Vegetarian

Why I Don't Call Myself a Vegetarian Anymore

September  2, 2016

After a little less than a year of solely plant-based eating, I slowly began to incorporate bone broth into my life, shirking dietary labels in favor of a more complex, less identifiable one.

Was I a vegetarian? Well, no. An omnivore? It was a little more complicated than that.

Photo by James Ransom

The transition started earlier this summer, when I found myself stumped by the tangle of herbs in my CSA box. I knew they had names—mint, thyme, rosemary, sage—but I couldn’t make the connections. These kinds of memory blanks were happening near daily since I had stopped eating meat and dairy. More and more, I was on a planet of my own, hurtling back to earth only when I realized I had left the stove on again or sent an important e-mail threaded with typos. It was hard for me to sleep and hard for me to stay awake.

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Following a plant-based diet—one where I labeled myself and identified as “a vegetarian”—was many years in the making. My childhood love of the garden grew into a passion for sustainable agriculture, but it wasn’t until I started work at a farm-to-table restaurant that I stopped eating meat. Even though I knew how deeply our livestock crew respected their animals and strove to embody best practices, whenever I walked into the kitchen and saw a slaughtered pig, my heart sank. I loved the pigs at the barn and in those moments, my decision to abstain from meat was as much about personal connection as it was environmental impact.

Others saw me as a vegetarian and so I started to see myself as one, too.

When I first stopped eating meat, I was uncomfortable identifying as a vegetarian for fear that I’d be perceived as self-righteous or stifle the evolution of my own beliefs. But as time passed, it became easier to tell friends I was vegetarian. Explaining my complex matrix for choosing what to eat and why— I might eat meat if it was served to me as a guest at someone’s house, and I sought to volunteer at the farms I bought food from—was tedious for everyone at the table. Others saw me as a vegetarian and so I started to see myself as one, too. Having a firm definition gave me a sense of discipline and connection to a community.

I thrived during my first few months. When my Mom said she could never go without meat, it angered me. “You just don’t know how to do it right!” I shouted. Then, at six months in, something shifted. The thought of meat, which once made me nauseous, turned into intense cravings. I tried different diet combinations (piling my plate with protein-rich quinoa and black beans, digging into citrus-infused greens to maximize my iron uptake) and supplements (from cultured Vitamin B12 pills to magnesium syrups), but I was still perpetually tired and moody.

Photo by James Ransom

I felt shame too, like my body was betraying me. A close friend who had been vegan for more than seven years was a paragon of plant power: sharp-witted, energetic, dewy-skinned. Me? I’d gone without meat for a little less than a year and already I’d turned into an herbivorous Miss Havisham, wasting afternoons in my bed straining to summon the energy to go for a hike or fix myself lunch. This shame turned to anger—at my body, at my mind, at my struggle to live my values—and this anger turned into a gnawing resentment.

Over dinner with several friends, I confided how weak I had been lately. It felt like an admission of failure. How could I care about the environment and eat meat? Why couldn’t I just be good? I was comforted when my friend told me that she’d been struggling as well:“I feel like I am PMSing all the time.”

I'm not sure what I am, vegetarian or otherwise.

Enter bone broth. The suggestion came from a friend of ours who kept a freezer of pasture-raised meat on her back porch. The farmer she bought from had given her some wild elk that week. It was to us the purest source of meat we could think of, and as an advocate for closed-loop cooking, I liked the idea of making good use of the bones.

As I contemplated whether to drink bone broth—whether to “break” the “good” credit I had been building, whether to sacrifice my values for the sake of personal health—I was reminded of something my brother had done many years ago. When Sam was still in elementary school, he loved to learn about the indigenous customs of the Iroquois. Walking home one day, he encountered a run-over squirrel. He brought the squirrel home, tanned its hide in our backyard, and begged our Mom to let us make a stew from its meat (broth was a bridge too far). It was the Iroquois way of ensuring this animal’s life wasn’t wasted. If I could drink the bone broth in that same spirit of honoring, it would be okay.

Photo by James Ransom

After my first mug of bone broth, I was able to sleep through the night, and I woke the next morning energized enough for a hike before work. I was too happy to feel the shame that had coursed through me when I imagined what it would mean if I chose to eat (well, drink) meat. It took a week of drinking a glass each evening to restore my energy before I returned to eating mostly plants. Now, whenever I’m feeling low—lately that's every few weeks—I make myself a slow-cooked broth and feel almost instantly reinvigorated.

I don’t want eating meat to be part of my everyday diet. I don’t want bone broth to be a break from my values. What I want is to eat in a way that nourishes both my health and our environment. I drank—and drink—bone broth because, for me, it was healing.

Labels can help us to articulate our beliefs and determine what feels good to us and what doesn’t. But definitions can also trap us in a stagnant way of thinking. When we tether our sense of self to a term—be it vegetarian or vegan or paleo—we can create a hierarchy of “goodness.” These kinds of value judgments have the potential to erode meaningful conversation and the possibility of connection. For me, to argue that the killing and eating of meat is inherently unethical and environmentally unsound would be to discount cultures across the world. In Tanzania, eating meat is a sacred act, especially in a climate that’s inhospitable to plants. We have to create the space for other ways of being. There is no right or wrong way to eat.

I’m not sure what I am, vegetarian or otherwise. But I do know how I want to be: open to learning, loving toward the farmers who feed us, grateful for the life-giving soil underfoot.

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35 Comments

Melisa January 20, 2017
This is honestly just a placebo effect and nothing more...
 
sydney September 7, 2016
Because the "bone broth" has entered the modern lexicon, Food52 should do a piece on exactly how "stock" and "bone broth" differ in terms of how they're made and what their respective consumers require from them. They DO differ in a bunch of significant ways, and I'm speaking as an experienced home cook who has had to learn about "bone broth" as a therapeutic food. Please use knowledgeable sources (Integrative and Functional clinicians). We all know what "stock" is. Few outside of those who need it seem to know what "bone broth" is, and the author here didn't explain it. I was also very annoyed by the term until I had to use it for someone's health and learn about it.
 
Lilly September 7, 2016
Bone broth IS stock. Stock is made of bones and related parts; broth is made from meat. If "bone broth" is something so wildly different (aside the ability to commodify it), please, by all means share what you know. <br />http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/02/10/384948585/taking-stock-of-bone-broth-sorry-no-cure-all-here
 
cv September 8, 2016
"Bone broth" is a millennial's term for "stock" as though they had invented it. Sorry, you are wrong.
 
Lilly September 6, 2016
This article would have been fine, if a tad navel gaze-y, had the author not used the term "bone broth." It's hard to take someone seriously (on a food website!) who takes their nomenclature from crossfit bros.
 
CatalunaLilith September 5, 2016
<3
 
cv September 4, 2016
All this kvetching is making me hungry. I won't say what for, that would be too easy.<br /><br /> Clearly this is a highly divisive topic. Food52's editorial staff must be very confident that this type of feature will attract more of the readers they are trying to reach perhaps at the expense of alienating others.<br /><br />It must find something somewhere that is tasty to eat now.<br /><br />Good luck.
 
sydney September 3, 2016
I follow a stream of information that regularly includes Integrative and Functional doctors, clinicians, and practitioners of all sorts. I've heard several narratives like this over the past couple of years, from women (for some reason only women, although there are as many male practitioners and doctors) who really wanted to eat according to a vegetarian or vegan model but at a certain point realized that their bodies were requiring meat, and they had to come to terms with it. They all reported that they made the switch for their well-being and felt better. Good luck to you. (I eat everything; I have no dog in this race, NPI.)
 
Jessica K. September 3, 2016
For some reason this ridiculous article continues to bother me. If a person actually thoroughly understands and investigates what is involved in producing edible meat in our society - the commercial animal agriculture business, with its attendant slaughter etc. - and decides that they are nonetheless going to continue to eat meat, with their eyes wide open, well then, while I have a hard time understanding that decision, at least it's an honest one. But there's nothing that angers me more than this sort of dishonest effort to rationalize away and justify the decision - "oh, I'd be a vegetarian if I could, but my body neeeeeeeds meat, and you can't criticize me, you have to respect me, because every body is different!" Give me a break. If you are going to eat meat, then at least own it. There is no magical nutritional ambrosia to be found in meat - and far, far less in "bone broth" (less pretentiously known as chicken or beef stock). Until you've had a complete and thorough medical workup (not just "talked to some Ayurvedic specialists") to determine the reason for your symptoms, blaming them on an absence of meat in your diet is just intellectual dishonesty and a way to rationalize to yourself a decision you're not comfortable with facing head-on. Because while it is certainly possible that there are a rare few people out there who *truly* aren't able to sustain a properly designed, nutritionally complete and balanced, and calorically sufficient vegan/vegetarian diet (people with gastrointestinal disorders who can't tolerate fiber, perhaps?), they are almost certainly quite rare, and whatever you want to tell yourself to make yourself feel better, it's pretty darn unlikely that you are one of them - especially not if your problems were magically "solved" by ingesting some "bone broth" (which has minimal nutritional content). So I, at least, don't see any reason to respect your choice. I am in agreement with the commenter who cannot understand why this article was published here at all.
 
Priscilla U. September 3, 2016
You know much less than you think you do, and that is why you cannot understand why this article was published here.
 
Jessica K. September 3, 2016
Am I supposed to feel all inadequate now? I know enough to recognize self-deception and desperate rationalizations. And I know that this kind of wordy, self righteous, convoluted bit of hand-wringing (to quote another commenter) is written solely for the author's benefit - so she can get validation for a decision she's not comfortable with - and I don't think that sort of "article" should be published here.
 
mmurray September 3, 2016
Food 52 Editors: For Pete's sake, please stop with these 1%, navel gazing, hand wringing food "thoughtful" pieces. This is beyond ridiculous. Make a choice for ethical, moral health reasons, which I respect, but stop the rationalizations already when you don't/can't follow through. See a doctor (which it seems like the author has), take a vitamin, eat meat, have bone broth but please stop the emotional and moral hand wringing already. This is one of those pieces that takes away the reading about the joy of food, cooking and eating from this site which is why a lot of us come here in the first place. If I want moral discourse, there are plenty of other paces to go. Enough already.<br />
 
Lori R. September 3, 2016
Amen. Can we please? No one really cares this deeply, except for you. <br /><br />Also, can we stop calling it "bone broth?" It's stock. There's nothing special about it, except you pay more to call it by it's newfangled fad name.
 
Rick September 4, 2016
Learn some self-control. No one held a gun to your head and forced you to read this.
 
Sukeshanita B. September 3, 2016
Well written article Kate. The reader, your audience, is able to share your experience describing the way you dealt with your encounters with the belly chakra....<br /><br />What is important is that you do what you think is right. And what you think is up to you....<br />I am a born again vegetarian and my only guiding principle is that I do not eat anything that had to be killed .... and try to offer vegetarian meals to others who might be interested...
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 3, 2016
Thank you Sukeshanita! I really appreciate your understanding. Maybe I'll go back to being a vegetarian sooner than I think but for now, this is where I'm at and it's always nice to be supported in the process and to hear from others about their own journeys!
 
Priscilla U. September 3, 2016
Excellent article - thank so much for sharing. I'm sure many of us can relate, if not to your culinary journey to health and happiness, certainly to your articulated struggle with your dietary "label", and the very real social implications of that. x
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 3, 2016
Thank you Priscilla! I'm glad something in here resonated.
 
Jahnudvipa D. September 3, 2016
While I respect your decision and your dietary choices, I question the word "honoring" in reference to meat consumption. If someone were to slaughter you, and then proceed to eat you, I doubt that you would feel "honored". <br /><br />That being said, I wish you the best in terms of your health and well being.
 
Peony September 3, 2016
Yes, becoming a vegetarian isn't simply reading a few books and meal planning - one must understand their own constitution, with or without meat in the diet, before making radical changes. We have no idea what your eating habits were like prior to cutting meat from your diet, and to think that less than a year of plant-based eating was the cause of your ills is myopic to say the least. You should seek the counsel of an Ayurvedic specialist and see what's really missing from your diet..
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 3, 2016
I totally hear you Peony! I have in fact consulted several Ayurvedic specialists over the last few years as well as healers across different lineages and it's been a very illuminating part of my life.
 
Andreea September 3, 2016
Also, for the record, B12 deficiency takes a very long time to set in because our livers can store 3-5 years worth of B12. You could only have been B12 deficient if your diet had been very low in B12 for a quite while before going vegetarian.
 
Andreea September 3, 2016
Have you actually tried speaking to a doctor about this? The nutritional content of a cup of stock (what "bone broth" actually is) is actually quite low, I have a very hard time believe it can cure all your tiredness and memory lapses etc while nutrient rich vegetarian food just made you sicker.
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 3, 2016
I have consulted several different doctors working within both holistic and "Western" realms of medicine. Many suggested eating small quantities of meat but it took me a while to bring that advice into practice. It may not be in my practice forever, but it's helping me feel much healthier right now. Of course, it's a difficult decision: I worry I'm being selfish for privileging my health and as someone who cares passionately about the environment, drinking meat—regardless of whether it's sourced from the wild—is ethically contentious. I also want to clarify that I don't think nutrient-rich vegetarian food made me "sicker"—I think a diet that eschewed meat, dairy, and eggs in its entirety did. But of course, my truth will always be different than yours and I totally respect that! I have many friends who thrive as vegans.
 
Linds September 3, 2016
An ethical vegan only cares about animal cruelty..I'd rather eat my own arm than suck on a tortured bone of any innocent being .
 
Bek W. September 3, 2016
Great article :) I've been vegan for about a year, and found it really difficult to label myself as well. I really just wanted to tell people that 'I don't eat meat, or dairy or eggs because i generally don't find it necessary or ethical (for all the reasons), but sometimes i might eat some oysters or mussels or eggs from friends rescue chickens or honey from the guy next door because...blah blah blah'. But just like you said, that's way too confusing & it can be much easier to just fit in a box without all the blurred lines and avoid all the hate from within the vego/vegan community that can come with stepping outside of that box a little. So i went with the vegan thing because i almost always agree with the ethical/environmentally reasoning behind it & I feel pretty great on this diet...but i can imagine there would be a lot of people like you who really need a little animal protein in their diet to thrive. Dogmatic beliefs are never helpful - everything in life has shades of grey. I really don't like being grouped in with the small but loud group of vegos/vegans who quite often seem unable to appreciate other points of view & how different situations can change what is 'ethical'. Always glad to hear the thoughts of other vegos (or mostly vegos!)/vegans who are open minded and honest! So thank you! And i hope you feel healthy & happy on your new found vego/bone broth/whatever you want to call it diet :)
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 3, 2016
Thank you Bek! It's really comforting to know that you are in the same boat. And I am feeling so much healthier and happier—in part because it's freeing to give myself permission to inhabit those shades of grey :)
 
Bek W. September 6, 2016
Oh also! Thought i'd add... Have you tried an omega 3 supplement? - DHA & EPA. I was having very similar issues to you, my poor memory was scaring me & my anxiety was through the roof, and thought i'd give them a go... I took them daily & a couple of weeks later i was back to normal & haven't had a problem since taking them. Thought i'd throw that in there just in case it's something you haven't tried yet! I use this brand - http://opti3omega.com , worked wonders for me!
 
Jessica K. September 2, 2016
So take a B12 supplement - there are tons of them - and do a little research about nutrition before adopting a new diet. Tell yourself what you want, but you can't soundly justify your decision on health grounds without exploring those options. And the fact that some cultures hold eating animals sacred doesn't make it ethically sound - some cultures forbid women from working and execute people for being gay, too, and I would have no hesitation to discount those cultures.
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 2, 2016
I did in fact take a ton of B12 supplements and do a lot of research before adopting a vegetarian diet but I appreciate your perspective! Every body is built differently and I am still learning how to best nourish mine.
 
Christopher C. September 2, 2016
" ... I was uncomfortable identifying as a vegetarian for fear that I’d be perceived as self-righteous ..."<br /><br />Yup.
 
Lori R. September 3, 2016
Yet here you are, sounding exactly like that, and it has nothing to do with calling yourself vegetarian or not.
 
westofthenest September 5, 2016
The definition of self righteous is generally an opinion characterized certainty, typically unfounded, that a person is completely correct in a belief or otherwise morally superior. I did not read anything in the article that lead me to believe that the author considers herself either of those things. Seems like a personal nerve may have been struck.
 
Nick B. September 2, 2016
I enjoyed your article Kate - I'm a physician, not a nutritional expert, but what you described in your article sounds very much like a case of vitamin B12 deficiency. I think your story highlights the need for people who are vegan/vegetarian to embrace their lifestyle decisions but not be so dogmatic about it that it comes at a cost to their health.
 
Author Comment
Kate W. September 2, 2016
Thanks so much Nick! I think with ANY diet—omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, paleo—it's important to not be dogmatic. We have to find ways to cultivate compassion even when we disagree because that's when fruitful conversation happens.