A recent food article in my local newspaper repeated an annoying phrase. Recovering vegetarian. Not even in quotes, but stated as if it were fact. The expression was used to describe a young woman who for years did not eat meat but who for various reasons has taken up the steak knife again.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard the expression ‘recovering vegetarian.’ I’m sorry to report I first heard it from food activists. There are also websites written by people who use it to label themselves. Nevertheless, I’ve never liked the phrase and don’t like it now.
To say it is to suggest that vegetarians have a disorder, and that those who resume eating meat are on the road to becoming normal and healthy again. Or it suggests that vegetarianism is a fad followed by misguided individuals, some of whom thankfully see the light and go back to consuming animal products.
The phrase sounds clever. But it’s a disrespectful dig at people who make the decision not to eat meat. That decision is courageous and difficult today when most menus and meals are centred on animal products, and when most of the people around us eat flesh food twice a day. Check out the offerings at almost any restaurant, and you’ll see that avoiding chicken, pork and beef takes commitment. But vegetarians do it because they’ve decided to be kinder to animals, or to the planet, or to their health. That’s because scientific evidence shows that eating conventional meat in the amounts we do today produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases, water pollution, and deforestation, as well as fueling avian flus, antibiotic resistance, and chronic disease. Whether or not you agree with vegetarians’ specific approach to the problems, their ideals are worthy of regard.
In my work, I encourage people to eat sustainably and compassionately. And one way they can do that is by consuming a lot less (and better) animal products. I don’t recommend that people become completely vegetarian, because most people won’t and because avoiding meat altogether is not necessary for the environment or for health. But those who decide to stop eating meat deserve our respect. And we can show our respect by not using phrases like ‘recovering vegetarian,’ but rather by speaking kindly of others no matter what their food decisions. That kind of compassion will probably help us make faster progress toward better food systems. It’s also the right thing to do.