Why I was vegetarian for over 40 years and then gave it up

Health, Vegan
shoes and vegan written on pavement

It’s hard now to believe I was vegetarian for over 40 years. Why didn’t I see the cruelty and death in producing the eggs, milk and cheese I consumed instead?

I became a vegetarian in my twenties for the animals. The environmental argument was unheard of, and the health argument was confined to the wacky fringes. I told people I could live perfectly well without eating dead animals. Initially I wasn’t aware I could live better – a freer, healthier, more energetic life. It wasn’t until I became a vegan that I really experienced these, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In the seventies I felt good about my decision to be vegetarian.

In those days the information about what happens to cows, so they produce milk, wasn’t readily available. I just thought they produced more milk than their calves needed, so humans drank the surplus. Same with eggs. I remember asking a friend once – why do chickens produce so many eggs? She didn’t know either. We both thought it was really convenient for us, as we both liked eggs a lot.

I joined the UK Vegetarian Society. I got their magazine and always looked for the recipes. Mostly they contained eggs, cheese, milk and cream. So that was alright, wasn’t it? I was doing my bit for animals by not eating dead animals.

In the mid-1970’s I read in the society’s magazine about the philosopher Peter Singer and “animal liberation”. He popularised the term “speciesism”. I was shocked. How extreme! Of course, humans were much more important than animals. Animal suffering was a problem. I was doing my bit by not eating meat, but his consideration of animals was ridiculous. Why did these people have to take such extreme positions? They’d only antagonise people rather than converting them to be vegetarians.

Life and my consumption of dairy and eggs went on. I began to see bits and pieces about the suffering involved in milk and egg production. I switched to organic produce. That was OK wasn’t it? Organic farmers wouldn’t treat their animals badly. Organic farmers were like those farmers in my children’s books: happy people with happy animals, living in harmony and bringing milk and eggs to us with cheerful smiles – even cows and chickens smiled in my children’s books.

I felt good about what I was doing. None of my friends were vegetarian. My children would shout (totally unprompted) “Dead animals, dead animals” as we walked past our local butcher’s shop. When one of my children went to school and wanted to have school dinners, he was given a slab of cheese to replace the meat. One day he came home crying saying: “I ate this brown stuff, and then they told me it was meat!”

I felt that I stood out in the small village where we lived. One of my friends told me that everyone thought we were a strange family when we moved into the village in the eighties. I asked why that was. Because you ate wholemeal bread, she told me. I wasn’t about to become stranger still by becoming vegan. I was doing my bit already, wasn’t I?

I gave up fur and leather and silk. See, I was definitely doing my bit.

As time went on, I began to hear the full story about how cows produce milk for us and how chickens produce all those eggs. But I dismissed it. It couldn’t be true. Governments wouldn’t allow these things to happen. This was so obviously cruel that it just wasn’t possible.

I heard about how new-born male chicks are treated. I refused to believe that they are routinely gassed or ground up without any care. Maybe that happens in some countries, but not here and not now.

Gradually my fire wall against this information started to disintegrate. I’d decide to go vegan, but then desperately want some cheese or scrambled egg. I’d give in, all the time reminding myself that I was doing my bit by being a vegetarian.

In 2015 I went to the Vegfest in Bristol. I thought it was a vegetarian event. It wasn’t until I got there that I realised it was a totally vegan event. I started to look around at all these vegans or would be vegans. I met Jane Land and Mathew Glover, the founders of Veganuary. They were fund-raising for a video to encourage people to try going vegan in the following January. There arguments were compelling, and they were lovely people.

I decided to support them. They were grateful. As I walked away, I was struck by the oddness of what I’d just done. Here I was, a vegetarian, giving money to help people become vegan.

That unlocked my brain and from that moment on I was a vegan. I’ve since become a trustee for Veganuary, which is an amazing charity offering lots of support, including eating-out guides, for people who want to try being vegan. I particularly like Veganuary’s non-judgemental approach. They understand that some people (like me) have several tries before they finally become vegan.

I have an Instagram account (@thrivingjane) where I post my vegan meals and health facts.  I also, of course, write vegan blog posts here.

Why did it take me so long? I didn’t want to be different. I was different enough eating wholemeal bread!  I didn’t want to give up some food I really liked. I felt that I was doing my bit by being vegetarian. I regret all of that now. Writing it like this it seems pathetic.

I wish I’d become a vegan in my twenties, but I didn’t.

I’m doing my bit for the animals by being vegan and talking to other people about the benefits and delights of being a vegan.