I was six years old, sitting at the kitchen table, my feet dangling above the linoleum floor. My mother was making dinner, her back to me. I watched as she lifted a thick, shiny slab of raw steak out of Styrofoam packaging, its dark redness and shriveled white edges catching the fluorescent lights.

“What’s steak made out of?” I asked.

There was a short pause before she answered. “Beef.”

Not satisfied, I persisted, “What’s beef made out of?”

A longer pause this time. Then, with a sigh, “Cow.”

That’s where the memory fades, but I imagine that at this point she turned to see my blue eyes bulging out of my face. She probably tried to explain the cycle of life and also probably knew I wouldn’t care.

Lilly O'Donnell
Me at age 24, before I started to consider eating meat.

I had recently declared the latest in my ever-changing cycle of career goals: animal rights activist. I'd learned that people sometimes did cruel, terrible experiments on animals in labs, and that other people sometimes snuck in at night and broke them out. I didn’t see how I could possibly rescue chimps and then go home and eat cow.

I’d had no idea that I’d been eating cows all along, or even that the “chicken” in “chicken nuggets” was the same as the animal I knew said “cluck cluck.” I told my mother I wouldn’t be eating steak that night—or ever again.

As I got older and my career goals shifted to various fields less illegal and more lucrative than “chimp savior” (finally landing on writer), my thoughts on vegetarianism evolved, but I stuck with it for 21 years. My mother might have pushed back a litte more if she’d known she’d be making separate dinners for years, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. My mind was set. Later, when I learned about factory farming and hormone injections, I was repulsed and knew I’d made the right decision.

By the time I was a young adult, I’d lost much of the fiery conviction I had as a child and teenager. But I’d been vegetarian for nearly two decades; it was just the way I ate. The idea of trying to chew through sinewy, tough meat made me gag. If I accidentally took a bite of something with meat in it, I spat it out with panic and disgust, like when you take a sip of milk and then realize it’s spoiled. I’d rewired my brain to not recognize meat as food.

I’d rewired my brain to not recognize meat as food.

Plenty of people tried to convince me I was malnourished. First it was the pushy mother of a childhood friend, who tried to get me to eat meat whenever I stayed for dinner. Every doctor I saw took one look at my skinny arms and fair complexion, and before the word “vegetarian” was fully out of my mouth, decided that I must be underweight and anemic. They would lecture me about the Body Mass Index and the amount of calories needed to be healthy.

They didn’t seem to hear me explain that I like to eat—a lot. That I live for Mexican food, with as much cheese and sour cream as possible, and that my favorite dish to cook is baked ziti. And that I eat more than enough dark leafy greens to meet my iron requirement.

When the test results would come back, every time showing that I was nowhere close to anemic (that, if anything, my lipid and cholesterol levels were a little high), I would feel vindicated in my healthiness.

Mexican Meal

Betrayed by My Body

Over time, I became less and less self-assured about my impervious health. In my mid-20s I started to experience a heavy, overwhelming fatigue that I knew was more than just aging out of my go-all-night college years. I started having frequent and severe joint problems. I had bursitis in my hip that caused me to limp for over a year. I had tendinitis so bad I thought my wrist was broken. An ankle sprain from more than five years earlier pulsed like it had just come out of the cast.

Since I knew gluten could be potentially inflammatory, I thought about cutting it out of my diet. But the idea of being vegetarian and gluten-free was not appealing; it’s often hard enough to find a decent vegetarian option when eating out, and it’s usually pasta. If I was going to cut out gluten, I thought, I might have to incorporate a little bit of meat back into my diet. I didn’t do it.

Then last year, at 27, I got shingles. More than half of all shingles patients are over 60, according to the CDC. Healthy, young people almost never get shingles—my doctor said I was the youngest patient he’d ever seen—but young people with compromised immune systems can.

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I worried that something serious was going on, but my doctor brushed me off. When I pushed further, reminding him of the joint problems I’d had, he literally shrugged. Frustrated, I found a new doctor. I got the same anemia lecture I’d heard a million times before, straining to keep my eyes from rolling. While more willing to run comprehensive tests, this new doctor didn’t offer concrete answers (or allay my fears). But he did tell me joint pain is most common among two groups: the overweight and the underweight. He suggested that my joints might not have as much padding as they needed and thus might be more susceptible to injury.

I started to wonder if maybe the problem wasn’t too much gluten, but not enough of something else. My husband, who used to be a professional cook and pays more attention to nutrition than anyone I’ve met, also pointed out that even if I’m getting enough protein, iron, and fat from beans, leafy greens, and avocado, there are some nutrients in meat, like B12, that aren't found in plant-based foods.

Taking the Plunge

I kicked off my new omnivorous eating habits by trying bone broth, which is praised for its anti-inflammatory properties and believed (though not proven) to support joint health. The first sip made me gag. I tried holding my nose and chugging a few sips, treating it like medicine. Eventually I cooked some brown rice in the broth, throwing in lots of garlic and cayenne. I ate a little bit at a time so as not to overwhelm my system. And when we drove past a field of cows on our way to visit my mom, I averted my gaze to avoid meeting their big, soulful eyes.

Eventually, I worked my way up to Bolognese sauce—like the broth, my first visceral reaction was one of disgust, but after the first few bites I started to genuinely like it. I got excited about all of the Italian food options I’ve always skipped over on menus.

Overall, I feel stronger and healthier, and am learning to accept my place at the top of the food chain guilt free.

In the past, I’ve learned to set boundaries in my personal relationships on how much I can do for others, so I can take care of myself before I have nothing left to give. Now, I’m trying to ease my animal-loving conscience by translating that same self-care to my relationship to animals. I can still admire them and want them to be treated fairly while taking what I need to survive as a strong, healthy human.

I try to maintain a less black-and-white version of the principles that first led me to stop eating meat by avoiding anything that comes from a factory farm or may have been injected with hormones. It’s an ongoing process—both emotionally and physically—but overall, I feel stronger and healthier, and am learning to accept my place at the top of the food chain guilt free.

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