A year without meat

MeatWhen I stopped eating meat a year ago, my kids thought it was some kind of hipster fad. And now most people tend to react with bemusement.

“Really? Hmm. Why’d you do that?”

And then they’re curious. “How do you feel? Don’t you miss it?”

My answers to these questions surprise even me. Giving up meat taught me something about myself I didn’t know – something that has little to do with meat and a lot to do with the process of giving up a habit I’ve had for almost 50 years.

“Why give up meat?”

Omnivore's DilemmaI loved meat. Bacon. Burgers. Pork chops. Lamb shank. Schnitzel. Steak. Chicken. Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas ham. You get the idea.

Then, in 2010, I read Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Pollan’s not a vegetarian by any stretch (spoiler: he kills and cooks his own wild pig in the end), but he made me think – perhaps for the first time in my life, where my food comes from and how much meat in particular I was eating. (When my mother was growing up, meat was an occasional luxury, but I was eating it 3 times a day.) Pollan made me aware that how the food was produced and under what circumstances made a nutritional, environmental, and moral difference.

“It’s okay”, I thought, “I’ll just pay more at Whole Foods and get ‘good’ meat.”

Then I watched “Food, Inc.” and saw where meat comes from and how animals are treated in all but the most exceptional conditions. I knew I didn’t want to be part of some ghoulish systemic torture system and I was too chicken (pun, alas, intended) to kill anything myself, so I starting eating less and less. Finally, when someone at work blogged about being a vegetarian for 30 days, I decided to stop eating meat altogether.

“How do you feel?”

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The person who asks how I feel usually wants to hear that I’m either radically healthier or I’m suffering from some acute protein deficiency. Neither is true. I feel the same and my recent check-up shows everything is normal. The only real change was my LDL cholesterol went down by 10%.

I will admit to feeling smug at times but I realize that’s pretty ridiculous. I still eat fish, after all, and I have no issue with anyone else who eats meat, including my kids. So giving up a few foods is really a trivial sacrifice compared to what else I could be doing.

“Don’t you miss it?”

Tempting?No, I don’t miss it. Occasionally a certain smell may trigger my appetite or old cravings, but my brain has been re-wired. Now, those positive associations are quickly overtaken by more negative thoughts and images related to the animal being cooked. (I’ll spare you the graphic details. But once you’ve seen the inside of an industrial animal farm or meat factory it’s hard to think “yummy!” when you see and smell a burger.)

The process for changing a habit

New possibilities

New possibilities

The most interesting part of the entire experience wasn’t changing what I ate, it was learning that I could change even a long-rutted habit. And there were 5 key elements of the process:

Increasing awareness: learning more about the negatives of our food system as well as the health and environmental benefits of being meatless.

Setting small achievable goals: I stopped eating meat at breakfast (easy), then lunch (less easy), then altogether (not easy).

Doing it regularly for 30 days: it’s short enough to consider trying anything and long enough to re-wire you.

Providing positive reinforcement: I shared early stories and connected with vegetarians and other meatless people and got joy from being a new person in that tribe.

Getting help: my wife is Japanese and introduced me to all sorts of delicious meatless dishes while providing encouragement.

When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted. So now I’m looking forward to some other goals. Next is getting off of a pill I take everyday to reduce my cholesterol. I thought I’d be on it for the rest of my life and just have to risk the side-effects. But my numbers are so low now my doctor said I can stop taking it if I exercise more and make a few additional dietary changes. Those are changes I know I can make.

The best part, though, is not just giving things up but learning and doing new things. Finally practicing yoga. Playing the piano (a lifelong dream). Being able to hold a real conversation in Japanese.

It turns out giving up meat wasn’t about giving up at all, but about opening up and creating new possibilities for a richer, better life.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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18 Responses to A year without meat

  1. John, as a huge fan of Michael Pollan myself, glad to see you make these changes. I am reading his latest book ‘Cooked’ right now and although the first chapter starts with whole hog barbecue in North Carolina, you will quickly read his opinions which although respect the old tradition, do not veer too far from the reality that the consumption of meat at the current levels are just not sustainable or healthy. Speaking of habits, a friend recommended ‘The Power of Habit’, haven’t read it yet, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf staring at me.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hi, Vishal. Yes, I’m a Pollan fan. I loved “In Defense of Food” and I’m reading “The Botany of Desire” now.

      For the process and science of changing habits, I highly recommend “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg & “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal.

      For a broader view on changing your life, my recent favorite is “Steering by Starlight” by Martha Beck. It verges on mystical and won’t be for everyone but I’ve found it very helpful.

  2. Tess Payne says:

    Hello John, I too have embarked on a similar journey, becoming a vegetarian…although I enjoy fish every now and again. I recently ordered “Younger Next Year” by Chris Crowley. I agree with you that a large part of the satisfaction was the ability to give up a habit that has been part of your life. Thanks for the interesting topics and references of other books on the matter.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Tess. Yes, “Grow Younger Next Year” is terrific! It was another book that changed how I think – in this case about aging. I used to view my body as a machine that would inevitably break down instead of as a dynamic system that, with movement and good nutrition, would continue to regenerate and avoid most diseases we have come to associate with old age.

  3. THOM FISHER says:

    A life of choices…all different, all our own……..as individuals we try on life!!!
    BlackBerry from DOCOMO

  4. Ruma Tavorath says:

    Changing your views, your actions, your mental models…any change is painful and disruptive and needs dedication for sustaining. But the key is the trigger – the willingness to change, the understanding that we need to change or should change. Holding up a mirror to ourselves, that’s the tough part. Btw, I liked reading about your experience – mine followed the exact same path. The live chickens dancing on my plate was the ultimate turn-off!

  5. Hey John – it appears there are more parallels in our lives. I’ve made the switch about two months ago. What brought me from a long time of contemplating it to actually doing it was a lecture given by a pretty intense activist, Gary Yourofsky > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UROxRLbVils – that was the final straw, really.

    In my case, I’ve switched for purely ethical reasons and feel great about it. Both me and my wife have gone the 0-meat way. While I’m veggie now (still love a bit of mozzarella on my veggie pizza), she’s Vegan. We’ve both done it from one moment to the other … haven’t missed meat for a second since the switch. I previously challenged myself with a whole year without processed sugar – no icecream, no cakes, no cookies, nada. There the experience was brilliant – it wasn’t about diet, about sugar – it was simply about willpower. As one who’s pretty much addicted to sweets, it was amazing to see that I had the will to just skip it for a whole year.

    When it comes to meat, however, even now, after two months, I know this isn’t temporary. It feels right whichever way I look at it or think and feel about it. Same as you, I will not be part of the killing system anymore … but I’m already thinking, is that enough? Shouldn’t I, instead of just not eating meat for ethical reasons, actually do something? Is it the activist way? Probably not … but some ideas already percolate …

  6. Great piece. And it is interesting to see the changes when you give up something.

    • John Stepper says:

      Thanks, Barry. I love hearing the stories in these comments from other people who’ve changed something and found the effects spilling over into other parts of their lives.

      It’s like the “keystone habits” Charles Duhigg talks about in “Power of Habit”. You’re not just changing a habit, you’re developing skills for a better life.

      Imagine teaching kids that lesson in school instead of learning it in my 40s!

  7. Eric Best says:

    Interesting that you found a very simple (consume less of something) way to reduce your cholesterol and now your doctor (where was he in all this?) is of the opinion that “Gee, now you can stop taking that pill I so easily prescribed.” There is a larger commentary here…

    • John Stepper says:

      I may have made it seem simpler than it was. 🙂

      My LDL was 165+ before meds and I wasn’t exercising regularly. My (excellent) doctor talked me through how I might change things without Lipitor but, after 3 months, I hadn’t made a dent. So we both agreed to lower my cholesterol and the obvious risks by taking a pill. Then I could continue to try to exercise more and eat differently.

      So I’d say we managed the risks well (for me) until I could find a way to change my behavior in a sustainable way.

  8. Kieran Kelly says:

    Hi John,

    I’ve been about ten years without meat now, but recently I’ve begun to be tempted again. My argument to myself has always been along the lines of: so much unnecessary cruelty; health (it really isn’t that good for you); and world economics (the land yields ten times more veg food than meat). Add to this the only sound argument for eating meat is enjoyment and pleasure, which, given the above, isn’t a good enough reason for me.

    Now all of this still rings true to me, so I wonder why the urge to eat meat has returned. My only answer at the moment is that the argument has become stale in my mind and I need to refresh it in some way – for instance by reading the book and video you have recommended.

    This in turn makes me wonder about forming good habits in general. Perhaps it is not enough simply to choose better habits, but from time to time we may need to return to the reasons and principles that underpin those same choices.

    • John Stepper says:

      Those are great points, Kieran. You do need occasional reinforcement of your new habits. Without them, it’s easier to go back to old habits or for behavioral entropy to set in. (“Oh well, a burger *would* be easier at this BBQ.”)

      I’m reading “Don’t Shoot The Dog” by an experienced animal trainer and she describes the same need. Dogs and dolphins aren’t too different from us after all. 🙂

      One other note: if you really want to eat meat after that reinforcement, you might just have a little. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you’re not 100% meatless, eating 95% less meat is still terrific.

  9. Franko says:

    Congratulations on your achievement. Although I have no plans to stop eating meat as I enjoy it immensely, I have cut back significantly on my intake over the past 6 months. My reasoning was cutting down on fatty and cholesterol laden foods, which they tell us are big killers in our society. I’ve lost weight, my cholesterol is way down and I feel great.

  10. Stefania Todisco says:

    Ciao from Italy, sorry if it was already shrared but really this post founf myself agreeing 100 % with you .
    I think my title would be the power of giving up !

    I gave up smoking almosta one year ago and really I was feeling really powerful to start giving up anything bad to my life .
    Proudness in this has a big role to help out motivation .
    thanks for sharing as it really matters with all what improves our way of living.

    take care


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