The Challenge of Being an Animal Lover Who Has to Eat Meat

Collage by Kit Dunsmore
Collage by Kit Dunsmore

Last summer, after 23 years of vegetarian living, I switched to a paleo diet. I started eating meat and stopped eating grains and legumes. Extreme fatigue and endless digestive problems had pushed me to the point of desperation.

The results were astonishing. My stomach pains went away in just 24 hours. Instead of feeling like I was made of lead and hurting constantly, I felt light and energetic. I could exercise until my muscles gave out without any pain and I recovered in hours instead of days.

There were some downs along with the ups as my body adjusted to the change. For about a week, I needed a nap every day. Then things shifted, and I had more and more energy. I was sleeping better and getting more done during the day. I was less anxious, less depressed, and less hungry. It is not an exaggeration to say that everything was better.

A few weeks into making the change, a friend asked how I was doing.

“Great,” I said. Then I burst into tears.

There was no question that I should stick with my paleo diet. The evidence was crystal clear. To be a healthy human, I needed to eat meat and avoid grains and legumes. But I didn’t want that to be true. I wanted to be a healthy vegetarian, but my body couldn’t do it.

I was now an animal lover who also ate meat, and I needed to find a way to deal with it.

I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan because I knew that he discussed ethical writings about eating meat. I was looking for an answer to my dilemma.

I was disappointed. The philosophers he quoted all assumed eating meat is a choice, that everyone can give up meat without untoward consequences. They didn’t know about me.

Less than a month after I’d changed my diet, there was a motivational post on Facebook that said:

You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be.*

I wanted to scream. The motivational gurus who promote this sort of thinking are trying to help people who are trapped by false beliefs to free themselves. But to ignore that we have limitations is just as delusional as it is to believe that you have to do what other people tell you to do.

I do have a choice, but I do not want to live the way that I was. My mental, emotional, and physical health were all compromised. I couldn’t do half the things I wanted to do and struggled to do the basic things I needed to do. That is not living.

Fortunately, I found a voice of reason on the internet. Mickey Trescott’s story is even more dramatic than mine, and she has had the same ethical challenges with eating meat that I have. Like me she had to choose between her health and any suffering she might cause. She concluded that:

There is suffering everywhere all over the world, humans and animals alike, and all I can do is make the best choice that is available to me.

I am trying to make informed choices. I look for meat that comes from farms that treat their animals well, allowing them to live natural lives and minimizing their suffering. I remind myself that even as a vegetarian, I was impacting animals. Farming kills wild animals by altering the environment and destroying the habitat that supports them. Even the vegetables I eat are a form of life.

To live I must consume life. In my case, animal life. So I will keep eating meat and keep enjoying the great health that has come with my diet change. But I will also keep struggling to find a way to deal with the paradox that I am an animal lover who eats meat.

*You may recognize this as a relative of “You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want”, a sentiment I greatly prefer. It at least allows for the fact that I can be healthy or I can be vegetarian, but I can’t be both.

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