I have little truck with the ‘go vegan for your health’ argument making the rounds at the moment, finding the science flimsy, the proponents shrill and blinkered, and the whole thing rather faddish.
That said, in terms of the environment, I do think that everyone in the developed world needs to eat less meat, and to treat meat less as a standard centrepiece or default component of a meal than something special. I have moved on from my paleo diet days, despite crediting the diet from saving my health from a decade of bad digestion and blood sugar zigzags on a vegetarian diet*.
What started to shift my thinking was seeing my diet at scale, and considering its environmental impact. A meat-heavy diet, while being very healthy, is an incredibly selfish way to eat when you multiply it out.
Where I work, there’s a restaurant downstairs that prepares a staff meal for all the members every lunch, much like it does for the restaurant staff before service. It’s vegetarian 99% of the time. When I was working freelance from home, I was more used to having eggs, tinned fish, or other animal protein at lunch. But now, seeing the vats of food prepared to feed 200 people, it seems insane that so much animal protein should be prepared for a single meal.
The casualness of mass meat consumption — that a sandwich shop will have two vegetarian options out of ten, that a restaurant menu will only have a single token ‘vegetarian’ option — has begun to shock me. The sheer numbers of fowl, four-legged beast and seafood delivered to an average restaurant sounds like some obscene Edwardian feast. Should we be doing this at every meal?
On Saturday night, in north London, I and a friend wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. I was hankering for something flavoursome and vegetable-rich. We passed many restaurants where there was a sole vegetarian option on the menu, either pasta, gnocchi, or a rice dish. Somewhere around, there was a raw gluten-free vegan place, my friend mentioned. But what about the middle ground? The place that offers ample vegetarian options without shouting about it — that offers enough options to let you ‘flexitarian’ your way through without even realising you didn’t opt for the meat this time?
Finally, we came across one place that had the potential to entice punters inside without them realising that there was no meat on the menu. Comprising of plates like golden beetroot borscht, crusted duck egg on parsnip mash, spinach crostata, cavolo nero with white bean broth and Jerusalem artichokes and so on, the absence of meat was softly murmured, rather than righteously announced. Perfect. This is how it should be: accidentally vegetarian.
*When every protein is accompanied by a carb, and you can’t digest carbs or raw food very well, and have a poor appetite, vegetarianism and veganism are not great diets to follow. You need to be able to consume and properly digest a larger volume of food on a vegetarian diet to get enough vitamins and minerals. Oddly, most people don’t see meat as very nutritious, even though it is one of the most nutritionally dense foods per serving (especially liver and offal). Michael Pollan explains this blind spot by saying that most people are taught a food pyramid that is mutually exclusive: meat is associated only with ‘protein’, fruit and vegetables are associated with vitamins and minerals, and grains and potatoes with carbohydrates, despite the fact that all three categories contain a mix of these three macronutrients.