Thursday, 29 April 2010

A Meat-Free Nation - Is It Right & Healthy For Us All?

Everywhere you go the message is loud and clear - global environmental concerns are escalating and actions are required to safeguard the future. This has led to some proclaiming that the world would be in a better position if everyone converted to vegetarianism. That might be so, but it might not be the best decision for the people in it. As a veggie of many years standing, I'm well aware of the positive health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle and the research supporting this, but that doesn't make it right for everyone. Some people just don't thrive on a veggie diet no matter how hard they try or how committed they want to be. For them alternative proteins do not cut the mustard to pardon the pun. Perhaps our individual biochemistry determines this, or perhaps those who are looking for change are trying to run before they can walk.

Making the choice to go veggie doesn't happen overnight. It's not like the film “Big” where you suddenly wake up one morning as a fully committed vegetarian. It can be a difficult and conflict-ridden transition, much like puberty to adulthood. I should know – I've been there. Vegetarianism quite simply crept up on me. Brought up on the traditional Sunday roast and meat, poultry, or fish at every meal with little fruit and veg, it came as a huge surprise to myself and my family and friends. The process from one to the other was so gradual that even now I debate what triggered my decision. At the time, BSE was hitting the headlines, which to a young and stubborn teen was possibly like a red rag to a bull. I looked at and tasted meat differently. Red meat was the first to go, followed by poultry, and then fish when I could no longer stand the texture. For a fussy veg and fruit eater, it was a huge educational undertaking and there were blips along the way. Foreign holidays and meals out became battlegrounds for tense family arguments and I was constantly offered ham sandwiches by elderly relations. It's not a journey for the fainthearted or for those unwilling to re-educate their palate. If anyone tells you that there's no such thing as an unhealthy or overweight vegetarian, they're lying. Vegetarians are just as susceptible to these conditions as the next person if the right dietary choices aren't made.

Personally, I haven't looked back. The decision changed me as a person and I feel all the more healthier in mind and body for it. By all means, try being veggie for yourself, easing into it gradually, and not beating yourself up if you fall at the first hurdle. Vegetarianism is a mental discipline, as well as a food regime, that just may not be compatible to your lifestyle. As a veggie, I feel we need to respect that, but perhaps I'm more tolerant of that choice than others. What concerns me more is our attitude towards food in general. Seen as a commodity and basic human right, man has, on the whole, become divorced from nature. Driven by gluttony and more used to seeing food in packets or wrapped in cling film on supermarket shelves, we've lost our understanding of the food chain and where we fit into it. The conservative approach i.e. compulsory food education and a reduction in meat consumption may be one solution that can make a difference. Global vegetarianism is not a vision that can be enforced, but if we're not careful, it may soon be the last option left.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A Vegetarian Lifestyle

Being a vegetarian is a bit like marmite: people either love us or hate us. A lifestyle choice often provoking strong reactions from family, friends, next door neighbours, and people you've only just met. You quickly learn to either gauge who to tell rather than justifying your beliefs, or like me announce it dismissively, secretly hope nobody notices and pause for the inevitable questions that usually follow. When? Why? What do you eat? Do you eat fish? Wouldn't the world be over-run with animals if they weren't on our plates? Don't you get bored? I appreciate people's healthy curiosity, but there are boundaries to interrogation. Imagine this taking place in a workplace or restaurant setting when all eyes are suddenly forced upon you, and it bears close resemblance to a hunter stalking its prey. I wear my veggie badge with honour, but choose not to divulge it to all and sundry.

Why then am I writing this column I hear you ask? Because I got to wondering why vegetarianism is such an emotive subject. Could it be that for many this choice muddies the nation's love affair with food? Or is it because of the way veggies are (mis)represented? I decided it was time somebody tried to change that, so here goes... “Hello, my name's Ling and I'm a vegetarian.” With the introductions over, allow me to dispel some of the myths. Veggies like most people hate being pigeonholed. We're not all one and the same. We turn to vegetarianism for many different reasons – animal welfare, health, environment, cultural heritage, religion etc. Some are strict and self-disciplined, while others are more relaxed. I profess to be a mixture of the two, which is confusing to say the very least! We're not all related to Mr. Muscle – weedy and anaemic looking, extreme fussy eaters, animal rights activists, hippies or new age thinkers who go round proclaiming love, peace and hugging trees, although there are certainly a few that do. We're just a group of people from different walks of life with diverse views on what it means to be veggie in the 21st century.

The conflict in the world is usually caused by the diversity seen between peoples and nations, but opposing views are healthy. It's how we understand what makes each other tick and promotes compassion, tolerance and unity. Conflict surrounding vegetarianism is the same, even amongst ourselves as numbers grow. My views on forthcoming topics might be considered controversial by my fellow veggies, but that's my point – it's just my opinion. I, for one, am not claiming to be the voice for vegetarianism nor do I wish to preach to the converted. My voice is just one perspective – one insight into the vegetarian lifestyle.

Personally, I love marmite and there was a time when I would smother it on everything. The sandwich combinations were endless, although nothing could beat hot buttered marmite toast. My love affair's since moved on to other foods, but the early commitment to marmite remains. This is also true of those following a vegetarian path – love us or loathe us, the combinations are infinite and our commitment to vegetarianism sustainable