand with my newly discovered strength, and although I am still a slow, middle-aged runner and a timid, not particularly talented rider, I began to see PROGRESS. Eating a truly balanced diet, rather than some weird-ass ideologically prescribed 'advertised' diet enabled me to be 'the best that I can be' even if I would like that 'best' to be 'better.'
I think that is the crux of the vegetarian paradox: some people ask--why do some people seem fine with little animal protein, while others get sick and don't flourish? The standard PETA party line is that people who 'fail' at vegetarianism didn't do it 'the right way' and point to elite athletes who are vegan and so forth.
There is no question that, as a vegetarian, I felt much better than I did as an omnivore who ate everything--including lots of cheese fries. But I feel much better now than I did as a vegetarian when I eat lots of nonstarchy veggies, unprocessed meats, moderate amounts of full-fat dairy, and moderate amounts of nuts.
That is why it annoys me so much when so many studies of veganism and vegetarianism compare the category of 'vegans' against 'meat eaters' as if that was an all-inclusive group. Meat eaters who eat McDonald's? Or meat eaters who are eating grass-fed beef and Brussels sprouts?
But then again, I never thought, even during my most radical phases, that vegetarianism was suitable for everyone. I was never one of those people who tried to make her dog a vegetarian and I find it very worrisome in particular when people try to make their naturally carnivorous cats go vegan to suit their ideological proclivities. How can you claim to love animals and hate the animal instinct inside your own pets, I want to ask? And even dealing with herbivorous horses, I've come to realize how animals appreciate and seek out strength in others, including people--not cruelty, but strength, firmness, and leadership, which is something I can't provide when I can barely pick up a heavy bucket.
I feel much better, now that I have been eating meat for a year, even though it has been a profound shift in my sense of self. So many people knew me as a vegetarian, and even some of them who eat meat seem disappointed I 'reverted' in their eyes.
It is looking through the world with new eyes. I still feel that our food system is profoundly 'broken,' my only change in conviction is the suitability of vegetarianism as a solution for most people. I refuse to sacrifice my health and potential to satisfy any ideology.
Maybe some people 'do fine' (whatever their definition of fine is) as vegan or vegetarian, but there is no way you can preach to someone that they will 'be healthier' being vegetarian if their own bodies tell them that is not the case, anymore than you can preach to your tabby that he really enjoys seitan more than salmon.
I still do yoga, though, and although most people I know who do yoga aren't vegan or vegetarian, occasionally I'll hear people say things like: "if only they knew, everyone would be vegan." Um, I do know. I even took a class called Animals: Realms of Power at Harvard Divinity School in which I studied human-animal relations from ancestral times onward. "Boca Burgers taste good instead of hamburgers!" I've probably eaten more Boca Burgers in every flavor than you have been alive in years on this planet, and no, they aren't really that good for you if you look at the label. Or worse, the people who aren't even vegetarian but act as though being vegetarian is somehow a higher state of being. "Is a cheetah more moral than an antelope because he eats meat," I wonder?
I wish, despite saying all of this, that I did feel as good not eating meat as when I eat meat, but my body and my more focused mind tells me otherwise.
Other things went away with meat-eating that I assumed was a natural part of myself. I'm no longer cold in the fall. I can go for long periods of time without eating when I have to, and I can bake without having the urge to 'accidentally' leave all of the batter in the bowl and eat it all to satisfy my desire for sugar.
What is weirdest of all, and I guess I shouldn't say this as a food blogger, is that I no longer feel particularly obsessed with food. I enjoy the creative aspect of baking--woo-hoo! I made something from a formless blob of dough! But lots of the time, I just have some chicken and broccoli and kind of forget about it all because I am busy with other aspects of my life.
I don't miss the endless planning around being vegetarian, the constant worrying of 'will they have something I can eat?' And if they don't, when can I eat. And the monotony of my diet, veering from processed foods to foods that took a long time to prepare (like beans) that I didn't like and don't make me feel very good.
But this leaves me between camps. On one hand, I'm not in the 'food is fun, I eat EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME' camp, because truthfully, I don't feel very good when I eat processed foods like Pop Tarts or McDonald's fries which seems to be required of the 'slumming' foodie. On the other hand, while I believe that animals intended for consumption must be treated more ethically for their own sake and also for the health of consumers, I hate PETA's guilt campaigns, such as when it tries to shame people into becoming vegan through misogynistic fat-phobia or when it claims to value human health but then gleefully publishes a list of junk food that is vegan and therefore okay to eat.
I suppose what I am passionate about is people eating food that is minimally processed, low in sugar, and relegating the wonderful treats I do enjoy baking to a reasonable place in one's diet. I am also passionate about doing things that are physical and getting away from--gulp--the Internet and bonding with animals i a meaningful fashion. But there is no label for that--I wish there was.
I guess it's kind of like how I felt about watching The Breakfast Club. I liked the movie as an adolescent, but I never related to any of the stereotypes. I certainly wasn't the pretty 'rich girl,' although I did like the sushi she had for lunch. I certainly wasn't a 'jock' because I'm such a spazz but I do like doing and watching sports. My family life was difficult and I did not have a placid, happy home life like 'the rebel,' but I hate drinking and staying out late, setting stuff on fire, and being a badass has never suited me as it did the 'rebel' character. I am too weird and not enough of a perfectionist to be the classic nerd; to obsessed with school and learning to be the freaky-ass 'recluse.' And her lunch was terrifying.
I guess I am that most boring of all things: a true omnivore who eats chicken (but not nuggets) and isn't afraid of broccoli.