For a while, I had been exclusively vegetarian. I would say vegan, but sometimes when the barista added a dash of cow’s milk into my latte, I would still drink it. The way I saw it, it was more wasteful to have them toss it out and make a new order. Funny enough, this change into vegetarianism didn’t come out of a wish to be more sustainable or healthy. I ‘converted’ after a trip to New Orleans. My friends and I had consumed so much meat and fatty foods – gotta love Southern comfort food! – that it physically pained me to look at any more for months afterward.

I stuck to it for a while, even venturing into veganism. I admit – although it sounds preachy – I felt so much better physically after that change. My body thanked me for finally listening to its lactose intolerance.

This new vegetarian lifestyle was drastically harder to keep up when I was over at someone’s house, or when at the end of the year, I got back home from college. I was out of my own space and now into someone else’s. It was suddenly rude for me to decline any kebab platters, as delicious as it all smelled. “You’ve gone back to being a picky eater?” my mother would sigh, defeated. Everyone else on the table looked at me strangely, I didn’t understand until my sister said to me, “Stop making us feel bad. We can’t just eat leaves.”

Not eating meat was offensive to them because of the culture of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Just think of the big signs with the words ‘MEAT IS MURDER’ – that was what I looked like to my family. I tried to justify myself, “I am not like that. I don’t care what you eat. I’m just trying out being vegetarian.” But it still felt the same.

Eventually, my willpower wavered. I was tired of eating the same salads. No wonder it seemed like such a tough switch. This was the only meat-free dish most people can think of. I was also too lazy to try and cook up something of my own. So one evening, during a family barbecue, I ate more than just roasted sweet potatoes. I reached for a chicken skewer. Truthfully, it was absolutely delicious. I had missed it. My sister was beside herself with joy, “Look, you’re normal again.” But I felt so guilty. All of my vegetarian resolve went down the drain. I needed to toss away my ‘vegetarian’ tag. It was all over.

But that shouldn’t be the case. The way we’ve been approaching vegetarian and vegan eating is all wrong. The way we eat shouldn’t be all or nothing – either you are a meat-loving carnivore with steak for every meal or you eat asparagus and celery exclusively. Who said that it had to be that way? Neither is healthy nor sustainable in the long run. 

There are so many people who watch documentaries about the meat and dairy industry and swear to themselves that they will stay away from it all, their current eating habits will be ‘no more’. And honestly, that’s a justified response. Just take a look at my current favorite documentary on Netflix, “What the Health”. While the filmmaker sometimes exaggerates to make his point, it remains really eye-opening. Exposing the dirty cover-ups that health organizations and meat/dairy industries are involved with just to earn money made me feel justified in my attempts to be vegetarian. It’s just a cold, hard fact that our bodies can’t properly consume dairy and that we aren’t meant to eat this much meat. 

That doesn’t mean we all go cold turkey (how ironic), because as I’ve experienced, it’s difficult to keep that up. That’s without going into how it’s way more expensive to eat meat-free. Cutting out meat and dairy (to some extent) is a difficult transition. Going vegetarian or vegan all at once can make it seem really hard for us to eat sustainably. But, it’s all about balance.

Easing ourselves into it can be the way to go for the future, for our health and the wellbeing of our world. It’s not all-or-nothing. And eating habits shouldn’t be all about labels. Once I began eating chicken, I spaced it out so I would only eat it every other week. At least it was something, an attempt to be more health-conscious and environmentally sustainable. 

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  • Amal Al Shamsi is a writer with a BA in Literature from New York University Abu Dhabi, interested in the study of marginality in modern and contemporary fiction. She is passionate about integrating other mediums into her writing, such as film, visual art, and music as she engages with the cultural dialogue around the world.