My opinions

Being a vegetarian

I am a vegetarian, and have been for 10 years now. I used to eat meat when I was a child, but I stopped in January 1993 (after my first term at university). So, the purpose of this page is to explain why, and hopefully clear up some misconceptions along the way. Beyond my general disclaimer, I should clarify that I am only speaking for myself here - I'm not trying to pass judgement on anyone else.


I remember when I was at primary school, we sometimes heard stories (which may or may not be true) about Arabs who would eat sheep's eyeballs as a delicacy. This was normally greeted by a reaction of "Eww!" from everyone. Similarly, when we heard about haggis (made from some kind of stomach), we all basically said "No way, I'm not eating that". However, I don't think that there is anything intrinsically more icky about eating haggis than eating sausages. I vaguely recall a comment from a Pratchett novel about sausages - bits of offal wrapped up in intestines, or similar. But the point is that I was eating them before I knew what they were (or even what they were called). So my automatic reaction was "Bacon - yum!", rather than thinking about where it came from. There was a girl in my class who was vegetarian (as was her mother), and I remember that her mother came along to give us a talk about it at some point. However, she took the angle of "Look, veggie food isn't all dull stuff like lentils, you can have exciting things like rissotos". Personally, I'm happy with "normal" food like burgers, chips, pizza, etc. I have no interest in Hungarian goulash or whatever. So that did a pretty good job of putting me off the idea.

Anyway, a few years later I went off to secondary school, where I got a bit more involved with the RSPCA. Their policy is that you don't have to be veggie (although lots of their members are) - basically they're opposed to cruelty, rather than killing per se. So, for instance, they are against battery hens, but they're quite happy with free-range hens. Incidentally, if you are looking for free-range eggs in the supermarket, some of the labels can be confusing, so one to look for is "RSPCA freedom food", which they've approved. I stress if, since I'm not trying to convert anyone here. I did think about going veggie a few more times, but decided against it. The reason was that I liked the taste of meat. The justification was that the animals wouldn't be alive in the first place if they weren't going to be used for food - farmers couldn't afford to keep them as pets.

Then a bit later (in 1988), I got involved with an IFAW petition. The key point was that the Olympic games were being held in Seoul that year, which is in South Korea. There were some practices there which IFAW didn't like, so they wanted to use the Olympics to draw attention to them. Specifically, the marketplaces. As you may know, the Koreans eat cats and dogs. Like the RSPCA, IFAW has no intrinsic problem with this. However, the cats and dogs were kept in small cages in the market place (alive), in the sun all day, waiting to be sold. And IFAW said that was cruel to them. So, anyway, IFAW got a petition going, where everyone would ask the South Korean government to put a stop to this, and I went round collecting signatures for this. I must admit, that while the point of the petition was to stop the conditions, rather than to stop cats and dogs being eaten, lots of people would say "Yes, I'll sign that" as soon as I'd explained the context (i.e. the diet), and I didn't go out of my way to correct them. My vague justification was that if they were opposed to the diet then they'd be opposed to the conditions too. Anyway, I went round, and collected a lot of signatures. I then met one of the other boys in the school, who was a member of the debating society. I have to say, he was very good at debating (I was a member too, but nowhere near his level). Anyway, he asked me about the basis for the petition, then accused me of hypocrisy. He basically said that if I was quite happy to eat pigs, cows, etc. then I had no business condemning people for eating cats and dogs. And that I was just letting my emotions rule my intellect ("aw, cute and fluffy"). And, I have to admit, he had a point. It didn't make me go veggie right away, but it got me thinking seriously about it.

I remember speaking to my parents about it, but they were very opposed to the idea. My father said that while he'd like to be vegetarian in an ideal world, he couldn't afford to take time off work for sick leave. My mother had a (somewhat bizarre) theory that just as you see cows grazing all day in the fields, I'd need to be eating continuously to get enough nutrition. Personally, I think it has more to do with the fact that cows eat grass, which isn't high in vitamins etc. So, anyway, I put it in the "maybe, some time" category.


Then I went off to university, in October 1992, which was a very liberating experience for me. Basically, nobody there knew me, so they didn't have preconceptions based on my past reputation, or anything like that - they accepted me for who I was. I fell in with a group of friends, as lots of people tend to. In particular, two of them were vegetarian, which gave me a better understanding of what it was like. I then went back down south for Christmas 1992. Cutting a long story very short, that was the last time I went back there for the holidays. I went back in March 1993 to grab some of my stuff and move out, and I haven't been back since. So, after that, my parents' views had less of an influence on me than before. Also, January 1993 was kind of a rough time for me. I'd been thinking about going veggie for a while at that point, and I discussed it with one of my (vegetarian) friends. After I'd made the decision, I felt a lot better - more at peace with myself.

Unfortunately, it was after the first week of term, which was the limit for handing in your card to the college staff saying whether you wanted a vegetarian diet or not. Consequently, for the rest of that term I wasn't eligible for the veggie alternative, so I got by on potatoes/carrots in most meals. This was a bit of a nuisance, although in retrospect maybe I could have handled it better (been less demanding).

So, anyway, I've been veggie ever since. I stayed eating fish for the next few weeks, but then dropped that too. However, I'm not vegan - I still eat eggs, cheese, etc. My policy is that I'm happy to eat it/wear it as long as you can get it without killing the animal in the process. As it stands, I get by as a "junk food vegetarian", since I'm still not that keen on actual vegetables. But I think I would have health problems if I went vegan. In fact, though, I've been much healthier ever since I went veggie. I don't know if it's just due to that, since there were other changes at about the same time (e.g. the move to uni), but I haven't really been ill since then. I was thinking about this recently - in the last 7 years, the only time I've taken sick leave from work is for injury (e.g. when I crashed my motorbike and hurt my knee), or when I had one of my wisdom teeth removed. I haven't had trouble with flu etc.

As for the old justification, I'm ok with that now as well. There's a book I got shortly after I went veggie, called The Teenage Vegetarian Survival Guide. Well, I was a teenager at the time (18 anyway). Anyway, that says that 10 acres of land (5 football pitches) will support:

So, the implication is that:

  1. Cows won't be extinct, since not everyone will go veggie.
  2. Even if they did, we'd need less land to feed the veggies, so we could convert some existing farms into "safari parks", where cows etc could roam free. A bit like Longleat (where you have lions etc).

This does mean that there would be fewer cows around than there are at present, so in a sense the argument that "they only exist because people eat them" is correct. However, I don't have any moral problem with population control - if I felt that it was wrong for people not to be born who would otherwise be alive, then I'd be advocating that women should spend their whole adult lives "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen". The same principle applies to animals.

Present day

There are still times when I miss meat, and find myself drooling a bit at what my flatmates are eating. But on the whole there are fairly decent substitutes available. E.g. I often eat Tivall "fake hot dog sausages", and I can't tell the difference between them and "real" sausages. Mind you, it may help that I can't smell... I think bacon is the thing that lots of people miss most, which is apparently mostly because of the smell.

On the clothing front, I had a new pair of leather boots when I first went vegetarian, and I didn't see that I'd achieve anything by giving them a "proper burial", so I continued wearing them for the next few years (re-soling them a couple of times). After they finally fell apart, I bought plastic shoes from high street shoe shops, which were cheap, but didn't last for very long. Since then, I've bought boots from Vegetarian Shoes. I've also bought a fake leather jacket from there, and I highly recommend their shop.

Healthwise, I donate blood on a regular basis, and they always test for iron levels. That's not specifically because I'm a vegetarian - they do that for everyone. Anyway, I've never been turned away for anaemia, although sometimes they have to try two drops of blood (if the first one doesn't sink). I used to take a vitamin pill every day, and in particular I bought Sanatogen Vegetarian tablets, but I haven't been able to find anywhere that sells them in the last couple of years.

I am a member of The Vegetarian Society, although I don't get a huge amount of benefit from this (the most tangible benefit is a 10% discount at Holland and Barrett, which I've never used). So, it's really a case that I'm subsidising their campaigns, such as National Vegetarian Week.

In terms of everyday life, it's not really a hassle. Certainly things have improved a lot in the last ten years - for instance, when I first went vegetarian, I had to go out of my way to find cheese that didn't include animal rennet, whereas nowadays almost all cheese sold in supermarkets is fine. I know that there are some people who would only flat-share or date a fellow vegetarian (much like non-smokers who wouldn't want to live with a smoker), but I don't have a problem with that. However, one implication of my different diet is that it's very rare for me to share meals with my flatmates. On the other hand, if we all go out to dinner somewhere (particularly for pizza), then it's easy for me to order something meat-free.

When it comes to veggie food that has touched meat, my opinions will vary based on the context. So, at a restaurant I'd expect them to use separate tongs for the different types of food. However, if I'm at a barbeque with friends then I don't mind if my stuff touches their meat. This is partly an issue of priorities - if I've been invited to a social event then I don't want to make life difficult for people. It's also not really a moral compromise. The key issue here is that I genuinely believe I am making a difference by being vegetarian. The idea is that supermarkets, butchers, etc. will adjust their orders based on sales. It's simply a question of good business sense - there's no point in stocking 500 turkeys at Christmas if you're only going to sell 200. Admittedly my own purchases are relatively insignificant, but it's like voting in an election; one vote probably won't change the outcome, but lots of votes will. In the case of a restaurant, if McDonald's use beef fat to fry their chips (as I believe they used to), then this would be a significant number of barrels per year. Whereas at a barbeque, people aren't going to buy extra steaks just because 1 milligram was rubbed off onto my food.

One other grey area here is that I have a cat, and so I buy food for her that contains meat, since my understanding is that cats can't survive on a vegetarian diet. (Even if she does seem quite happy to eat parts of my dinner...) Anyway, my basic attitude is that there are some animals who have to kill to survive, and that's fair enough. As humans, we have a choice, and so I choose not to.

More generally, I try to avoid irritating people with this. My friends know that I'm vegetarian, and so they're used to the idea that if they offer me a biscuit then I'll ask to check the list of ingredients on the packet. However, I respect their choice to eat meat, and so I try not to force my views onto them. (That said, there is of course friendly teasing that goes in both directions.) For instance, a while back I saw an advert for T-shirts with this design: a dog on a plate, with text underneath saying "Why Not? You eat other animals, don't you?" Although it was a similar question that exposed my own double standard, I didn't buy the shirt, as I think that it's too confrontational.


There are a few questions/assertions that often come up, so I shall address them here.

"Eating meat is natural - our teeth define us as omnivores." Well, I think there are a couple of issues here. Firstly, although we have incisors, they are pretty puny compared to other animals. So, if you were using your teeth to rip apart a dead cow, i.e. biting through its skin to get at the raw meat underneath, then I would accept the point. As it is, I don't think that human teeth would be capable of doing that, and I also don't think that they're necessary to consume meat once it's been processed. When there was a big BSE scandal a couple of years ago ("mad cow disease"), one of the causes was that cows were being fed each others brains - presumably because it's not fit for human consumption, so you can save money on cattle food this way. Now, based on their teeth, cows are naturally herbivores - not carnivores, and certainly not cannibals! So, they were able to eat this without needing "meat teeth", and it wasn't part of their natural diet, which therefore means that the infected meat being given to humans wasn't particularly natural either. On the other hand, what does "natural" mean? Arguably, since we're part of nature, anything that we do is intrinsically natural. So, either you need to adopt a "back to the trees" mentality (none of these artificial houses), or accept that there are many things we do which are based on our brains rather than our bodies. Personally, I don't really care what's natural and what isn't. On a related note, I really dislike the term "organic" when used for food - it suggests that other carrots are inorganic, which is clearly ridiculous.

"If you don't like killing animals, then how about if a cow dropped dead in front of you. Would you eat it then?" The short answer is "yes", since it wouldn't go against my vegetarian principles. The long answer is "no", since there are other issues. For instance, you don't often see stray cattle roaming the countryside. This means that the dead cow belongs to a farmer, who probably wouldn't appreciate me stealing his property by digging into it with a knife and fork. Also, I would ask why the cow died - if it was natural causes, then that either means old age (in which case the meat is probably going to be tough and stringy, i.e. unappealing), or disease (in which case I'd prefer not to eat the infected meat). It has also been suggested that meat contains toxins, and that our bodies gradually build up an immunity to them. So, after a few months of being vegetarian, they'd all be flushed out, which means that if I tried to eat meat again now then it would make me vomit. (The same thing would apply to babies, but they vomit all the time anyway, so this doesn't get noticed specifically.) I'm not sure how true this is, as it sounds suspiciously like propaganda, but it would provide another reason not to go snacking on a dead cow if there was other food readily available.


I have chosen not to eat meat, and hopefully (from reading this) you now understand why. There are other people who have chosen differently, and that's ok - all I ask is that they recognise what they're doing. For instance, one of my flatmates recently commented that he cooks fish with the heads attached, so I can respect him a lot more than people who don't like to think about where their food came from. In the case of babies and young children, I would like to see them raised on a vegetarian diet (where possible) until they are old enough to understand what they're doing (e.g. at five years old). Then they can choose whether or not to eat meat, knowing its origins, and preferably having seen what happens in an abattoir. That may seem as if I'm trying to sway the decision with shock value, but the fact is that I'm happy to eat bread while I watch a combine harvester at work.

This page was last updated on 2003-12-29 by John C. Kirk

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