There's many good reasons to eat less meat, but are you going meatless for the right ones? Read on to learn if you should go vegetarian or vegan.
When I was in middle school, I went vegetarian for about three years. I made this decision for two very important reasons: First, my best friend became a vegetarian, and I thought she was really cool (still do). Second, I read somewhere that Drew Barrymore was a vegetarian, and I thought she was really cool too (still do as well).
Clearly, this was a well thought out decision, based on facts, evidence and moral reasoning. As I would have said in middle school....NOT!
Now that I'm an adult I still eat mostly vegetarian, because that's what I like and what makes me feel good. Still, I'll eat anything and everything and see no need to label the way I eat. But probably because I share a lot of meatless recipes, people presume I'm vegetarian, and I frequently get new clients who are either interested in going meatless or are vegan/vegetarian themselves.
When I ask about their motivation for going meatless, I hear two main reasons. Interestingly, my best friend and Drew Barrymore are not it. Some are concerned about the ethics of eating meat, in particular, how animals are treated on factory farms and the environmental impact. The other is health - that removing meat and other animal foods from their diet will make them healthier. For most, it's a combination of ethics and health that drives their decision.
I think these reasons are both really valid. Animals are living creatures and what we know about how they are treated in factory farms is pretty upsetting. Cutting back on meat is one of the best steps we can take to protect the environment - this article showing what one meatless day could prevent is pretty astounding. Studies have also linked meat heavy diets to all the major causes of chronic disease - diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke.
The problem comes in if underlying those reasons you're actually using vegan/vegetarianism to lose weight or control your eating. In that case, vegetarian/veganism takes on all the risks and side effects of any other diet - binge eating/overeating, excessive emotional eating , long term weight gain, lowered confidence, etc. Research has even shown going meatless for weight loss vs other reasons puts you at a much higher risk for developing an eating disorder or disordered eating.
Feeling deprived is a big sign that you're going meatless for the wrong reasons. It's totally normal to struggle at first knowing how to plan satisfying meatless meals or to even find yourself getting overly hungry at times as you're figuring things out. You might even feel a bit deprived going out to eat and having less options. But are you constantly hungry, both emotionally and physically? Do you feel resentful for having to give up meat? Do you find yourself compensating for being meatless in other areas, like by eating more sweets, because you "deserve" it? If so, it might be smart to reconsider your motivations.
Instead of making the decision to eat in line with the rules of a predefined diet (aka go vegan/vegetarian), I encourage you to investigate what's important to you and then make individual food choices in line with those beliefs. If that leads you to eat meat on occasion, cool. If that leads you to not eat any animal foods at all, that's fine too! By thinking that way, you'll be able to discover the pattern of eating that's right for you and make choices that are truly in line with your beliefs, which may or may not follow the strict definition of a vegetarian or vegan diet.
For example, you might care deeply about the environment, but discover a local farm with a deep commitment to sustainability and feel comfortable buying some meats, dairy and eggs from them. Or perhaps you have a very high risk of heart disease and want to go vegan for health reasons. You might decide that just as the occasional sweet won't hurt, neither will the little bit of butter used to bake your favorite whole grain bread.
While many, many studies show benefits to eating a vegetarian/vegan diet compared to a typical American diet, studies also show the same benefits for simply eating less meat and eating more plants - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts/seeds. You don't have to be vegetarian/vegan to be healthy, just eat less meat than the average American (who eats quite a bit...).
Personally, I think there is benefit to eating some amount of animal foods, since there are nutrients that it's hard to get adequate amounts of in a vegetarian/vegan diet. But I also think you can be vegetarian/vegan in a totally healthful way too.
At the end of the day, you know more than any diet what's right for your body and should feel free to make decisions in line with that. Don't restrict your eating based on the rules of a diet - eat in a way that feels right to you! So feel free to dabble in butter. Flirt with fish. If you like, eat a damn egg!