Breaking Vegetarian: What About My Gut?

Paste's new column on eating meat mindfully

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Flickr/Steve Johnson

When I started eating meat again, after seven years as a vegetarian, I really wanted to maintain healthy and ethical eating habits. But I didn’t have much money, didn’t know the first thing about cooking, and couldn’t find much advice on the Internet, to guide me. Where do young, sustainably minded wannabe-foodies turn for answers to their questions about eating meat without abandoning their moral compass? Enter “Breaking Vegetarian.”

After her doctor told her she needed to add red meat back into her diet, Cathy Cox, seven years a vegan, stopped at McDonald’s on the way home for a Quarter Pounder. “It didn’t make me feel sick,” she said, “In fact, I felt healthier than I had in year in years…It was, I’m convinced, due to my body’s registering the nutritional components it had effectively been starving for.”

No vomiting. No stomach cramps. She emerged, somehow, unscathed.

By contrast, when I spent ten days in Ghana in the middle of my time as a vegetarian, I ate a bowl of soup that had been cooked with meat in it. I didn’t eat any actual meat, but I was unknowingly swallowing goat broth. I was violently ill in—let’s say in more than one way—for a few days.

The only explanation for the differences in these experiences, and the myriad other stories I’ve heard in my time since breaking vegetarian, aside from the fact that all digestive tracts are different, is familiarity. If you’re thinking about re-introducing meat into your diet after a time without, it can be difficult to predict how your body will react. The approach that worked for me was to start small, take it slow, and stay in my comfort zone.

Csilla Bischoff, a former vegan and holistic health coach who works with many patients suffering from diet and digestive issues, agrees: “Starting small can ease the digestive discomfort that many people experience.” As a result, Bischoff urges her clients to make gradual changes, slowly, and to incorporate probiotic aids like yogurt, to help their digestive tract in processing meat. To her patients, Bischoff often suggests incorporating meat more subtly into existing meals, by, for example, making your own bone broth from fish or chicken, which gradually reintroduces the digestive system to meat enzymes, while providing lots of helpful nutrients.

But Bischoff also notes that no studies exist proving vegetarians will have digestive difficulty. Many do. But all of the anecdotal evidence I gathered suggests that our bodies are remarkably resilient.

Heather Cramer, a vegetarian for a decade, said her decision was “a spur-of-the-moment thing.” After eating a few Tofu Pups at a friend’s birthday barbeque, she decided to try one of the local all-beef hot dogs the other guests were enjoying. “People stopped to watch me eat the first meat product I’d had since middle school. They waited as I finished. Nothing. I loved it so much I ate a second.”

Similarly, Sara Parrilli ate meat after more than a decade without it, as a result of her body’s own cravings. After a few days of recovering from a standard flu bug, she noticed her roommate’s sliced turkey on their shared kitchen counter, and decided to try some. “For whatever reason,” she says, “the turkey seemed incredibly appealing. My roommate told me to help myself, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first turkey sandwich as an adult.”

If all these stories have anything in common, it may be that everyone’s body led them in the right direction, and by listening to their own guts, they were able to reintroduce meat without any drama.

If anything, Cox says, eating meat again made her feel healthy. In the decade since reintroducing meat, “While still on the low end of the BMI,” she says, “I’ve been consistently about ten to fifteen pounds heavier since. For me, it was the right choice to return.” Cox returned to meat-eating at the urging of her MD, after blood tests showed anemia—not a result of the vegan diet, but of an underlying blood disorder the lack of meat had been exacerbating.

Bischoff reiterates that eating meat may be necessary for some, in the case of thyroid or autoimmune diseases that restrict a patient’s access to other sources of protein. Strict vegetarians and vegans, she notes, are “at risk for developing certain nutritional deficiencies, particularly zinc, iron, b-vitamins, vitamin-d, and protein.”

Everyone I spoke to had made a great effort to find alternate sources of these nutrients. whether plant-based or synthetic, but still felt their strength and energy levels were different when eating meat.

Cramer says she enjoyed “great health and boundless energy” as a vegetarian. Parrilli, though, also feels the addition of meat has contributed to her overall health: “I feel a lot stronger and have more energy. And this in turn has increased my body’s ability to increase its strength.”

Whatever your reason, Bischoff agrees that anyone reintroducing meat wants to take it slow and allow their digestive system to adjust. “Choose high quality meat, be selective, and choose local,” she says, “and combine it with the same things you are used to…to ease the transition.”

This was the approach I took when I started eating meat again. After seven years as a vegetarian, the first meat I cooked for myself was pasta. I made homemade red sauce by my family’s recipe, which isn’t so much a recipe as a process you absorb when you grow up among three generations of Italian women. Pasta with red sauce is my favorite meal, and one I cooked for myself often as a vegetarian. This time, I grilled a plain chicken breast with rosemary and oregano, cut it up, and mixed it into the sauce. I ate probably about a third of a chicken breast, and I was perfectly fine. I didn’t experience even a minor bout of indigestion.

While goat broth in western Africa had considerably less actual meat, because it was spicy, unfamiliar, and eaten in the middle of a week of 120-degree heat, my body very much registered this as a foreign substance. By contrast, though I hadn’t eaten chicken in years, the rest of the meal was something I ate often, so my body hardly noticed the addition of a small amount of meat.

While Cox’s fast food approach (which she no longer eats) might not be the most recommended, it seems that the key to reintegrating meat is going slowly and carefully, and all the while, listening to your body, as it likely knows best what it needs.

Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teach writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.