Going the whole hog as a vegetarian

Tue, Dec 9, 2008, 00:00

Although men make up only 20-30 per cent of the vegetarian population, they are a growing breed, writes Michael Kelly

A COUPLE of years ago, I went vegetarian for a week and wrote about the experience in the pages of this newspaper. You might not think that amounts to much as social experiments go, but I am a voracious meat-eater so it was quite a sacrifice.

Given that I have a loving relationship with meats of all kinds, it is perhaps not surprising that the article was heavy on vegetarian stereotypes, errors and downright untruths.

I wrote for example about how impossible it was to come up with interesting vegetarian meal ideas (lentil burgers anyone?); how the lack of red meat made me feel weak and lethargic after a couple of days; and, most calamitous of all, I included a fish-dish as one of my "vegetarian" meals, prompting a collection of angry e-mails from vegetarian readers - oops.

My all-round ignorance of the no-meat lifestyle is pretty typical of male attitudes to vegetarianism. While there is a wider acceptance of the health benefits of vegetarianism in society generally, men remain relatively hostile to the idea - so much so that men make up only 20-30 per cent of the vegetarian population.

In addition, non-vegetarian men consume more meat than women and we consume more of the "wrong" types of meat (processed and red).

We're also guilty of a profoundly antiquated attitude to the subject of vegetarianism. Vegetarian women we find acceptable - top marks for looking after their health and all that. But we remain suspicious of vegetarian men. If one guy in a large group of men dining in a restaurant opts for the vegetarian option (rather than a bloody steak), you can be fairly sure that his dinner companions are thinking: "goatee-growing sandal-wearer".

In her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat,Carol Adams highlights the fact that men who opt not to eat meat are still considered effeminate by other men and she traces this perception back to the historical (and completely erroneous) connection between meat-eating and physical strength.

She cites the example of the second World War, when meat rations were reserved for the frontline soldiers who "needed" it most to keep up their strength.

Clearly Irish men are no longer going to war on a regular basis, but we still have that feeling that when it comes to fuelling up for everyday life, pulses and grains just won't cut it.

"I think the attitude among men is that a meal is not really a meal if there's no meat in it," says consultant dietitian Aveen Bannon.

"It's this perception that you are not really manly if you don't eat meat, which is there from a very young age. I cook an occasional vegetarian meal for my husband and he will always say afterwards that he still feels hungry.

"I don't think he is, really, but it's just this perception he has."

There is increasing evidence that a meat-free or reduced-meat diet significantly reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) warns that eating 150g of processed meat a day (the equivalent of a medium-sized breakfast roll) increases the risk of bowel cancer by a whopping 63 per cent. Leaving aside processed meats for the moment, is all meat bad?

"No, I don't see all meat as bad," says Bannon, "but I do think we should be very careful about portion sizes and having meat three times a week is more than ample from a dietary perspective."

When Dublin City Councillor Daithí Doolan turned vegetarian at the tender age of 16, he admits that people in his native Cork thought he was mad. "It was like the Only Gay in the Village sketch from Little Britain," he laughs. "I was the only vegetarian in the city. Thankfully nowadays it's far more mainstream."

The motive for his vegetarianism was an enlightening geography lesson at school. "I'll always remember the alarming statistics highlighting how it takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef and I remember thinking I don't want any part of that.

"Then we had all the scandals in the meat industry through the years which just reinforced for me that the industry had no qualms about the environment or our health."

Doolan is 40 now, and lives with his partner Bridget and children Síofra (4) and Padraig (2) in Ringsend. He and his partner are strict vegetarians ("Nothing with eyes, unless it's a potato," he says) though he says his daughter is currently fascinated with sausages and they won't force a decision on her. Mealtimes involve rice and pasta, vegetable curries and sauces, pulses, salads and stir-fries.

What do other men think of his vegetarianism? "It tends to be age related. Men my own age look at me and say 'Jesus, are you?' and then they go on to defend their meat-eating.

"I can think of three friends of mine who get quite defensive when the issue comes up. It's definitely a raw nerve for them. Younger men are more accepting of it."

Doolan believes that he will only really reap the health benefits of his choice in later life. "But I do think that vegetarians are inherently healthy. They tend to put good food into their bodies."

Aveen Bannon agrees on this point. "When I do come across a male vegetarian at the clinic, they tend to be very focused, very health-conscious and very strict. Men make very good vegetarians."

If vegetarian men remain something of a minority in Ireland, there is an increasing number of men who are opting to cut down on meat for health reasons. Thirty-six year old Ronan Murray cooks most of the family meals in their home in Inchicore and decided to go largely meat-free because of the hassle factor of coming up with different meal options for his vegetarian wife Tonya.

He still enjoys meat once a week, but family meals focus on vegetable chillies, curries, stews and omelettes.

Does he miss meat?

"I do actually, yeah. The hardest part for me is that I don't really ever have that same feeling of satisfaction and fullness that I do with a meat dish. I can't say that I feel any healthier as a result either, but I do feel better in my head about it.

"I still think that some meat is good for you and I find that my body seems to crave it after a few days. But I think that once or twice a week is enough."

Similar to Murray, 29-year-old Ramon Horca has more or less cut out meat from his diet for health reasons.

"Up to three years ago, my diet wasn't great to be honest. I ate a lot of crap and takeaways and almost no vegetables at all."

The turning point came when he started working at Denis Healy's food stall at Blackrock market and noticed an improvement in his health from eating organic fruit and vegetables.

His girlfriend is vegetarian and (it would appear) a dab hand at putting together a killer vegetarian menu. Proper vegetarian cooking is key to making vegetarianism acceptable to a meat-lover, according to Horca. "She will use things like halomni cheese to give a meaty texture to pastas or put dumplings into stews. This means you get that chunkiness in the food and feel full afterwards."

So can he ever see himself going the whole hog (sorry) and becoming vegetarian? "I am lifting a lot of weights at the moment so I think my body craves meat but at the same time I don't think I would really miss it if I stopped completely. I really love my fish though, so I can't imagine abandoning that."

Horca believes the stigma around vegetarianism is fading among men his age. "I have loads of friends who are vegetarians and even have some who are raw food advocates. I think with younger men it's kind of a new trend."

For men who are considering a meat-free diet, Bannon urges them to ensure that they are getting enough replacement iron, protein and B vitamins in their diets.

"When you give up meat, you are taking away your main source of protein so you need to make sure that you get that protein from other sources such as pulses and lentils. It's not good enough to live on a diet of potatoes and vegetables. We also get 75 per cent of our iron from meat, so you need to replace that with a plant source of iron - that means having green vegetables every day."

For those interested in cutting down their meat intake, Bannon recommends taking small steps. "We are all guilty of opting for the same things all the time at the deli counter or the supermarket. We need to try different things. Instead of a ham roll for lunch maybe once or twice a week opt for hummus instead.

"Reduce your intake of processed meats and also be careful with portion sizes. The recommended portion, 180g, is about the size of the palm of your hand."