Opinion: I started eating meat again after nearly a decade as a vegetarian and here's what I found

OPINION: After eating avocado toast for the fourth night in a row, I decided something had to change. 

Don't get me wrong, I love avo on toast as much as the next financially irresponsible Gen Z, but after a few days, it gets bloody boring.

It's also a level of cooking laziness that isn't normal for me. I've always enjoyed cooking but several life changes meant it sort of fell by the wayside. 

This was an issue because at the time I had been a vegetarian for nearly a decade and the problem with being plant-based, but not actually eating many plants, is you tend to feel pretty crap. 

I had also just come back from a holiday in Rarotonga where I ate more pasta and veggie burgers (often the only vegetarian option) than I ever wanted or needed, all while watching my friend enjoy endless fresh seafood. So I decided to make a change. 

I originally gave meat up when I was 16 because of a crippling fear climate change was going to slowly kill me and everyone I love, as well as an unrelenting guilt over killing animals. 

I didn't plan on being vegetarian for so long, but the longer I was the easier it got. And towards the end, I didn't even remember what meat tasted like - which made it easier to not feel like I was missing out. 

But with the FOMO from my holiday and a steadily declining nutrient intake fresh on my mind, I decided to switch things up. I started slowly reintroducing meat back into my diet just to see if it would help - and, to my dismay, it did. 

I am still really uncomfortable with the ethical qualms of eating meat, so I was hoping it would make me feel worse. But that wasn't the case and it's also delicious, which really doesn't help matters. 

So here are all the things I've noticed in the month-ish since I started eating meat again. 

I am less hungry

The most noticeable difference is I am hungry way less. I distinctly remember the first time I had chicken feeling full for a solid 15 hours. 

Part of this, I am sure, was my body simply being unable to digest meat properly because of my years of abstaining. But even now, more than a month later, the difference is noticeable. Meals with meat keep me full for much longer than vegetarian ones. 

Registered nutritionist Nikki Hart says there is a reason for this and it comes down to protein, digestibility and amino acids.

Foods that have all nine essential amino acids are known as complete proteins. Most meat is a complete protein along with eggs, dairy, soy, quinoa and buckwheat.

It's totally possible to eat complete proteins in plant-based meals but it can take more work, Hart says. 

"You actually have to combine plant proteins particularly well to get the full complement of amino acids."

For a "good vegetarian" this could be by eating tofu and brown rice or corn and beans. But it gets trickier when you're relying heavily on plant-based meat alternatives - like I was. 

The lure of plant-based meat alternatives is strong - they're quick, easy and tasty. But they don't offer the same nutritional benefits as meat and come with their own challenges, Hart warns. 

"It's not as simple as just taking meat off a plate and thinking that you can be a vegetarian. It actually takes work. These plant alternative meats that are being developed are ultra-processed so they can often take more water and more things from the environment to make. 

"Sustainability-wise they are not as good for you or the planet compared to being a good vegetarian and having chickpeas and beans and tofu and food that's traditional, not ultra-processed alternatives."

I know what you're thinking, 'Well then why didn't you just eat beans and tofu and brown rice?' And the answer is simple. Meat and plant-based meat alternatives taste better to me and after several years of beans as your main source of protein, it gets boring. 

Registered nutritionist Nikki Hart.
Registered nutritionist Nikki Hart. Photo credit: Supplied

I'm less tired 

It's not just protein either. Vegetarians and vegans will know the first question you're asked is, "But how will you get enough iron?" 

It's an annoying and often irrelevant question because you can get enough iron as a vegetarian, and I did for many years. 

But it takes more work and getting it wrong sucks. Towards the end of being a vegetarian, I was exhausted all the time. I didn't actually realise my tiredness was diet-related until I started eating meat again and suddenly had more energy. 

Hart says this is something she hears from clients a lot. The blood tests which test iron levels are measured using a bell curve, which means it's possible to have very low iron levels but be within the "normal range". 

"You could be at the bottom end of normal within a normal range, but it's just sitting at a very low end without being anaemic. Then when you go back to eating [meat], you come further into the bell curve.

"It wasn't that you were anaemic, you were just at the bottom end of it. So all of a sudden you start feeling like, 'Oh, I don't get headaches anymore and I'm not so tired and my immune system's better' and there are all these benefits that come," she said. 

Eating 'healthy' is a lot easier

This might sound like a bit of an oxymoron given there are endless diseases and health risks linked to eating meat. But for me, it's made me eat better. 

When I first became vegetarian there weren't many plant-based "meat" alternatives available. At the time, the only alternatives were beans, legumes and tofu. 

But as more and more people started eating plant-based, the alternative meat market exploded and suddenly there were vegetarian substitutes for every meat imaginable. 

These highly processed alternatives quickly became a staple in my diet and while they might look and taste like meat, they aren't. 

A recent University of Auckland study highlighted just how highly processed a lot of plant-based alternatives are and prompted calls for a health star rating system for them. 

"They've gone through a lot of processing to look like burgers and sausages, that type of thing. Salt is often added - well, salt is always added in this kind of process," said report co-author Sally Mackay.

The researchers sampled 201 legume options and alternative meat products and found falafel mix had the highest amount of energy, while baked beans had the lowest - but also the lowest amount of protein.

Meat-free sausages meanwhile had high levels of sodium and saturated fats, whereas tofu was an excellent all-rounder.

But it's the can in a tin - or dried lentils in a bag - that really put the meat alternatives to shame. 

Now, could I have eaten less fake meat and more chickpeas? Sure, but there are only so many times someone can have beans when they want a burger before they lose their mind.

My overreliance on plant-based meats also meant I was never properly full after eating and would inevitably find myself hungry again 20 minutes later. 

Hart says this is something she hears from clients a lot and highlights that being a happy and healthy vegetarian takes work. 

"We see this more in the younger generation because they are living life fast and forging ahead with careers or education and travelling and doing all these things so they don't have the time to actually do the meal prep that often needs to happen if you're going to be a healthy vegetarian."

But Hart says this doesn't mean people shouldn't be vegetarian, or that it's not a healthier option, it just means people need to make sure they're eating the right foods. 

Eating mostly plant-based has been linked to a lower risk of a slew of diseases so if done right, it can be a fantastic choice, she says.

"If you're doing really well as a vegetarian and eating a diverse range of beans and legumes and tofu and those kinds of things, you are going to be okay," she said. 

"We know that vegetarians or people with a plant-focused diet tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and all those other metabolic disorders." 

There are more options 

This is an obvious one but I was still shocked by how many options I suddenly had at restaurants and cafes. 

Thankfully, most places (in Auckland at least) have one if not more vegetarian options, but that option is often what Hart calls "white-based foods" such as pasta, rice and potatoes. 

I even found myself resorting to these types of meals at home because they are cheap and easy. 

"We call it a lack of diversity… You can end up eating white-based food like white rice and pasta as the vegetarian option, but that's not nutritionally valid," she said.

It can make eating out pretty anti-social because you can't share dishes with friends. Tapas-style restaurants were a nightmare as a vegetarian and I often felt like a pain or had FOMO watching my friends try delicious dishes while I had "the vegetarian option". 

It's not all good news though. I still struggle with the ethical and environmental impacts of my decision.
It's not all good news though. I still struggle with the ethical and environmental impacts of my decision. Photo credit: Getty Images

It's way cheaper 

This was an unexpected observation, meat after all is expensive. But it's nowhere near as expensive as the plant-based meat alternatives I was relying on. 

Hart says she's increasingly seeing people changing their eating habits as the cost of food increases. 

She says often the first thing people have to sacrifice is fresh fruit and vegetables, which leaves you with pretty dire options as a vegetarian. 

"It's hard because the cost of food is so expensive that people are finding they're making concessions in their diet and then they end up eating cheaper food that's not as nutritious. So we're seeing a lot of that as well. We could be overfed but malnourished and that's a problem." 

But Hart says there are ways for both vegetarians and meat eaters to get their five a day without going broke. 

Frozen and canned veggies are just as good as fresh and often much, much cheaper. For vegetarians, Hart suggested sticking to unprocessed whole foods like beans and tofu which are cheap and healthy. 

I struggle with the ethical and environmental impacts of my choice 

It would be easy to read this article and assume I am meat's biggest advocate. But I'm really not. I know eating a balanced plant-based diet would be better for me and the planet and I think it's much more ethical. But I wasn't doing it properly and felt like crap. 

Hart says she sees a lot of clients who want to give up animal products but face the same struggle. It's part of the reason she advocates small incremental changes, instead of completely giving up meat. 

"It's very hard to eat a sustainable, ethical and nutritional diet," she said. 

"It's about not villainizing food. I think we need to be really careful that we don't hold some food up as marvellous and villainise other foods."

Hart says she's seeing more and more people with "anxiety" about eating the "right" way, which can cause huge amounts of unnecessary stress. 

"There's this heightened sense of anxiety around not only how we look but what we're choosing as food. I feel for the younger generations to be honest because it's making things more complicated than it needs to be. 

"We know from the guidelines we need to eat a lot more vegetables in their whole form. We need about five servings of those a day. We need two servings of fruit. If you're going to eat animal protein it should fit into the palm of your hand."

So for now I will continue being a reluctant meat eater who hopes to one day give vegetarianism a crack again.

Ireland Hendry-Tennent is Newshub's digital features editor.