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Breaking Vegetarianism?

I'm looking for advice from ex-vegetarians and current ones (vegan input is also welcome)!

I'm an 18 year old girl and have been vegetarian for about 7 years now. I started off pretty young and as a result had to reintroduce eggs and also some fish into my diet to avoid depriving myself of protein. I am vegetarian mainly because I genuinely feel badly about eating animals, but also because when done properly, vegetarianism can benefit one's health.

Over the past few months I've gotten ridiculous cravings for meat, which never happened. I tried to eat meat (3 decent sized bites of steak) about 3 weeks ago and felt slightly sick but then also had a guilt-ridden nightmare that I actually ate my own dog accidentally! Call me ridiculous.

Today I gave in again and tried chicken in a normal sized portion and do feel a bit sick. I also feel guilty after that.

I'm about to go off to college and I suppose I am open to breaking my vegetarianism. From what I understand that is something you should do slowly, as I may lack certain enzymes necessary for digesting meat. I was wondering if anyone could give me advice on this. Is it common to feel conflicted about breaking vegetarianism? I'm frustrated with the cravings but cant just ignore the 7 years I spent as a vegetarian!


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  1. I have eaten meat all my life but now eat smaller portions of it, and sometimes have meals that are entirely meatless. When I was growing up, mom considered a portion of meat to be about 8 ounces, cooked. For the last 20 yrs or so I have gradually lowered the amount to about 4 oz. and generally have no more than 6 oz. of meat per day (I am in my 60's now). I would have felt deprived had I halved the portion size in one fell swoop. Once I began cutting back, I discovered that I'd have gastro-intestinal discomfort if I ate steak or roast beef. Braised beef and ground beef dishes are no problem, but I now know that I am likely to suffer a bit after a slab of rare beef. It helps to slice it very thinly and in small bites.

    So I suggest you try meatballs, stews, and other meats/poultry. They are the kiddie pool. Eating a steak is diving into the deep end before you learn to swim.

    Have you had your blood tested? It's not impossible that you have anemia or another nutritional deficiency which your body is responding to by making you crave what's lacking in your diet.

    1 Reply
    1. Hi, I was a vegetarian for a number of years and then a pure vegan for 9 years. I had to resume meat-eating because of serious illness and the fact that I seemed unable to heal from any surgeries, infections or bone breaks unless I took in a little animal protein. I totally relate to what you're going through.

      Even though I have been eating meat, eggs and dairy for a couple of years now -- not every day, and never more than 5 ounces in a single day -- I still get some stomach upset and pains in my liver from time to time when I eat meat. And I ramped into it very slowly, starting first with adding dairy (only yogurt, then cheese, no milk even now), then eggs, then fish, then poultry, then red meat. I still find it hard to handle poultry and red meat. I think, as you mention, the enzyme cocktail your body has to produce to digest meat is different enough from the ones for just plant matter and dairy that it can be quite a strain to make the switch in either direction.

      In addition to checking if you have any nutritional deficiencies as Greygarious suggests, you might also want to talk to someone about just improving your digestion in general. Maybe something -- stress, illness, antibiotic consumption -- had already thrown your digestion off enough that you weren't able to get the nutrients from your pretty broad pescatarian diet already, and that's why the meat cravings started. Maybe if you fix that, you won't crave meat anymore, and all this won't be an issue.

      But if it feels right to resume a diet with meat in it, one thing that's helped me digest heavier proteins better is to start every day with some fruit and live culture yogurt and a little bit of fish oils. Those three things in combination seem to establish the right set of probiotics to see me through the rest of the day. I also find I have fewer problems is if I don't eat any fruit, grains or legumes in combination with meat. Too confusing for my system.

      As Greygarious says, long, slow cooking makes for more digestible meats. But I've also found grass-fed meat and dairy to be easier to digest than the regular, grain-fed kind. I'm not sure why. I think it might be because the fats in it are different. It also seems to take less of it to satisfy my meat cravings. I would suggest trying to find an affordable source of grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free hamburger somewhere and trying that.

      Another thing is chew, chew, chew. Digestion really starts in our mouths, and unchewed meat is an insane amount of work for our digestive systems to try to break down chemically.

      Last, about the guilt. I felt a lot of guilt, too, about giving up my vegetarianism, and still feel that way sometimes. I guess for me the problem is not so much about killing other animals, but about the whole horrific system by which most meat, dairy and eggs are produced, even a lot of the "organic" kind. But the fact is, we're part of that system -- supported by it and supporting it -- even when we're not eating animal food. I think maybe, vegetarian or not, working to advance the cause of sustainable farming/ranching methods, buying ethically produced products when you can, and doing your part to keep the planet clean and viable, are more effective ways to end animal cruelty and exploitation than just a personal avoidance of their flesh in our diets. I still hope to go back to some form of vegetarianism at some point. I think it's just a better fit with my life and my tastes. But I also feel like stepping out of it has been an important lesson in accepting and negotiating certain kinds of connections with the world, if that makes any sense.

      Anyway, wishing you lots of luck and success at college and in finding a solution to your dietary dilemmas, Ninrn

      1. This is such a deeply personal decision.
        I would really recommend that you go and have your dr do a "full metabolic panel" blood test, plus the "pre-albumin" test which will show how well your body is absorbing the protein you do take in. Its possible that a vitamin b and or iron deficiency could be behind the cravings.
        If you are comfortable to eat dairy, eggs and some fish i would recommend just having those in larger servings or more frequently to see if that satisfies your cravings.
        The new-ish "beyond meat" at whole foods is so much like chicken my omni mom didnt realize it wasn't until she finished her sandwich and i told her. I am sure you know of the many other seitan and soy faux meat options.
        If you do proceed to try more animal meats i would suggest buying a good probiotic supplement as well as taking digestive enzymes- an all natural supplement that will help supply any enzymes your own stomach may no longer produce.
        Un-learning what brought you to vegetarianism in the first place is not possible, but there are high quality meats available now. Weather they will fit your college budget is another discussion....

        1. We have a similar timeline dietary-wise. Until the age of 12 we were at about 6 oz. of fish a week. Over the next 12 years 8 were strictly vegetarian. I add chicken at 17, beef about 21 and pork at 25. To this day most days I could care less if I eat any of them.
          I think everyone has given you excellent advice. Whenever I start having digestion discomfort (or rashes) I immediately start a food journal working back as far as you can remember. To simplify mine I usually wrote once a day and if it was repeats I just note that. (never measurements) Make a notation whenever you have a reaction so its easier to reference patterns. Plus if you do go see a nutritionist this will be highly useful.
          You said college is starting soon. Are you going to be moving into dorms, an apartment or staying at home? Each is going to put in another transition in addition to the first semester at school.

          1. You don't lose enzymes. They just become less active. That's why you get sick from rapid, high-volume swings in diet change.

            There is no science behind lack of protein from not eating meat. In fact, vegetable protein is much more bio-available and nutritious than animal-derived protein. Elephants and hippos are some of the largest and strongest animals on this planet, and they're vegetarians - no meat necessary. Not even in humans.

            If you're choosing to eat meat, just do organic, grass-fed, open- range animals that aren't given hormones or antibiotics and is only fresh butchered or flash-frozen without preservatives.

            To address your meat cravings though, I highly recommend simply expanding your diet to include a broad ethnic vegetarian selection. Much of the world is vegetarian simply because raising animals for food is too costly and takes up way too much water.

            You've earned your stripes with vegetarianism. Keep them if you can. Nothing satisfies a good craving by simply trying something else.

            9 Replies
            1. re: Rigmaster

              Well, Rigmaster, I see we will be butting heads on this thread, too ;)

              Peptidases (enzymes that digest protein) don't become "inactive", unless specific protease inhibitors are present. However, a recent study revealed that ominvores who were switched to a vegan diet exhibited significant losses in several peptidases over a 2 week period, while lipases (enyzmes that break down fat) were unchanged. So it is possible that after years as a vegetarian, one could be depleted in peptidases necessary for animal protein digestion.

              While I am a vegetarian and definitely have no argument with the merits of vegetarianism, I still disagree wholeheartedly with your elephant/hippo analogy, as I laid out in a previous thread:

              Frankly, as a professional research scientist, I am concerned about espousing pseudo-scientific claims that are not backed up with well-controlled studies published in reliable peer-reviewed journals. There is no evidence that a solely plant-based diet, WITHOUT legumes/grains/nuts, adequately sustains a human living in a Western society. As I suggested in the above-linked thread, if you've read studies that differ with that, please do share the sources, as I would welcome an opportunity to become more enlightened.

              1. re: Science Chick

                Pardon the length of my response, but I want to make sure you understand a few things:

                1) We're not butting heads. I've asked many nutrition specialists and doctors if humans lose the ability to digest meat if switching from or to strict veganism (more stringent even than vegetarianism), and I've yet to encounter one who definitively says yes because the enzymes to digest meat are gone.

                2) So to be clear, my use of "inactive" was merely to indicate that the introduction of meat for the OP might be a bumpy ride because she hasn't the %/total number or regular production due to consistent meat consumption. To "lack" an enzyme is to be without it. That is not the case. The enzyme is very likely still there, just not in the same proportion and volume of meat-based dieters.

                3) I would not take such strong issue with your use of "enzyme depletion" because I see you were trying to make a helpful to the OP point. That said, I don't know of any study that suggest enzyme depletion is complete and permanent. Perhaps the study you're familiar with addresses that. If so, please be so kind as to share the source info with us.

                As to your position on pseudo-claims, I'm not sure why it's necessary. I didn't even offer a diet suggestion. I merely pointed out that vegetables and plants do indeed have substantial amounts of protein that is readily bioavailable to humans just as it is to other animals. I didn't say eat what elephants/hippos eat (variety matters). It was an analogy to point out that there shouldn't be concern about adding meat as a protein necessity.

                4) I, too, believe controlled studies and peer-reviewed science would help bring more of these issues to common knowledge. Then again, I often wonder why medicine and science don't often, readily, and with authority communicate more about nutrition and diet. The fact is, there aren't lots of them readily and easily available. I wish I could produce lots of definitive links on this subject, but it's not that easy.

                I'm thankful that doctors Ornish, Esselstyn, Campbell and others are pushing this front, but it's sad that there aren't tons of others doing the same.

                5) The point here is to try to help others, not attack them. I welcome looking at any link or information you have suggesting that humans "lose" the ability to digest meat. I've never heard of a peer-reviewed study that makes that conclusion. Most will go so far as to say our ability to digest is reduced due to some form of lowered enzyme activity but stop short of suggesting we completely lose the enzyme.

                The OP wants to know if it's ok to introduce meat back into her diet. Sure it is. That we agree on. Where we differ is that I'm simply saying that the adjustment period is because she isn't at the meat-eater enzyme profile but can gradually get there. To suggest a depletion could indicate that she may have lost the ability - not the case.

                1. re: Rigmaster

                  Thank you for your well-thought out and comprehensive reply.

                  Perhaps I misunderstood your previous posts and I apologize if I seemed overly zealous in my responses.....my impression was that you were pushing the notion that a diet based solely upon eating leafy greens would provide sufficient protein for a human, since it does so for grazing and foraging mammals. I additionally was under the impression that you were conveying info from folks not scientifically qualified.....that's always the problem with this forum, it is easy to misread the written word and nuances! :)

                  I agree with you completely that there is a dearth of high quality research on plant-based diets and their impact on health. Sorry I forgot to include a link to the study to which I was referring....here it is (Br J Nutrition....not Science or Nature, but a solid, peer-reviewed journal with IF=3.3).

                2. re: Science Chick

                  science chick: maybe the Harvard Medical School has it all wrong and they should consult you to get the real scoop?

                  here's their position put in layman's terms:


                  1. re: westsidegal

                    That's an opinion piece and not "Harvard Medical School' which has a number of researchers on the opposite side of that fence as well. There is zero credible clinical research evidence for meat as a cause of disease, other than as a marker for buns, fries, Coke and fried apple pies, or high intake of chemical curing agents.

                    Vegetarians have no improved outcome measures in terms of all cause mortality, either, despite what some propaganda alleges. Different diets work better for different people, but biologically speaking, we're wired to use animal proteins and dietary fats most effectively.Other foods are completely optional and may be very healthful, but not essential.

                    It's a personal choice to be a vegetarian, and I'm not arguing against it, except for myself because vegetarianism made me so ill, and my wrong headed beliefs based upon such crap publications kept me doing the damage until I started reading the scientific literature for myself and realized it.

                    I've previously posted good science demonstrating how erroneous those statements about bone, heart health, etc. are, won't do it again.

                    For bone and heart health as well as cancer prevention, animal protein minus high glycemic foods in the diet is best. In fact, only ketogenic diets can deprive cancer cells of their required fuel.

                    1. re: westsidegal

                      Nothing against HMS...that's where I did my postdoctoral training. Believe me, there is plenty of bad science published from every med school. I've been working as an NIH-funded researcher for over 13 years and review grants, etc (I really am a Science chick!!). So I think I'm pretty qualified to comment on the scientific validity of a study or publication. What are your qualifications?

                      Nevertheless, mcf is right, this is not a scientific peer-reviewed journal article. It is a public newsletter educating people about what vegetarianism is and how to eat a balanced diet if you choose that route. I think we are getting a little off topic here....there was no question about the benefits of a vegetarian diet. I am a vegetarian. This issue was whether eating only leafy greens, like some foraging animals do, can reasonably provide adequate nutrition, and whether you lose enzymes necessary for meat digestion after a long-term vegetarian diet. The article you provided, while helpful to people trying to learn about a vegetarian diet, addresses neither of these topics. What was your point in presenting this? Did you simply want to find something from HMS about vegetarian diets to somehow discredit me?

                      1. re: Science Chick

                        I also want to be clear that I am not arguing that there aren't folks who can remain healthy on a vegetarian diet, only that it it not intrinsically healthier in any meaningful way when it comes to longevity, and clinical outcomes. That may have a lot do with the high glycemia that results from they way many folks implement it.


                        1. re: mcf

                          +1 mcf. Let me also clarify that my response was directed at westsidegal, not you.

                3. Hi asm,
                  I broke my vegetarianism a few years back.

                  After having a few, shall we say digestive issues, I found that slowly slowly was the key. Fish and chicken seemed easier to digest but having just a small amount and lots of vege seemed to work best.

                  Now I can eat as much as I like but typically choose not to. I normally eat vege at restaurants etc (unless its inappropriate or there's something meaty I really want) and at home I cook vege mostly. My husband sometimes cooks meat but we only buy organic, free-range, grass-feed, antibiotic-free, well-loved etc etc etc meat. That makes me feel better about my meat eating choice, and might be something worth considering. However, I do eat whatever served when going to someone's house.

                  You'll figure out where you're happiest at over time and how to balance your conflicts. Might be fully vege, might be occasional meat-eater, might even be meat every day.

                  Good luck!

                  1. I was a vegetarian for 8 years. I started eating fish first, then a little chicken and turkey and shellfish. I think animal fat plays a role in how you digest meat (not just the protein). I did " light and lean " at first and i think i did well with that approach. I didn't ever feel very sick, but I am still not great with red meat. It doesn't always agree with me, but I can eat bacon with wild abandon.

                    I didn't have a moral issue with it, but I choose clean meats. I have come to believe that a primal diet is a humans natural diet and try to stick close to that. That means eat seasonally, wide variety, small amounts of fruits, large veg, small to medium animal protein and fat, no processed foods or grains and small dairy. I don't feel guilt about eating an ancestral diet. I stick to that about 80 to 90 percent of the time. I feel more guilt eating a snickers bar ;)

                    1. I think this is a very common 'all or nothing' scenario, meaning people feel they must be purely veg/vegan 365 days or forget it. I cook vegan at home, eat out veg, but I have no qualms if I get a craving to eat meat. Maybe that's 5 out of 365 days. So which is better; that I stop being veg because of those 5 days or I'm veg 360 days? It certainly helps the animals. I encourage meat eaters to try meatless Mondays, 1 day a week is fantastic. So that's my advice to you if you really are compassionate about animals.

                      1. I would encourage you to do your research about where your food is sourced, veg or meat, and be comfortable that what you pick is healthy and clean. Even better, prepare it yourself and appreciate the whole process. Personally, if I feel that the animal was treated well, it enhances my enjoyment. As a counter example, avoid anything at Mickey ds. Stand for quality.

                        To that end, I personally avoid chicken, but will eat locally caught fish and locally raised pork and beef.

                        1. I had to give up vegetarianism years ago for my health as well. So did my daughter, after a short time getting tons of vegetarian protein daily but still feeling weak and unwell.

                          We're born atop the food chain, part of nature, not above it, and for me, the key has been to buy foods that are not raised in unwholesome and inhumane conditions for a host of reasons, including their health, environmental concerns and my own personal ones.

                          I felt really ill when I started eating fats and proteins again, but it only lasted about a week, diminishing with each meal.

                          1. I understand your feelings of illness after having some meat. I am a vegetarian, and when I was seriously weight-lifting, I started to get serious, crazed desires for meat. Like real, red-meat. Which was odd, because I never even liked red-meat when I wasn't a vegetarian.--I would try to have small portions when you are at a BBQ or family-occasion so that you don't have to prepare it yourself and you can just have a little without taking too much and feeling sick. All that said, I stopped weight-lifting intensively because the mad-protein cravings were irritating me. And who needs to be a ripped 20-something woman (apparently not me--a real elfin-type).

                            Moreover, just an idea, but you might try incorporating fish into your diet if you crave protein. I don't feel guilty about it--since it is a fish, and as long as I buy quality fish (not from fish-farms, but good selections from WHF), then I don't have to worry.

                            I hope your experience at college is a good one--with respect to the dining hall. I got lucky--I actually switched to being vegan at college because the vegan options were delicious.

                            1. Please, become an omnivore. Nine years of being a vegetarian- a very smart, research-driven-vegetarian, utterly ruined my health. After returning to an omnivore diet, my health improved dramatically. I wasted a lot of valuable time, and money, being sick from this diet. I wasted my life laying in bed from chronic fatigue. When I ate meat I was an athlete. If you think you can get about seven different important vitamins from a pill, think again. Maybe one deficiency is good to treat like that, but it simply doesn't work- eating supplements/ pills all day. Trust me!!!

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: Tm888

                                Tm888, I think you make a great point that supplements are never a good long-term substitute for a proper diet (whatever that ends up being).

                                The thing is, the OP is already an omnivore. She already eats fish, eggs and dairy. I think that's why so many people, myself included, wonder if her cravings might be from some particular nutritional or enzyme deficiency.

                                1. re: ninrn

                                  I moved to a pescetarian diet for about a year, and found that my iron, zinc, and B-12 levels were still not up to par, for me. That was also with eating diary and eggs as a vegetarian. (Hate the labels, but anywho...) I did not eat fish but three meals a week for a long time. When I increased my intake, no real change. Not until I added beef to my diet... And with that I opened my diet back up completely. Feels liberating for sure. Maybe the OP just needs a higher amount of zinc, iron, b12, folate, choline, vitamin d, and/or magnesium. These things typically come from major protein sources. And pardon my disdain, but not from fake tofu crap.

                                  1. re: Tm888

                                    Your personal experience is just that- yours.
                                    After 20+ yrs a dairy free vegetarian (the past five nearly vegan) i am very active, slender, and have excellent iron, b vitamins, protein, and no deficiencies in recent bloodwork. I supplement with only vegan omegas and calcium.

                                    So your experience is not inevitable due to a vegetarian diet as you are alluding to in the previous comment.

                                    1. re: Ttrockwood

                                      And likewise. I'm glad we've reached the conclusion that what works for you or me may not work well for another.

                                2. re: Tm888

                                  And yet....
                                  I was a successful marathon runner and competitive cyclist for years (decades actually) while consuming a vegetarian (mostly vegan) diet.

                                  Whoda thunk?

                                  Human being are individuals organisms. What works for one may not work well for another.

                                3. This is strictly my personal experience, no science or research involved.

                                  I have eaten vegetarian for long periods, off and on, throughout my life. I have found that when I am eating meat, I prefer what I guess one would call "mystery meat", as someone already suggested meatballs, etc. What I can easily eat is not the most healthful kind of protein, e.g, sausage and processed meat. I do happily eat fish, am bored with most chicken and will eat only a small portion of red meat before becoming bored or sated. Eggs are my friends.