Thick, tough and chewy – it was a texture I hadn’t been familiar with for years, one which conjured memories of family dinners and long-forgotten fry-ups. I stopped eating, hastily opened up my burger and laid each element aside, dissecting the innards with the precision of a surgeon. My tastebuds were right: small, salty strips of bacon were tucked underneath the lettuce.
“This is bacon, right?” I asked my friend across the table, pointing at my findings in bemusement.
“Yeah, there’s definitely bacon in there,” she confirmed, equally as surprised as I was.
Though the patty in the bun was 100% vegan (the server later confirmed this to me), I was unaware the plant-based burger would be served with meaty morsels in between its layers. Silly me for not properly inspecting the menu, I guess.
I’ve been a vegetarian for five years, and not once in all those years had I accidentally stumbled upon a meat-based product - until that day three months ago. Did it mean I could no longer claim to be strictly vegetarian? Truthfully, as I stared down at my plate, I found I didn’t care much at all. I continued munching down the burger until there was nothing left of it, and since then, I've been just as lax about my eating habits.
The number of people converting to vegan and vegetarian diets in the UK has been rising at a startling rate: according to figures by the Vegan Society, the number of vegans quadrupled between 2014 and 2019, reaching 600,000 people last year. A record 500,000 people signed up to take part in 'Veganuary' 2021, pledging to eat only vegan food throughout the month of January. And in its most recent food report, Sainsbury’s predicts vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the population by 2025, with 'flexitarians' (people who don't strictly define themselves as vegan or vegetarian, but largely follow these diets) accounting for just under half of all consumers.
Clearly, there's an appetite for all things plant-based. But while uptake is on the rise, not everyone is converting to meat-free - some are doing the reverse. There can be a multitude of reasons why someone might give up veganism or vegetarianism, as both circumstances and minds change. But how does a decision like that come about? What's the trigger for taking the plunge to reverse eating habits of, sometimes, decades? We spoke to five women who have taken a step back from their vegan or vegetarian diets, to find out why they decided it was time to switch things up.
"I became a vegetarian over 10 years ago aged 17, much to the chagrin of my parents. I decided that if I couldn't kill it myself, I wouldn't eat it. This remained my ethos for years, through countless rubbish stuffed peppers and stodgy mushroom risottos. Then 2020 hit. I'd gone through a breakup, and everything felt bleak. COVID-19 was starting to kick off, and I decided to make a roast for my housemates. I forgot the Quorn, and as I pulled the chicken out of the oven, I made my decision.
Could I kill a chicken? Yes. Right there, right then. I wanted a taste of how it was before, of Sundays around the family dinner table. I ate a bite, and it was delicious. Since then, I've worked my way through poultry and onto red meat. I’ve even started an Instagram account dedicated to my recipes for lesser-used cuts of meat, such as offal. Lockdown has allowed me to explore this; after all, it's not easy soaking tripe for hours if you're commuting. If we're going to eat animals, I believe we shouldn't let good meat go to waste."
"I was never a big meat eater to begin with. I don’t like red meat or fish, and I don’t really like dairy, so I can happily go without. Last year for lent I thought I’d challenge myself by going vegetarian completely. Initially, I felt much healthier and enjoyed creating vegan/vegetarian recipes, however because I’m into lifting weights I struggled to hit my protein needs.
After six months, I decided to eat chicken again. I felt bad because you see so much about how meat is bad for you because of the extra hormones and how we should all be vegan, but I had to drown that out and do what was best for me. Now I’ve found a balance; I eat chicken three times a week and plant-based on the other days. I think it’s important we all reduce our meat intake for health reasons but for me, this is what works. I feel I’m doing my bit without compromising on the things I enjoy."
"I ate a traditional diet up until 15 when I started getting into health/fitness/nutrition. This fixation with ‘clean eating’ led me into troubled waters and in hindsight, I could probably have been classed as suffering from orthorexia.
I became 100% vegan when I started university in 2017, which I found easy considering the world was well prepared for vegans at this point. But this summer, I was drunk with friends and around 5am we ordered pizza. When it arrived, mine mistakenly arrived with cheese on it, and I got so vexed. After that, I toyed with the idea of loosening things, and two weeks later I ate prawns, then eggs, then salmon. I’m still not interested in meat, although I may try a cheeky Nando’s for the novelty. Studying Nutrition helped me critique the evidence that initially inspired me to go vegan, rather than taking it at surface level as I did when I was 15. I felt guilty when I started eating non-vegan again and was embarrassed to tell people as I felt it was a 'fall from grace', but obviously no one cared."
"I became a vegan over two years ago now. During the first lockdown I was feeling occasionally run down, so I considered re-introducing fish/shellfish into my diet as I thought it might help me feel better. I cooked my husband’s favourite prawn and rice dish, tasted it and loved it!
"I’ve occasionally eaten poultry during the subsequent lockdowns too, as I’m spending more time eating at home with the rest of the family who all enjoy it. I anticipate cutting meat out again when life returns to normal, post-pandemic. But, generally speaking, while I feel better for not eating meat, I occasionally feel I benefit from poultry and fish in my diet. I honestly think if lockdown hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have gone back to meat."
"I'd been vegetarian since I was 17 and went vegan at 19; my boyfriend at the time was vegan and I loved it. The reason I went vegetarian/vegan though was because it felt like a way out of my eating disorder. I enjoyed cooking, and I looked into the food I was eating. But actually, it became a gateway into my ED again.
Mid-last year I wasn't doing great mental health-wise, and that’s when my ED tends to manifest. I was unhappy with myself and my body; I felt like all I was eating was bland pasta and tofu. So, I toyed with the idea of eating fish because it felt healthy enough but didn't feel that unethical. Once I did, I started eating cheese, then chocolate, and I fell in love with food all over again. I tried every. single. chocolate. in this country because I hadn't eaten any for so long. I don't restrict myself anymore and it’s changed my relationship with food entirely. I really find joy in it now."
Ultimately, when it comes to eating habits, what's clear is that there is no 'right' way to approach it for all. Ideally your diet shouldn't feel restrictive, or be based around others' judgement, but beyond that it's up to you. The way you choose to eat is a completely personal decision, and the only thing you should be doing, is doing what feels right for you at the time.
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