dog with carrot in its mouth
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HEALTH

At 43, I became a vegetarian (and, honestly, it wasn’t even hard)

When Sali Hughes realised she couldn’t square lavishing love on her dog while eating cows with gravy, she gave up meat. And she hasn’t looked back 

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By Sali Hughes on

It was a slow-burning decision. An accident, then a choice that made almost negligible practical impact on my life. I’d always thought vegetarianism had to be driven by anger, righteousness, trauma, some pivotal moment where I witnessed some horrific cruelty that drove me to make a huge sacrifice for the sake of my principles, forgoing my beloved T-bone for some greater good.

But in the end, I realised some perceived heroism was stopping me from making a terribly straightforward decision. It wasn’t the new study by Harvard University, declaring that a third of early deaths could be prevented by a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t Simon Amstell’s recent Carnage, a feature-length mockumentary none of my friends could persuade me to watch. It wasn’t even the field of pigs I watched on a recent British holiday, each of them with sentient expressions I recognised as almost human, or the revelation that they were the lucky ones, that many meat pigs are kept underground, never seeing daylight, forced to give birth in cages that prevent them from turning to see their new piglets before they’re taken away. It wasn’t the news that there is not enough land on earth to farm all meat humanely. It wasn’t the uncomfortable realisation that I adored my dog out of all proportion, but gave no thought to the lambs and cows I ate with gravy, and it certainly wasn’t the horrific scenes of torture people felt the need to post between LOLcats and baby snaps on social media. For decades, I waited for a lightning bolt, when in reality it was a light, constant drizzle that ultimately wore me down.

First, I did what people lucky enough to be comfortably off do to make themselves feel better: buy only organic and sustainable meat, and eat it rarely, like a posh bar of chocolate or 10-quid wine. Never mind that I was turning a blind eye in restaurants, or when I took my family for a Sunday roast, or when I was hungover and fancied a Pret bacon baguette. Never mind that I picked up a raw chicken as though handling plutonium, that the sight of offal made me gag or that my posh meat made an enormous carbon footprint, guzzling water, grain and land. I didn’t eat enough to make any difference and, besides, abstinence and deprivation weren’t my style. I was a keen cook, libertarian and foodie! I had no desire to join a gang that would have clean-eating charlatans and Morrissey for members. I could have it all ways – the occasional juicy steak or hearty pie, and still feel moral, moderate and zestful.

And so it happened while I wasn’t looking. Not so much a moment of clarity as a gradual falling away of scales. There simply came a point when there were so many conditions and disclaimers attached to my diet – no pork, no veal, no intensively farmed, only organic, sustainable and insanely expensive – that it just seemed easier and more honest to step up and stop altogether. I had a hundred environmental and human reasons to quit but only one to keep doing what I was doing: taste. It seemed petty and embarrassingly pathetic of me, when there were so many delicious alternatives, to allow something so small and self-serving to be a deal breaker. Things were born, caged, frightened, then killed, just for me. It seemed a wholly wasteful, needlessly extravagant and frankly impractical way to deliver protein to my diet.

Vegetarianism is not a sacrifice – it’s a simple, logical act, much like recycling bottles or rescuing a dog, and it matters

As undramatic as the decision was, I was unprepared for how inconsequential the change. What I never in a million years expected was what proved to be true: giving up meat is easy. It’s astonishing how quickly chicken, beef, lamb and pork (yes, even bacon) just become non-foods. I don’t crave them in the way I once expected – I simply skim past them on the menu, as though written for someone else. My friends either didn’t care or were intrigued, only a step or two behind me on the path to vegetarianism. My husband grilled bacon on the very first weekend and my Bisto-kid instinct to follow the smoky fumes and alluring sizzle had simply vanished overnight. The chicken curry on the table next to me held no appeal. Sausages didn’t become some irresistible forbidden fruit I suddenly needed as though my very life depended on it. I felt no more hungry, restricted or less satisfied. I continued to eat greedily and giddily, looking forward to every meal in the way I always had. Perhaps even more so, since it is no longer a case of landing on mushroom risotto or goat’s cheese tart and liking or lumping it. Every high street has multiple vegetarian options, many of them far more exciting, interesting and delicious than yet another burger or chicken breast. My culinary repertoire somehow expanded while meat suddenly, unexpectedly, seemed boring, unimaginative, slightly queasy-making.

I said I would never become a vegetarian and I meant it. And maybe you feel the same. You may well be right and I don’t judge you. After 43 years of enthusiastic meat-eating, I hardly can. Maybe you’ve found the right balance for you – whether making an ethical gesture for the environment by engaging in meat-free Mondays, or being careful about the quality of the meat you eat, the farming you support. Maybe you live happily on KFC and never give the meat-free alternative a single thought. But there’s also a strong chance that, like me, your friends are starting to jump ship and you’re tempted but preemptively defeated by the insurmountable challenge you believe lies ahead. And so I want to tell you that you can quit in a moment and never look back, just as I did. I want to tell you that it’s really not hard. I feel happy, in control, healthier, richer, good about my decision. There was no fire in my belly, no placard waving in my head, no strong opinion on the diet of others, no belief that I had to be perfect to make a positive change. Just a realisation that my excuse was no longer good enough. I love animals, I love the planet and my fondness for mince should not be their problem. Vegetarianism is not a sacrifice – it’s a simple, logical act, much like recycling bottles or rescuing a dog, and it matters. Why deprive yourself of the opportunity for the sake of a bucket of wings?

@salihughes

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