If you can't stand the meat...

By Alice Azania-Jarvis

Photo / Greg Bowker
Photo / Greg Bowker

A year ago this month - which is to say two years after my sister, 39 years after Sir Paul McCartney and two-and-a-half thousand years after Pythagoras - I stopped eating meat.

Unlike those three I do, however, eat fish (the hypocrisy of which I'll come to later).

I don't really know why, or how, this happened. No, that's not quite right. I do know why: I stopped eating meat because, increasingly, I felt uncomfortable having a living, breathing, feeling creature's life halted for the sake of filling my plate. What I mean is that I don't know why I stopped when I did. Why all of the arguments in favour of vegetarianism, arguments with which I had long agreed, suddenly coalesced and inspired me to kick the carnivorous bucket - but, there we are, they did.

It took a few false starts. When I first decided enough was enough, I had neglected a formal dinner I was due to attend the following week. By the time I remembered, I was sitting face to face with a plate of chicken. The thought of eating it now makes me feel quite ill - though of course, only two days into my initial attempt at pescetarianism, it didn't. So I shrugged, decided that I was no longer a meat-abstainer and ate.

The next day I started again, stuck to it and here I am. Anaemic (possibly), smug (probably) and Not A Meat Eater (definitely). The irony is that I used to be positively anti-vegetarian. I remember once, on an early date, discovering that a potential love-interest was a vegan (worse: for health reasons!). This was not What One Wanted In A Man. It was an effeminate quality, too far removed from the macho hunter-gatherer. In the event, it didn't entirely disqualify him from consideration, but it remained a niggling concern.

Several years down the line, things have changed. Obviously. Because now it's me doing the abstaining. And it's not quite what I expected.

For instance: why had no one warned me that I was immediately putting myself up as a lunchtime verbal punchbag? And who knew I'd suddenly start feeling guilty every time I had a coffee with cow's milk? Or that mushroom risotto would become my go-to dish when dining out?

For those contemplating embracing the meat-free lifestyle, here are just a few pointers - but don't let them put you off.

The ethics of vegetarianism are far from straightforward - particularly for a hypocritical pescatarian like myself. There's no doubt that if your motivations are animal welfare-related, there's little defence: fish, as people endlessly remind me, have feelings too. My first strand of reasoning is that it's a matter of degree. You do what you can; pescetarianism is an extension of buying all-organic or free-range-only. It's better than nothing. It's a convenient argument, but also one that I actually believe.

My second is that eating fish but not meat is no more hypocritical than eating neither but continuing to consume eggs and mass-produced milk. Justin Kerswell, from animal rights campaign group Viva has been campaigning on this point for some time: "Dairy cows' perpetual pregnancy leaves them exhausted by the age of 4 when they're sent to slaughter," he points out.

"And egg production can be just as bad. The male chicks are useless to farmers so 30 and 40 million are killed at birth - either by gassing or maceration in a high-speed grinder. People just aren't aware of it."

Then, of course, you have to factor in the arguments over leather, pesticides, wool, silk. Adopt any strand of vegetarianism and you will ignite as many debates as you resolve.

But don't be disheartened: at least you're doing your bit for the planet. Become a vegetarian, or pescetarian, or - especially - become a vegan and suddenly you find yourself Socially Awkward.

As far as I was concerned, making some kind of public announcement (aside from via the informal channels of Facebook or Twitter) was not an option. It was too self-important by half and horribly embarrassing.

Obviously, though, you need to let people know - if at no other time then at least when they invite you for dinner. In the case of long-standing friends, it can all feel a bit ridiculous.

"By the way," you nonchalantly add, while mentally running through all the times you have served them meat, "I'm a vegetarian these days. Um, you can un-invite me if you like."

I did, once, neglect to do this. The result was my only carnivorous divergence so far. At least I think it was; in the event, I decided it was best not to ask what else was in the suspiciously-bacony fishcakes my friend served.

The awkwardness doesn't stop at the dinner invitation. Invariably, when you're not eating meat, people want to talk about it. Which is fine, I suppose, but causes all sorts of problems when it comes to deciding what to say.

The first question is always, "Why?" to which I tend to give the fudge-tastic: "Um, ethical reasons." Asked to elaborate, you face the horrifyingly anti-social prospect of wittering on like some sanctimonious evangelist, all while putting your entire audience off their food, or keeping schtum while meat-eaters try to convert you back with lectures on dentition and "animal instinct".

Fingers crossed, meanwhile, that no one finds out you eat fish. Not only have you become the difficult one at the party, the one that caused the chef all that trouble and then tried to convert the guests, but you're a hypocrite.

The only solution here, I'm afraid, is full-on retaliation (see above defence of my ethical stance). Hopefully, by the time you've finished, conversation will have been killed so thoroughly that no one will bother to argue. Or invite you out ever again. In a way, problem solved.

To be honest, I may well have been anaemic before I became a vegetarian - plenty of women are. I definitely am now and, when I remember, I take hefty doses of pills prescribed by my GP. Without a conscious effort, it's easy for vegetarians to miss out on nutrients. Iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are common.

The flip side, of course, is that vegetarians are frequently in better health than most meat-eaters. A major study last month revealed that vegetarians are 45 per cent less likely to develop cancer of the blood than meat eaters and 12 per cent less likely to develop cancer overall.

They've also been thought to have lower rates of heart disease, lower blood cholesterol, lower blood pressure and to be less prone to hypertension and diabetes.

Suddenly restaurants rather lose their lustre. You would be amazed how many continue to stay afloat serving one fish dish and a mushroom risotto. And how many opt to make that fish salmon.

Still, things are looking up. Earlier this year, the Vegetarian Guide claimed that the number of top-end vegetarian restaurants in Britain had increased 50 per cent since 2007.

It's a trend that Amanda Powley, co-founder of Brighton's Terre A Terre restaurant and author of Terre A Terre: The Vegetarian Cookbook, has witnessed in person.

"When I started there was very much this idea that to eat vegetarian would mean losing something. But increasingly people, even meat-eaters, will opt for vegetarian dishes on the menu because they want them for their taste - not because they are vegetarian. The options have got a lot more exciting and chefs realise that."

Likewise, travel isn't what it used to be - particularly if your preferred holiday is of the follow-your-tastebuds variety. Eating fish allows considerably more flexibility. Even then, your options are limited.

I recently returned from a holiday in Spain, staying by a town so ham-centric that its central square was decorated with a giant statue of a butcher. It can be both frustrating and rather embarrassing, passing up the local speciality in favour of an omelette. But you get used to it.

An oft-overlooked advantage of vegetarianism, the money saved is no small gain. Dining out, you may be stuck with the same old mushroom risotto but at least it's two-thirds the price of everything else on the menu.

When I started on my meat-free year, I'd planned to give up fish along the way, but not eggs or dairy. Now I'm not so sure.

Occasionally, I find myself torn between hardcore veganism or giving up the whole thing entirely and revisiting omnivorism. Discerning, compassionately-informed omnivorism, but omnivorism nonetheless.

Perhaps this explains the rising popularity of so-called "flexitarianism". Instead of cutting out food groups wholesale, people opt to consume only certain combinations of animal products. For instance: wild fish but no dairy. Or home-reared eggs but no meat.

Animal rights activists recommend trying anything to get the vegetarian ball rolling - though, from their point of view, nothing beats complete avoidance.

So, next stop veganism? We'll have to wait and see.

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