I'm not vegan but...
I stopped eating fish a little over a year ago, and meat a little under a year ago - almost entirely, but I haven't stopped myself from the occasional morsel when I've been completely unable to resist (that's two mouthfuls in one year, before you scoff at me). For context, I've been a chef for almost a decade, having left a corporate job to pursue my true passion - two professions that go very well with a diet of booze and eating out, and all the slow-cooked, charred or raw meat you can handle. Combine that with the Big Green Egg barbecue I got for my 30th birthday, it's frankly astounding that I managed to give the stuff up, let alone stick to it for this long.
It happened sort of by stealth - I've always been keen to eat high welfare, locally sourced meat and as I became more aware of the environmental impact of meat production, I made a real commitment to reducing my meat consumption and only eating the most ethical stuff I could find. By the time I actually stopped, I was probably eating red meat once a month and fish and chicken once a week. Then I watched a documentary about plastic in sea life, in particular how much sea life is being killed due to the ingestion of plastic, and the amount of micro plastic being found in sea birds, fish etc. Embarrassingly I was eating takeaway sushi at the time, and suffice to say that was the last time I ate fish (excusing one tempura rock shrimp the other day, that's one of the two aforementioned mouthfuls). A few months later I went out for a burger with my sister. I ate their special, which was some obscene brisket mac’n’cheese burger, with a side of brisket croquettes, plus fries and a shake (standard). The next day I felt awful, and I can only assume I had just reached the limit of my meat eating. It was easier than I thought to kick the habit cold turkey (I will not apologise for my pun), I'm not a fan of fakery and substitute food so there was no question of any meat alternatives - just loads of vegetables, which I already loved! It’s a cliché but I felt so immediately better not eating meat, that whilst I still craved it, I didn’t really want to eat it anymore. I feel stronger more energetic, my body responds better to exercise, I’ve not had a cold in over a year.
So, am I vegan? No. I'm a pastry chef at heart. Eggs are basically magical and I will never be able to live without them in some regard. And butter. A life without butter is no life. BUT...er.... I don't live under a rock. I know that the mass dairy and meat industries are destroying the planet. So whilst still enjoying foods that I love and make me feel good (physically and mentally) I try to make better decisions and employ balance and awareness in what I eat, both in terms of my own well being, and that of the environment. I'm not a reducitarian, fruitarian, librarian, I mean… who-gives-a-farian. I want to be an environmentally and socially responsible glutton, I want to be inclusive as a chef, I don't have a political agenda or vested interest in quinoa futures, I want to feel well and happy. Most of all I think food is incredible and so much more than the fuel that keeps us going, but it has been so sanitised and commercialised, it's easy to lose sight of how much we need from food beyond that.
The thought of arbitrarily forbidding myself from eating something is just not something I can countenance. I have a physically demanding job and try to keep active, and if I eat too many pulses and beans I get bloated and grumpy. So it seems silly to force myself to get all my protein from things that make me ill in large quantities - especially having just given up on meat for that reason. So I make the decision to include eggs and cheese in my diet, whilst trying to reduce dairy in favour of ethically sourced goat and sheep products. I'm also a tea drinker, and whilst I have managed to acquire a taste of plant-based milks in tea, it has a totally different texture and mouthfeel and sometimes a proper cuppa is the only thing that will do.
I allow my relationship with food to evolve as I do - ten years ago I was drinking alcohol and eating meat in quantities I just couldn’t stomach now. I’ve given those things up only because I feel great as a consequence and care about the planet, not because I’m worried about my weight or body shape or what people will think of me. Who knows what I’ll be eating in another ten years but I’m sure I’ll be enjoying every mouthful.
So much of diet culture is about using food to reach a desired goal relating to weight, body image, fitness. So much of convenience food is about relegating eating to a functional, boring task rather than a crucial part of your existence and enjoyment of life. So much of food culture is about trend, fad and instafame. Cue a whole multitude of ways to screw up your relationship with food and develop your very own, very unique form of disordered eating. So many people obsess over what they eat based on calories, fat, sugar, carb or protein content, creating a battle with food that relegates it to a necessary evil of life rather than one of its most pleasurable sensory and social experiences - one that you get to repeat frequently throughout the day. And to make it even worse, you’re then told that the way to fix your struggle with food is to restrict and obsess over it further with the latest food fad or weight loss craze.
Food that's good for you is enjoyable in every way if you’re not beating yourself up over the choices, or wishing you were eating something else, or wishing you wanted to eat what you’re eating instead of wanting something else. But you're constantly being told certain foods are bad for all sorts of random reasons. And then a few years later you're told that actually that was wrong. Conclusion - it's mostly just BS. Everything that's good for you can be bad for you if you have too much of it, because you're mind and body need all sorts of different things at different times - and most of what it needs it gets from what you put into your body. And whilst you will want to kill me for saying this, everyone is different and there is literally no way to prescribe a regimented way of eating that will produce the same results in different people, because biology and lifestyle are things you can't account for. And that's hardly a catchy strapline or sellable product, is it? I eat whatever I want whenever I want and don’t massively change in weight or shape - which I know infuriates many! And there are many examples of people like me and people who are the opposite... yet we are being told to follow the same rules.
The truth is, I’m really lucky because when I think about eating, all that really matters to me is what’s going to satisfy my needs and make me feel good in that moment - and that may be a physical or emotional need and I freely indulge them all. I don’t agonise, and I don’t feel guilt or shame. And if I’m really honest, this is the only aspect of my life where I’ve got this down. I’m working really hard on myself in every other aspect of life, trying to overcome deep rooted self doubt and fear of failure, but as I write this I realise that my relationship with food is the one area of my life where I don’t struggle with any of those things.
So this is the line I tread, both as a chef and avid eater. Wanting to look after my body and what goes into it (just enough to keep me active enough to go climbing, dog walking and continue cooking and eating), without restricting the thing that I enjoy most in life (sorry family, dogs etc.) and not wanting to get dragged into the politics and dogma of "xxx-diets". Focusing so much on diet and food restriction has completely eclipsed proper care for such an important aspect of our relationship with food, that is, the emotional, social and psychological side (yes, in the opinion of a food crazed chef, not biased at all). Food to me is about family, sharing, pleasure, joy, nostalgia. It's not about function, fuel, outcome - these are the things the world tells you to worry about so you can pay other people to think about them for you and not have to worry about whether your macros are in order. I’m not obsessed with restricting and forcing my diet to conform to an unachievable goal that society has set. I’m not obsessed with evangelising an unrealistic set of food restrictions based on a commercial or political agenda. I'm obsessed with sharing and enjoying food, and respecting the environment it comes from.
Whilst I may not be able to easily define it, I'm pretty happy with my relationship with food. Now on to everything else!