Choosing to be vegetarian – an honest appraisal

So far, I’ve not addressed the topic of how and why I became a vegetarian in this space though I’ve been meaning to for some time as its one of my great passions to have chosen this way and its had such a great impact on my health. As I come up to the three-year anniversary of making that decision, the thought “I must write about this” has become more pressing and yet it remains a touchy topic to deliver and its far from my agenda to rattle or provoke people; rather, I just want to speak my own truth and to share all the positives and the challenges of the experience.

Photo (c) Helen WhiteAnd what an experience – the vastness of the landscape that it has taken me through is way too broad for one post so I will do this in instalments under sub-headings and yet, still, I was conscious of struggling to know where to start…That is, until a friend shared her own decision to become a vegetarian yesterday on Facebook and everything she described in her announcement, the rationale and the emotions this journey had taken her through, could have been a mirror of how it all happened for me, which made me realise how universal some of those feelings are and how daunting they can be. Suddenly, in response to her, my post was writing itself and it occurred to me that what I shared there were as good a starting-place for my blog, here, as any. So, in a little more detail but without making this too long (I hope), I am sending this post out into the world in the spirit of supporting others who are even vaguely considering such a life-altering decision.


Photo (c) Helen WhiteFor me, that decision was made almost exactly three years ago and came from left-field, with no planning or forethought, not even so much as a vague feeling – really – that it was about to happen, though I had been subtly uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat for a few years, if I’m honest. By then, we had been eating organic for quite some time – pacifying ourselves with the thought that the animals that became our dinner had been treated well until that point – but the meat issue was like a door shut on a dark cupboard that I wasn’t allowing myself to look into. Like a lot of people, I was terrified about the emotions it might bring up for me if I ever opened it as I love animals so much but it felt, increasingly, like an aspect of my life that didn’t ring true with the way everything else was feeling – which was open, expansive and light filled.

Photo (c) Helen WhiteOne evening, completely out of the blue,  I came across one of the more extreme videos on the subject by an apparently intelligent, well-informed guy who – when I looked into him some more – obviously doesn’t hold his punches and uses a lot of graphic images to make his point. The information that was lurking in this video wasn’t new to me, of course; we all know it exists, even if we avert our eyes, yet it was something I had managed to hold at bay, shoving it from the forefront of my mind. Something told me I had to open the ‘door’ and let out whatever I was hiding so, after everyone else had gone to bed, and almost trembling inside, I made myself watch the video – knowing there would be no putting it back ‘inside’ once it was released. By the end, I was sobbing my heart out, I really can’t amply describe how much opening this up racked my body and soul with what felt like far more than one lifetime’s grief, but I went to bed with red eyes and woke a vegetarian and that felt like a new beginning.

Photo (c) Helen WhiteAt the time, I didn’t expect the rest of the family to join me and had no idea how it would ‘work’ as I do most of the cooking. It was a week before Christmas, we already had most of our meat on order but – on the day –  I had my first stab at making a nut roast and my husband agreed to cook the turkey for him and my daughter. No one enjoyed the turkey while my nut roast went down a storm (and this was nothing to do with my husband’s cooking…it seems my decision had released more than just my own hidden reservations). Within days, both of my husband and daughter were vegetarian too and we have never looked back.

People often use the excuse that they would take this decision if it weren’t for this or that health issue and that they feel a ‘balanced’ diet has to be their prime consideration. However, even for me, making the adjustment has been far less than straightforward as I have fibromyalgia, leaky gut, IBS, glycolysis, a tendency towards hypoglycaemia and a host of food intolerances. I don’t get on with a lot of nuts (and didn’t know how much so until I started eating  a lot of nut roast), some seeds really Photo (c) Helen Whiteirritate me, I can only tolerate gluten very infrequently (and it is a main ingredient in so many commercial vegetarian meals), the same with corn and – that vegetarian staple – soy, all of which trigger off pain-episodes if I eat much of them. Even some green vegetables like kale can be too much for my system (I think, because it is a goitrogenic food which means it can contribute to hypothyroidism, which affects me). As mentioned recently, I also struggle to keep my pH in balance and so a carefully balanced diet plays a big part in managing that; though, actually, developing a vegetable-based diet can be one of the most positive steps towards alkalising the body.

For all there have been all these major challenges to overcome, I didn’t let it put me off and was quietly confident I would still achieve a more balanced and appropriate diet, for my particular issues, by going vegetarian than persisting with my old diet. I enjoy cooking and this gave me an opportunity to explore new territory, experimenting with new Photo (c) Helen Whitethings and discovering ingredients I had never heard of or tried before like quinoa, which I use a lot, buckwheat and several so-called superfoods. I base my meals around a lot of seasonal veg and I still eat cheese and eggs (though I substitute oat or almond milk for cows milk). Other staples include rice, sweet potatoes, beetroot, avocados, oats and gluten free pasta and everything I make is very healthy, balanced and home cooked using organic ingredients.

We have made a point of finding some amazing vegetarian restaurants wherever we go (sadly, there are none in a 30 mile radius but London is great) and they are a brilliant source Photo (c) Helen Whiteof innovative meal ideas as they just seem to try harder than standard restaurants – I have a lot to share on that in another post.

Of course, when I made the decision, I still had leather bags, belts and shoes, even a leather sofa and I will continue to use them all until they wear out but have started buying non-leather replacements as the need crops up; the sofa has gone! Finding stylish and well-made yet cruelty-free shoes proved to be trickier than I ever imagined but I don’t like to compromise so have stuck at it and recently bought some fabulously stylish boots Photo (c) Helen Whitethat I really love. Its getting a little easier as more fashion suppliers catch on to the demand but there are gaping holes in the market and a huge opportunity there for people who are prepared to fill it as I know I’m not the only one who is hugely frustrated by the lack of cruelty-free alternatives. Even finding a decent pair of walking boots without animal-derived trim was quite a challenge but I got there.

My daughter (15) is even more into being veggie than I am and won’t eat cheese unless she is 100% sure it has no rennet whereas – to make eating-out tenable at all – I am inclined to be flexible in restaurants and don’t worry if I can’t be absolutely sure about where they sourced their cheddar (though I won’t eat obviously non-vegetarian cheese Photo (c) Helen Whitesuch as parmesan,which always includes animal rennet). Its amazing how many restaurant owners and chefs seem to have no idea about animal rennet or where it comes from. The heavy reliance upon cheese by non-vegetarian restaurants when they are devising their very few veggie dishes can be deeply frustrating and comes down to a matter of market-demand and education so I am confident more choices will appear as people become more vocal about what they want. I’ll be honest – we do eat out a lot less than we did as pubs and traditional restaurants are pretty poor at providing real alternatives and are very haphazard in the standard of care they provide for vegetarians; its very easy to feel like a second-class citizen in many eateries. Yet the culture of vegetarian eating is only getting stronger, younger and more vocal. There are some wonderful blogs and Instagram accounts etc created by a whole new generation of vegetarians and vegans with some really creative recipes (Deliciously Ella was the first one my daughter introduced me to – she changed her diet because of her chronic illness – and there are more like this appearing all the time).

With my hand on my heart, I can tell you that my health is far better than it was three years ago, especially my stomach (irritable bowel is virtually a thing of the past), so I have to assume changing my diet wasn’t detrimental to my recovery. I am also far slimmer, less bloated, more toned (without having made conscious effort to achieve that) yet energised and stronger, doing more things than ever (like dancing) and with far less break-outs of extreme health issues overall.

Photo (c) Helen WhitePeople worry about getting enough protein and this is extremely important to me, for muscle maintenance and amino acids as much as anything, but I can tell I have no shortfall from the fact my muscles are stronger and less painful than they were. I regularly use hemp powder in drinks and cooking, amongst other sources of protein, and eat quite a few pulses.

Three years on, I honestly don’t miss eating meat at all and, in fact, really notice how proximity to meat makes me feel unwell now, for instance a recent visit to a farm shop almost made me gag with the stench of (to quote my daughter – but she nailed Photo (c) Helen Whiteit) “death and fear” that permeated the whole place. I know I used to recognise that smell before turning vegetarian but it only made my mouth water for a good-old-fashioned roast dinner…it took sixth months of not eating meat for me to make the association between what I once identified as ‘food’ and the base bodily smells that are not a million miles away from our own as human beings.

In the meantime, food has become such an adventure and an extended colour palette, I notice I enjoy a far more diverse range of flavours and textures than I ever did and I have learned how to season like a pro – not to invent flavour or hide anything but to bring Photo (c) Helen Whiteout the natural beauty of glorious fresh food. I taste more, my taste palette has expanded (and no coincidence that I’ve used the word palette twice in quick succession since, just like a colourful work of art, the tongue is a portal to the most exquisite sensory experiences and exploring this never gets boring). My eating habits are no longer stuck in the same old routines – roast on a Sunday and so on – and it was only after stopping this routine in its tracks that I realised how many of my former eating patterns had been learned behaviour from my childhood, which my parents also learned from their parents, and so there has been one massive shedding of old, unconscious behaviour – the kind that stems from repetition rather than conscious choice – as I have allowed myself to scrub all that and start again.

Photo (c) Helen WhiteMost of all, I love the way being a veggie makes me feel, its like a MASSIVE weight has lifted off me. We have a lot of farms where we live and I noticed how, for the first year or so, I almost avoided walking where the animals were as if I couldn’t look them in the eye now I had opened up – fully – to what happens to them. This year, I was finally able to get up close again to take photos and talk to them like I used to do….and, though it still makes me unbearably sad when the fields suddenly clear of the lambs that once stood with their mothers, I work on the premise ‘BE the change you want to see in the world’ andPhoto (c) Helen White know I am making a difference through my own choices.

Now that I am back ‘up close’ and enjoying the animals in my world even more – and you can laugh cynically if you like – I honestly believe the animals themselves are getting up much closer to me. I’ve noticed how horses, sheep and cows make a point of coming over from the other side of their field allowing me to touch them and how mothers with offspring hold their positions so I get great shots, how butterflies and dragonflies constantly land on me or fly close, how rabbits and hares stand stock still rather than fleeing, how birds in the hedgerow come really close, carry on singing or just seem content to be with me, right next to me or feeding while I am watching, rather than flitting away, even dogs and cats seem more drawn to me than before. It happened so much, that very first year after becoming Photo (c) Helen Whitevegetarian, that I jokingly suggested to my husband that I change my name from ‘Helen’ to ‘Snow’. So is it me that’s different, is it a vibe “I won’t hurt you” that I’m giving out, is it my own belief that I am now worthy of their company and trust, or that such a weight been lifted from my shoulders that I attract other creatures more because my own energy has become lighter, shinier? Maybe a bit of both, I’ll never know for sure, but I do know I feel I can look all animals in the eye in a way that I felt I couldn’t before and that has been such a tremendous gift.

All of these pictures, dotted around this post, are my own – both the animals I meet on my walks and some of the really wonderful meals we have enjoyed in recent months. It is such a thrill for me to be able to post images of these two subjects with no overlap, no conflict of interest between two passions that give me the deepest of pleasure.

Photo (c) Helen WhiteWhile I might blog about all this, I don’t want to get ‘militant’ about my views or share graphic pictures, in fact I avoid all that stuff in my newsfeed. Instead, I spend a lot of time sending blessings to these creatures now whereas, before, it was as though I had made myself numb to their fate…and that numbness was like a localised paralysis in my psyche that felt like a hole or an emptiness, in fact it was as though – by being there – it enabled other patches of numbness (areas of detachment and denial in my life) to perpetuate whereas I feel fully open to everything now and, yes, without feeling overwhelmed by a tsunami of sadness or helplessness. It has been the most wonderful experience going this route and I would genuinely recommend it to anyone who is unsure of the consequences for their health or their heart as, honestly, if I can get around my health issues, my super-sentivity, my love of travel, or enjoying fine food and my responsibilities to my family and as a parent and still (more than) thrive then anyone can do it…if they really want to.

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