My experience of going Vegetarian for the last 5 months
Since the start of August 2017 I have followed a pretty strict vegetarian diet.
By this, I mean for the past 5 months I have consumed absolutely no meat and have had about 5 meals that had fish in them (a brief experiment I did 3 months in to see how the experience would be/whether I would feel any different). This also means no poultry, for all those who think it should have its own category. I have however continued to consume dairy products (such as milk, eggs and cheese).
Below are some practical notes about what I've experienced making the switch, and afterwards I have some general thoughts on it.
Big disclaimer: these are just my experiences and thoughts, obviously I'm not saying everyone will have the same experiences, nor am I a doctor, a health professional, an animal rights activist or anything of the sort. I did this pretty much because I was curious, and don't have a deep rooted ethical, medical, or political agenda associated with eating this way.
1. I've lost weight
Going into this I was around 83.5kg. I ate meat and fish regularly - probably at least once a day. Within a month of cutting these out, I had dropped down to 77.5kg, which is where I've remained for the last 5 months.
This, anecdotally, seems to be very common among people I've spoken to who have made the switch themselves. I can't help but feel like vegetarianism is missing a real marketing opportunity here.
Further context: I exercise regularly and haven't changed my routine in any sort of significant way during this. Admittedly, the first few weeks of this diet coincided with the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (which meant I did a lot more walking than usual). That said, returning back to a largely sedentary existence didn't cause me to gain back the weight I lost
What I lost didn’t appear to be entirely fat or entirely muscle loss – so far as I can tell, it was pretty much even amounts of both. My body composition didn't noticeably change to me (and I'm really, really vain, so trust me on this). In addition, very few people commented to me that they had noticed a change in my appearance. To date I have only really received two comments - both telling me I just look a bit thinner.
Of course, this is simply explained by vegetables being less calorie dense - if you eat roughly the same volume of food on a vegetarian diet, you'll likely eat fewer calories. As a method for weight loss, psychologically I found this a much easier path then portion control. I never once felt deprived of food, yet I lost weight. This wasn't at all a goal of doing this experiment, but it was a side-effect for me, and one I enjoyed.
I should also say - I did this switch thoughtfully. The most common talking point regarding vegetarians is the protein problem. I tried to compensate for this by basically eating a lot of lentils, beans and nuts. I don't imagine there's some magic weight loss awaiting someone who just eats potatoes and cheese and nothing else. I made sure my diet was still balanced, containing fibre and carbohydrates (easy on this diet) and fats and protein (a bit more effort needs to be made, but still totally achievable).
If you want to do this for health reasons, you should do the same thing as always, whether it's a dietary change or otherwise - do some research first, get advice from someone who is actually qualified in some way to give it out, etc.
2. I don't feel any different - and I still progressed athletically
Subjectively, I feel pretty much the same. I don't feel 'cleansed', or weak, or more energetic, or full of moral pride. Nothing is different.
In terms of physical performance - most of what I do is bodyweight training (your standard pushups, pullups, squats etc). I did find that I've continued to improve at these movements since starting the diet and can now do harder progressions/more repetitions and so on.
Then again, I don't think there's anything magical to this - I'm lighter, so inherently these exercises will be easier. Plus, I don't exactly have a control group - I don't know whether my improvement in these exercises over the last 5 months is more or less than I would have experienced eating meat and fish.
There's a huge amount of debate about what diet is best for 'optimal' athletic performance, and I really can't comment either way on that. All I can say is, as someone who isn't an athlete but would call themselves a fitness enthusiast, I really didn't notice any difference.
I personally, wasn't really worried about the risk of not being able to do as many pushups (I mean, who really cares if you're not an athlete?) That said - this wasn't something that seemed to happen to me. I was still able to get fitter and stronger.
3. It's been surprisingly easy
Here’s how I did it - when shopping, I just didn't buy any meat or fish products. I cook pretty much all my meals – and you can only work with whatever you have at home, so if you have nothing non-vegetarian available, it’s straightforward.
Plus, if you experience any withdrawal, you're only needing to exert willpower once a week or so, rather than every meal.
Speaking of withdrawal - I was told by some vegetarians that pretty quickly the idea of eating fish or meat would stop becoming appealing altogether.
I did in fact experience this! Hence again, psychologically, I found avoiding meat/fish remarkably easy. Vegetable stir-fries became more appealing than meat/fish alternatives and I started enjoying cheese and eggs more.
I will mention however, that while the idea of eating fish and chicken didn’t sound appealing at all pretty quickly, when I found myself sitting with a bunch of friends eating beef burgers out in a restaurant I did feel the urge to go carnivore. Still, the amount of distaste I had for foods I'd eaten for literally all of my life prior within a few weeks of switching was deeply interesting to experience.
4. It was cheaper
Lentils, vegetables, fruit - these are all very cheap-per-kg foods which can be exceptionally filling. Obviously you can spend a lot of money on any kind of diet or lifestyle. Saving money wasn't a goal when doing this - eating vegetarian was a goal, I ended up spending less just as a by product of this diet. Not really unexpected, but worth noting.
I didn’t do this for ethical reasons, so much as just out of curiosity. That said, it's worth considering the ethics involved.
Every generation judges generations past on their morally abhorrent actions that were just a part of their daily lives. It’s sometimes hard to understand why it took so long for people of the past to come to their senses about ethical issues which are so clear to us today.
The consequence of looking at this view has to be that one looks at the present day with the same sceptical eye. In all likelihood, we are doing something that generations of the future (optimistically assuming there is one) will judge us on.
One of the best guesses as to what we're doing wrong right now surely has to be our eating of other animals. To draw a very, very rough trend-line through ethical developments of the last several thousand years – it has surely been the process of realising the inherent worth and respect of life that isn’t straight, white and male.
Looking to the future, it seems reasonable to assert that our eating of factory farmed animals, that live awful existences, will be something that shall be judged poorly by the eyes of history.
This is not to say I will diabolically scream "meat is murder" if my friend has a chicken sandwich with me. I've eaten meat guilt free my whole life prior to this experiment - I'm in no position to judge anyone. Also, I think there's a lot more nuance to the debate than that statement conveys.
That said, beyond health arguments (either for athletes for their careers, or for people that require eating animals to keep a base layer of health due to other factors) I can see few reasons why we shouldn’t eat less meat and fish.
A vegetarian diet is better for the planet (from an environmental cost-to-produce perspective) and involves less harm to animals. It is cheaper, and can often be healthier. There's so much controversy about whether to eat more carbs, more fats, more fruit etc. But the one food that largely remains unanimously uncontroversial in its health value is the vegetable. Your classic, boring, brocolli, carrots, peas, peppers, onions etc. If there's one safe bet to make on what to eat a lot of, it's probably those things.
Should you try this? Hey, if you're curious - I can't imagine you have much to lose if you try it for a few weeks. You can always switch back.
Personally, my bet is there's probably more of an upside on average, which is why I'm staying veggie for the time being. But I'm keeping my mind open - I think the most damning thing militant vegans/vegetarians do is to appear intolerable to the idea of debate. That's not good for their mission, or indeed for the discussion of any issue. So please, let me know your thoughts if you have them, and I'll gladly discuss.
Tl;dr – No good reasons not to go veggie besides athletic health concerns. A veggie diet lead to weight loss, no obvious change in body composition or energy levels. I saved some money. If you want to do it, make an environment conducive to the switch. Don’t be fundamentalist about it.