March 20, 2013; Berlin, Germany; 2045 hours
Our appetizers arrive. Meatballs. I take one, put it on my plate, and stare at it ever-so-briefly. I’m with a group of great friends who all know what I’m doing, but maybe don’t quite understand all the turmoil that went into this decision. Here goes nothing. I proceed to take my first bite of animal flesh in 5 years. It’s not initially pleasant, but I keep chewing and don’t hate it. By the time our meal is over I’ve eaten 6 meatballs (I had ordered them as my main) and only have a slight tinge of a stomach ache. So far, this experiment was going better than expected.
I had decided to do what we can call a 30 day “be like everyone else and eat meat” challenge a few months prior. It was a personal challenge so I didn’t tell friends or family unless it was necessary. Originally it was to be for all of April, but I decided to start it on March 20 for simple convenience. I’d be doing some traveling (Germany, Holland, Norway) with a handful of friends for the few weeks thereafter and thought it would be a good opportunity to know how it felt to travel and not think about food.
In general it’s pretty easy to travel as a vegan – and even easier as a vegetarian – but it’s obviously easiest to not have to give scrounging for food a second thought and eat whatever is readily available. I did a lot of that. I ate everything in sight. Candy bars. Curry wursts. Pizza. Deep fried doughnut balls.
In the past when someone would find out I was vegan they’d often ask, “Don’t you miss anything?” The answer was no then and it’s no now. There was nothing I craved. I didn’t eat my first burger until a couple weeks into the challenge. I didn’t eat a steak until we got to Amsterdam on April 4. (The burger was good, steak was gross.)
It always saddens me when someone says something like, “oh, I could never live without eating X.” Really? You’re that weak-willed? But it’s not entirely your fault. The pleasure we get from eating fatty foods like cheese is quite possibly on par with addiction to drugs like cocaine.¹
The Pain, Oh, The Pain
Let’s back track a bit. It all begins with abdominal pains. Sharp, stabbing, knife-like pains.
I’ve written before about how I cured stomach pains. Quick summary: Growing up I’d often have a burning in my stomach. When I was 20 I quit drinking soda (which I used to drink in heavy doses) and those pains went away forever. It was amazing.
But not long after, sometime in my early 20s, I started getting sharp stabbing pains in my abdomen, below my stomach. At first it only happened every once in a while, but by the time I was 26 it was daily and prolonged. These are the type of pains that make you double over and want to scream cry.
Eventually the pains were accompanied by shitting blood. Which isn’t particularly pleasant. In actuality it’s quite scary. I went to a gastroenterologist and he said I needed a colonoscopy, but a colonoscopy could only tell me bad things. Either it was cancer or something less severe and still unpleasant which I would “have” to take drugs for.
I have an issue with death. I don’t want to see it coming. Less-so now than in the past. In the past I don’t think I could’ve dealt with a cancer diagnosis whereas now I’d be able to deal with it better.
I also have an issue with long term use of prescription (or over-the-counter) medicine. I don’t want my pains numbed. How will I know if something’s wrong with my body?
All that to say I didn’t get a colonoscopy. I almost did, going so far as to getting all the information and getting my pre-procedure prescription and instructions (laxative), but I didn’t go through with it.
Not long after that visit to the doctor I started eating vegetarian and then vegan, for animal rights reasons as opposed to health, and my abdominal pains went away. This was unexpected.
I began reading more about the health benefits of veganism and learned about the positive effects proper nutrition has on our bodies. For years after I felt better than ever. No more shitting blood. No more excruciating intestinal knife stab pains.
I didn’t get a cold for a good 2 years and I used to get three or four 1-2 week colds per year. I didn’t even get “traveler’s tummy” in the 9 weeks I was in India, which is absurd considering it’s almost a rite-of-passage for travelers to India.
The Downward Spiral, The Emergency Room
Things took a downward turn when, in 2011, I started the Insanity workout program. I love hated it so much I decided to immediately do it again. I felt great. But 30 days into the second go-round I went to DirectLabs for a comprehensive blood test and found out I was anemic (with hemoglobin at 9.0g/dL). This scared me and resulted in my visit to 2 emergency rooms in 1 day due to anxiety attacks that I thought were surely death. (Had never had an anxiety attack before and didn’t know how they manifested.)
Anyway, something was wrong. Shortly afterwards, while I was in Panama and Costa Rica, I began getting the knife stab abdominal pains again along with occasional bleeding. The pain was so bad I called a doctor to my hotel the night before my flight out of Costa Rica thinking I wouldn’t be able to fly. He said it was probably colitis and gave me some regular old ibuprofen to temporarily ease the pain. (He also unexpectedly said a proper vegan diet was great for health.)
I attributed the pains to my return to semi-junkfood veganism. I was eating far too many processed foods like bread and cereal. I got back on track with eating more veggies/fruits/beans, but the problems didn’t go away like they had before.
“Why am I having trouble swallowing?!”
To top it off, I began having troubles with my esophagus. Sometimes food would get stuck and it would feel like I was choking, even though I could breathe. If you’ve ever eaten food too fast, and without chewing well, you might know this feeling.
In an attempt to figure out what was wrong I got an endoscopy, a long tube and camera down my throat and into my upper intestinal tract. It was, without a doubt, the most unpleasant experience I’ve ever had.
If you’ve had an endoscopy you probably had a better experience because they probably used something to numb your throat. At least that’s what I’ve heard. But I felt it all the way and it wasn’t a good time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if endoscopies are used as torture devices. Just 10 seconds into it I would confess to a bevy of heinous crimes. “Yes Officer, I did kill that man with a lawn mower. That brick of black tar heroin is definitely mine. That old lady? I punched her in the face and stole her purse. Please, make it stop.”
But the endoscopy came up empty. Nothing wrong. Though, of course, the doctor did prescribe a proton-pump inhibitor, which I took for 2 months. This didn’t help. Was I going crazy? Is all of this in my head? Nothing made sense.
The problems didn’t go away so I always made sure to have water at the ready for every meal or snack in case food got stuck, which was often. (I still do this.)
One Day In The Hospital = Every Test Known To Man
A few months later I decided it was time to go for the full shebang. There’s a private hospital here in Wrocław that does something called “tests after 30.” A full round of blood tests. Allergy tests. Colonoscopy. Endoscopy (at least I’d be asleep for this one!). Lung tests. Heart tests. And much more, for a total cost of ~1,100USD. It was basically a hellish day in the hospital, but it was just one day.
So on August 18, 2012 I woke up at 6am, took a taxi to the hospital, and spent a day hopefully finding out anything and everything that was wrong with me.
My heart and lungs were solid, of course. The allergy test wasn’t eye-opening (I have seasonal allergies that are easily controlled with a neti pot), though it was interesting to see it performed. The endoscopy came up empty again. The colonoscopy confirmed it was some form of colitis. Though the doctor said it was fairly mild (not ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s), and said I should get another colonoscopy in 10 years. (I don’t want to know severe if mine is mild.)
This isn’t great, of course, but it explains a lot of my issues. I’ve never been able to gain weight and I had that brief spell of anemia. In other words, I’ve got nutrient absorption issues and sometimes internal bleeding. And, of course, it also explains the knife stab pains.
Why Exactly I Decided To Eat Meat For 30 Days
Which brings me back to eating meat. I have moral issues with consuming factory farmed animals. Most of the animals meant for human consumption in Western countries are factory farmed and factory farming is atrocious.
Besides the terrible conditions of the animals (which most people don’t seem to care about) it’s also ruining the earth (which many people pretend to care about). Though I don’t litter and I do recycle environmentalism doesn’t particularly matter to me since I care about your children’s children’s children about as much as you. I’m an accidental environmentalist based on my life choices. You’re welcome.
That said, the silver lining is the earth’s going to be fine even though we probably won’t be living on it.
I decided to eat meat, that atrocious factory farmed flesh, for a few reasons.
- Mostly, I wanted to see if I’d feel physically better. I love animals, but I love myself more, so I was able to mentally deal with 30 days of eating meat. I particularly wanted to know if the food swallowing issues would subside. (I haven’t had the knife stab pains since last year so those aren’t an issue anymore.)
- I thought it might help me be less judgmental of those who eat meat and don’t do the hunting/killing themselves. Because I’m kind of a judgmental prick. I don’t know if this got any better. It still saddens me when people don’t think about and question their choices, whether I agree with those choices or not. I also think it’s weird when someone thinks it’s OK for an animal to be raped/tortured and then killed, but they won’t put a bullet in a head and prepare their own wild game because it’s “gross.” (In other words, I’m not against hunting … if it’s not a canned hunt.)
- I wanted to know what it felt like to be “normal.” Not a good reason, but maybe I was missing something by not being like everybody else.
Results of the 30 Day Meat Eating Challenge
I didn’t feel physically better eating meat, but for the most of the trial I didn’t feel worse. It’s true I wasn’t often eating “healthy” meats since I was eating a normal diet. I knowingly ate organic meat once during the 30 day trial (it’s not easy to find in Europe) and I ate less vegetables than normal (obviously).
I don’t know why, but my food swallowing issues got a lot worse towards the end of the 30 days. It began happening every meal during the last few days of the challenge.
And, of course, I felt mentally worse because I don’t lie to myself about where the flesh on the grocery store shelves comes from.
All in all, by the time the challenge was over I felt worse.
Throughout the 30 days I ate maybe 10 fast food meals and, though very convenient, I sometimes had to psyche myself up to go through with it. “Complete the challenge Karol! Eat a fucking Whopper like everybody else!” (I ate 5 fastfood cheeseburgers, 3 Whoppers, 1 chicken sandwich, and 1 Big Mac during the challenge. I also ate 1 fastfood vegan burger with a deep fried patty.)
Feeding your children McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, et al. should be considered child abuse. But I don’t care about your children so you’re free to not care about them as well.
I’m not saying a lot of the food I ate wasn’t tasty. The reindeer I ate at the restaurant in Holmenkollen, Oslo, Norway? Quite good. The schnitzel at the restaurant in Berlin? Also very yummy. The dried fish I got at the Oslo airport? Interesting and unique. The Dutch pancakes with vanilla ice cream and peaches in Amsterdam? I could eat that anytime.
A lot of the food I ate tasted good, but it was generally garbage. I think a lot of people mistake good-tasting for good-for-you. Just because you went to a restaurant and spent $100 doesn’t mean it was healthy. And just because it’s got chicken in it doesn’t mean it’s healthy either. (I hear/read that one too often.) And organic meat (or veggies, for that matter) isn’t any more healthy than non-organic. (As far as any studies I’ve read. But I’m happy to read more so please let me know if you find something good.)
Truth is, eating meat became a chore and I didn’t eat any meat during a handful of days when I couldn’t psyche myself up. By the end of the 30 days I had to brute force myself to buy flesh. (You’ll read about my gross last meal in a minute.)
What I Learned Eating Meat
- I loathe being like everyone else. I don’t particularly care for specific labels, and maybe I’ll eat flesh again at some point in the future (if I have issues absorbing iron, for example; I currently have a hemoglobin level at nearly 16g/dL so I’m all good), but for now I’ll go back to my old “weird” ways. I’m happier being a loner.
- Eating the way most people in the Western world eat is terrible. Not exactly breaking news.
- Going meatless is not necessarily the healthiest diet. But I don’t think there’s anything healthier for me. I can already hear the retort. “You didn’t try Paleo!” No, I didn’t. And while the faddy name is terribly silly (and misguided) I do appreciate that it focuses on lots of veggies and unprocessed foods. It also focuses on “clean” meats (grass-fed, no hormones), which are considerably difficult to find in many places (and riddled with pseudoscience). If you live on a farm, you’re good. If you’ve got a Whole Foods down the street, maybe that’s cool. Most people don’t. Paleo seems to me like a plant-based diet with 10-20% meat (and mostly no fruit?). I just cut out the meat.
- When I first learned about it I didn’t like it, thought it was a cop out, but now I’m more on board with the Weekday Vegetarian idea. For the majority of the public I think this is doable even if it’s not for me.
- I’m happy I’m able to make the conscious decisions about what I put in my body. I’m also happy I’m smart enough not to choose places like McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC.
A 30 Day Challenge Of Your Own
I was originally going to make this article a plea for you to try to go vegan for 30 days, but I don’t think the assholery above is the right way to persuade anyone to do anything.
My friend Nicky said I should make it about challenging beliefs. That’s a good idea. I did something that went against everything I believed for 30 days. Something I didn’t think I would or could ever do.
Could you do the same?
A handful of ideas:
- If you’re religious, actively and vocally stop being religious. Instead of the Bible, Quran, or other holy book read something like The End of Faith by Sam Harris, a book which would end up saving thousands upon thousands of lives in an ideal world. Pretend you agree with it. (My notes here.) Don’t worry, you won’t go to hell for this.
- If you eat meat, go vegan. It’s not as difficult as you probably think and you’ll come away from it with an appreciation for new foods.
- If you drink, quit drinking. Continue going out to bars/clubs and having fun. (Mike did it.)
- If you smoke, quit smoking. Because, if nothing else, you smell and your perfume/cologne doesn’t cover it up.
- If you hate clubs and similar social events, go out dancing every Friday and Saturday. Nobody cares if you don’t know how to dance.
If there is any label that you strongly identify with (“I am X”) challenge that label by being the opposite for 30 days.
If any of the above ideas (particularly the first two) made you do an immediate gut-check and think, “no way, I’ll never do that,” then you’re probably doing yourself a disservice by not seeing the other side.
Let me know how it goes.
For those who might ask, the grossest thing I ate was a Polish tatar. Raw beef with raw egg, onions, pickles, and seasonings. This is commonly found at PRL-style clubs around Wrocław for 8zł (~2€). I figured if I’m going to eat flesh I should feel it at its base and the closest thing to a live animal is an uncooked dead animal. It was the last meat I ate during the challenge, at about 23:00 on April 18. Honestly, it didn’t taste bad even if it was gross.
To make the title to this essay work I should mention some rock ‘n’ roll, huh? OK, while we were in Rotterdam for Motel Mozaïque we saw Jaga Jazzist perform with the Rotterdam symphony and it was great.
Update (Feb 2014)
I still feel strongly about animal rights, but I’ve stopped calling myself vegan (unless prodded to describe my diet).
I’ve never particularly felt a part of the veg*n community¹ and the more I read veg*n media the more I am turned off.² That said, I still don’t consume animal products if I can help it. And by that I mean I sometimes consume animal products.³
* Note: veg*n means vegan or vegetarian. Replace * with “a” or “etaria.” Now you know.
¹ Specifically, the idea that if a vegan is at a restaurant and accidentally gets cheese (or other dairy) on their dish they throw it away instead of consuming it. This is an incredibly selfish act and is decidedly anti-animal. This “radical” idea immediately puts me at odds with most vegans.
² Mostly by the rampant pseudoscience, which I sadly admit I sometimes engaged in. (see: detoxes, cleansings, and organic-is-best holier-than-thou attitudes)
³ Usually when traveling to foreign countries where I’d rather eat something (that’s not potato chips and the like) than nothing. I’m not going to fret about veganism as much when I’m in transit. My refrigerator is still flesh-free.