Upon learning I'm a chef and nutritionist, people usually inquire about my diet. Strangers overwhelmingly presume I am vegan. It's fair for others to assume you must eat healthy if you teach others how to eat well. For years, I'd tell people I was a low-carb vegetarian, which would usually be met with an understanding nod.
When I started eating meat and began sharing that I consume all food groups (and feel better than I ever did on any restricted diet), people were shocked. You see, I've been all the things throughout my multi-decade vegetarian stint. I was any combination of vegan, keto, sugar-free, and even 100% raw for an entire year. I was on a constant quest to be as healthy as humanly possible. Now, my perspective on health has shifted, giving new meaning to wellness as feeling fit in my body, free of medical issues, and satiated in my food choice—and I don't plan on going back to restrictive dieting.
My Experience with Vegetarianism
How did I get here? And why would any nutrition professional and vegetarian since childhood start eating meat at 40 years-old? It began when my family became vegetarian in the mid-1980s, a revolutionary act for small-town America at the time. Emboldened by health claims around saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as the desire to live a more mindful life, my mom fully transitioned my family away from meat by the time I was ten.
As a highly sensitive and empathetic child, I was happy with this. The idea I could experience a life that resulted in less suffering brought me a deep sense of peace. My body nor my taste buds missed meat, although I was barely old enough to have strong tastes in food at all. My mother, an impressive and avid home chef, made nutrient-dense, delicious meals that satisfied me.
It was a physiological instinct that no amount of telling myself I didn’t actually "need" it could assuage.
My parents changed their minds about their diets when I was 19, shifting from vegetarian to keto. They urged me to adopt more animal products, but I had no interest. Instead, I decided to cut out most carbs. A few decades later, I worked as a special-diet chef and made bone broth regularly. After seeing the elixir improve my clients' wellness, I tried it for myself and was pleasantly surprised. It made me feel great, and I drank it occasionally. I decided to no longer call myself a vegetarian because of that. Still, I didn't consume meat and rationalized my guilt because—at the very least—my occasional broth consumption was made of refuse parts that would otherwise be thrown away.
Understanding My New Craving for Meat
Years later, I celebrated turning 40 and decided to honor a promise I made to myself about aging: I'd become more active. While I was moderately active because I worked on my feet, I've always hated sports and rarely did activities that resulted in sweating. I was committed to my pledge, and I started working out with a daily HIIT routine. Within one month, I began to crave meat.
It was a physiological instinct that no amount of telling myself I didn't actually "need" it could assuage. I upped my iron, protein intake, and anything I could think of—all to no avail. After a few weeks of what felt like agony, I assumed it was a one-off craving and bought a cooked rotisserie chicken, which I ate in one night. Days later, my desire grew more intense, and I purchased a pound of ground beef. Tearful and riddled with guilt, I intentionally chose not to season the meat before cooking it so that I couldn't possibly enjoy it.
For me personally, plant-based eating became a diet of ideology, not biology.
I read everything I could about vegan and vegetarian bodybuilding. I tried nearly every plant and dairy-based protein powder (many are meant to result in more fullness) in hopes one would replace my urge for meat. Still, nothing worked. After a month, friends convinced me I was causing myself emotional harm by not seasoning the meat I was now cooking regularly, and I headed down the path to allowing myself to enjoy it.
That shift happened nearly three years ago, and my world has been more joyful in many ways. I'm able to experience and enjoy traditional cuisines without countless modifications. For the first time in a while, I don't snack frequently or constantly wonder what I should eat next. Instead, when I eat a meal, I'm satiated for hours. The emotional freedom I've found from not consistently thinking about eating is blissful. I'm more present in my body. I now feel better physically in my mid-40s than I did in my 20s.
I still believe in vegetarianism and veganism as a moral cause. There's no question the overconsumption of meat is detrimental to our environment. For me personally, plant-based eating became a diet of ideology, not biology. It left me lacking what I felt my body needed. And that's okay.
While I have the utmost respect for people whose bodies don't require animal products as mine once didn't, I ultimately had to honor my psychical needs. No judgment, it's personal.
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Mariotti F, Gardner CD. Dietary protein and amino acids in vegetarian diets-a review. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):E2661.