My take on steak: why I quit being a lifelong vegetarian at 35½, why a functional medicine approach
I know you probably don’t need me to tell you how to make steak, or to remind you that it exists, or how good it is, but you might need a reminder of how perfect and simple this is for a Friday night treat. For me it’s still a novelty, so please share in my newfound enthusiasm, and listen while I unburden myself about why I was a vegetarian and now I’m not.
Not that long ago there was nothing anyone could have said to make me eat meat. I was committed to vegetarianism. I had never eaten meat, never felt like I needed meat, found the smell unpleasant, the idea repellent, and although I didn’t try to discourage others (that much), I felt certain that it wasn’t for me and never would be because I didn’t want to be part of it. “I don’t need to eat meat” I used to say, confidently. Ok, smugly. “I never have, and look at me, I’m fine.” My mum raised me vegetarian and so I stayed, until this year, when I learned that actually I'm not fine.
It’s unsurprising that when you find you have an illness which could cause you to become disabled, you will pretty much do anything if someone tells you it might help.
And the thing is, with MS no one really knows why, or how or what to do about it. Some people are convinced that megadoses of vitamin D are the solution. Others think you should be vegetarian and eat zero fat. Others believe this is catastrophic and it’s actually the opposite. It is very frustrating to have such conflicting schools of thought on such an important issue. Even more frustrating is that the medical establishment does not engage with addressing the cause, or recommend any type of lifestyle management to work towards helping oneself. Worst of all, with autoimmune disease you usually see a specialist in the affected organ, but no one who specialises in the mechanism of autoimmune conditions. Excuse me, but that is bonkers. When I asked my local MS nurse about it she was at a complete loss.
The neurologists I saw were clear and final: apart from not smoking, and eventually
taking tons of meds there is nothing I can do. This did not satisfy me. I reject categorically that there is nothing I can do. Perhaps there isn’t, but improving my overall health seemed like a pretty good idea anyway. Can’t hurt, right? Enter Functional Medicine.
FM is largely devoted to addressing autoimmune disease because modern medicine doesn’t have much of a clue about it yet. Moreover, the concern of my doctors is symtom management. What I want is to figure out what's going wrong so I can address it. So FM works like this: you work hard to do everything you can to support your body’s natural ability to heal itself. You sleep well, you exercise, you relax, and you eat optimally for your health. In the modern world this is a full-time job. Some of it is intuitive, but there are so many things we don’t think about. Here is an example.
I used to buy all antibacterial washing up liquid and handwash because I thought that was the logical thing to do. Germs are bad, right? Wrong. Bacteria are very important. If you clean your environment too much you weaken your body’s personal microbiome. You deprive yourself of the constant rebuilding of your immune system. It’s not good for us to live in clinically clean environments. We need germs and antibodies to be strong and fight illness. That's why they say you should let your kids play in the earth and roll in the mud. That's how they build their microbiome and strengthen their immune system. The overuse of harsh cleaning products is now thought to be a factor in rising levels of allergies.
I felt like an idiot when I read about how all my furious cleaning and bleaching the floor was not just unnecessary, it's bad for the environment and it’s bad for my family’s health. So now I use lemon and white wine vinegar to clean almost everything (it totally works) and I only use antibacterials for occasions when Flora puts her hands directly into a pile of dog’s mess (last week) or I have had to clean up cat sick (every now and then). I use the vinegar for most stuff now. I found it works as well as Viakal on my scaly draining board. And I don’t panic about inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning or chemical residue getting onto my dishes.
Anyway, all this to say that actually making healthy choices these days is not intuitive at all. You have to stop and think really hard about everything you do, and consider the habits you have come to think of as normal, but which can be weird modern practices we should avoid. This is one of the things I learned by reading up on functional medicine, and one of the ways in which it is an important approach for everyone, not just for sick people.
So early in life I had made a decision about being vegetarian where I decided it was ethical and that was my immovable position. I was in that place we all are about something where no rational argument would sway me, because I identified so much as a vegetarian. But this year I started to question everything.
I informed myself about vegetarianism when I found out I had MS, and made a decision to eat meat. There are two schools of thought about MS and meat, and this is very confusing. I read the books on both, and found the anti-vegetarian one more compelling. Especially given two things: one, I had been vegetarian my whole life and it had done me no good, apparently. And two, the vegetarian one says it’s ok to eat gluten, and based on everything I have read I have made the decision to reject that. Maybe I am wrong, but all I can do is read up and try and make my decisions as informed as I can. Also gluten makes me feel terrible, and the paleo approach - which emphasises animal protein and advises against grains - makes me feel better, although I cannot adhere to it strictly.
So why would eating meat help? It’s simple really. Human beings are omnivores, and in order to function properly they need a set of nutrients which are derived from various sources, and one of those is meat. I have always known that. I just didn’t think it was essential, or inescapable, and maybe it’s not, for everyone. But perhaps if you have a particular vulnerability such as autoimmune disease, then you can’t take the chance of eliminating vital nutrients for ethical reasons. I still believe in those reasons, but I want to see my daughter grow up, and be healthy for her and my husband. So now I eat steak. I have yet to decide if this is a long-term decision, but it has given me so much more variety in my diet, and that is immensely valuable to me right now.
I was an ill-informed vegetarian. I didn’t know about the different types of iron – heme and non-heme. I didn’t know that to get a full protein you had to combine certain foods, and I didn’t know that meat was the most digestible food - like most people I thought the opposite. Having serious digestive problems this was a main factor in making me warm to the idea of eating meat.
I didn’t know that meat contains stuff you need that you can’t get elsewhere, like covitamin Q10, which is vital for your brain. What I did know was that a) humans are natural carnivores and b) you can survive fine without it, as I had for many years.
And maybe being vegetarian wasn’t a factor in my disease. But the prospect of blindness, immobility, and cognitive impairment is quite motivating. So I decided to try it out.
Incidentally the book I found very informative on this subject was The Wahls Protocol, written by a doctor called Terry Wahls who has basically cured herself of MS – watch her TED talk. It’s very instructive and compelling, for anyone, ill or not. Forgive the cliché, but she is inspirational. She is an amazing force for good, because she shows us that what we think of as the most modern and sophisticated medicine
available to us - conventional western medicine - is not the bottom line, and doesn't have all the answers, or even the right approach when it comes to modern illnesses. Terry Wahls taught me a lot, and she advises against vegetarianism, so I decided to be brave.
It took me a while. A few months to work up to it.
In my naïveté, and my desire to only eat meat as a necessity, I decided to go for the most nutrient-dense meat possible. Liver. I went to my local farmer’s market, pointed at the liver and asked the butcher how much I needed. He was surprised. “What for?” “I don’t know, I’ve never had it.” I realised I was wincing and he was getting offended. He sliced off a couple of hundred grams, unimpressed with my juvenile cringe-face, and told me to fry it. I also bought some lamb chops for good measure.
I took this bloody haul to my mum’s house and held it out at arm’s length. “Can you cook this for me please?” My mum was very surprised, and took this request literally. No artifice, no effort at flavour. Normally an excellent cook, I think she was thrown by this unexpected turn of events. She fried the liver and baked the chops. We had them with… I can’t even remember what. All I remember is that it was a traumatic experience. It was a disaster. I wept sincere tears as I tried to chew the lamb before I spat it out. It was all wrong. I had made a mistake.It did not seem possible to me then that I would become the steak-eating woman I am today.
I had expected it to be difficult. Actually I had expected my body to protest. My 35-year-old body’s first ingestion of animal flesh (other than fish, which I have always eaten). I had expected to possibly be sick. But the barrier was purely psychological, as I realised when I tried chicken instead, a week later. I gave some to Flora, who kept calling it fish. She ate it without a care. Of course, why not? She has no ethical hang-ups at 2. I heaved a sigh of relief, because if I am honest I had been quite uncertain about
imposing vegetarianism on her.
My body didn’t rebel. It was fine. And the next time I tried it I sort of enjoyed it, feeling guilty. I realised I had wanted not to enjoy it because it is so entrenched in my conscience that I should not eat meat. And I can’t undo that. A part of me still feels that way.
So what was next, after chicken? Steak. As a vegetarian I was always mystified by the fact that people were so enthusiastic about steak – this thick, bloody, charred-looking hunk of oozing cow-flesh. I thought it looked revolting. It never appealed to me and I never felt like I was missing out. I was just mildly curious. Now it was potentially on the menu. People kept going on about how amazing it was, so I thought I should do it properly. And how to do steak properly in London? Hawksmoor.
Although once my main pastime, since Flora was born Andy and I have been out for dinner about 2 and a half times. The first time was when she was 6 weeks old. I had barely left the house since the birth by that point, and my mother looked after her while we went to Pizza Express 1.2 miles away. It was heaven. 45 minutes of heaven. We shared a pizza, a glass of wine and a dessert, called urgently for the cheque and raced home.
The thing is that it’s just not as fun going out to eat anymore. For me it’s partly due to dietary restrictions which can make eating out more hassle that it’s worth, but it’s also because I really don’t like to go out with Andy but without Flora. I don’t relax as well. It’s sad and I hope it will pass so that Andy and I can someday resume our relationship outside the flat, but there it is.
So we try to do a date night at home every now and then. And if it’s a labour-intensive meal it’s not a very romantic or relaxing evening, but an assembly line of two in front of the sink for an hour. Such is the pattern of my cooking – use as many dishes, pots and ingredients as possible and make enough for the entire street.
So on our one-year wedding anniversary Andy and I went to Hawksmoor in Borough. The meal was utterly superb, and I thoroughly recommend it. As a vegetarian I went several times to different Hawksmoor locations and ate lobster - the decadent delight I will always grab when the opportunity presents itself, and their lobster rolls are really what life is all about. And if you’re going to try eating meat after a long hiatus, or like me you were a steak virgin, Hawksmoor is the place to go. From the décor to the service, everything is spotless. That’s what I want on the rare occasions I go out now: no compromise.
Apparently the food critic Giles Coren said it was madness to order steak in a restaurant, because it's much cheaper, and easy to cook at home, and you can have it the way you like it. I see his point, but I still have a soft spot for Hawksmoor. Plus Giles Coren loves Bocca di Lupo, a restaurant with which I was unimpressed.
When my mum came over one Friday night for dinner and saw a pile of organic fillet steaks waiting to be cooked her eyes widened. “But, how much did that cost you?” she asked me, as she seems constantly shocked by my profligacy with food.
“They were 8 quid each, from Sainsbury's.”
“You’re mad,” she said.
“No, actually it’s genius. We’re going to have a fantastic dinner, which is decadent, but healthy and pretty cheap compared to going out, Plus it's very low-maintenance. Very little cooking or washing up. It’s bloody brilliant. When I make a vegetarian feast, do you think it’s cheap?” I asked her. “It takes me hours! And fresh vegetables are expensive. A massive pile of organic veg, nuts, herbs, spices, it adds up. So actually, having steak and chips with a little watercress is not that expensive, when you take into account how easy it is for the cook.”
She shrugged in concession.
“Wow, what a treat” my mum said about eighteen times during the meal.
This is one way in which eating meat has improved my life, but not the most important one. My iron levels have always been low – like all vegetarians – and iron tablets make me sick and constipated. At least I know I am addressing that chronic insufficiency. Ditto zinc, which I have posted about here. But actually, having had to restrict my diet, it is the variety for which I am most grateful.
But the thing is, I like meat, now. And I think deep down I should never have been a vegetarian. The reasons my mother made me so were ethical, and those reasons still stand. The way that animals are treated can be horrific, and the impact on the environment of farming meat is terrifying.
So we are careful. We buy organic meat, always, and as much as possible hand-reared, free range, pasture-fed beef, and local meat. This does assuage my residual guilt somewhat, since it’s the best we can do. But as my sister said when my mum rolled her eyes at my pronouncement that we will only buy organic meat, buying good quality, humanely slaughtered meat is the least you can do.
I feel I have made the right decision for Flora, and for myself. We don’t eat tons, but we have meat once or twice a week, and every now and then, steak and chips. It’s a treat, but it’s not really that naughty. If you come to think of grains as the thing to avoid, it’s a near-perfect meal. Andy struggles a bit, because he had adopted very happily to a vegetarian home. But he's pretty happy to eat bacon with me at the weekends.
Just a few tips:
Marinate steaks in orange juice for half an hour to reduce glycation, apparently. This is because charred meat (and fish) is carcinogenic, and the citrus helps to mitigate this. That’s what I read, anyway. Can’t hurt, right?
choose organic, grass-fed beef (do you want your cows to eat grains they are not meant to eat?)
serve with rocket and watercress, oven chips, or sweet potatoes (higher FODMAP) and very decadent béarnasie sauce (recipe below)
make sure the griddle is hot, cook the steak for about 2 mins on each side, depending on the cut, and then for more well-done steak cook on a lower heat for a few more minutes on each side.
For the béarnaise (serves 4, generously)
(by the way, you can just crush a few cloves of garlic into a few spoons of butter and mash it up, then put a lump on your cooked steak- also great)
quarter of a lemon
2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
small bunch of tarragon
2 egg yolks
Chop the shallots finely, and then the tarragon.
Melt the butter slowly in a small pan, and when it has melted sieve out the white matter which has become separated. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it all, just do what you can.
Heat the vinegar in a small pan with the tarragon and shallots, and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half, then strain. Keep a spoonful of the onion-tarragon mixture.
Beat the egg yolks in a glass bowl with a teaspoon of water, and then whisk them over a pan of boiling water. To do this, heat a small amount of water in a pan until boiling then turn it right down. Place the bowl on top of the pan but make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Now whisk the yolks with the lemon juice until it becomes thicker and moussy.
Now remove the bowl from the pan and slowly whisk in the butter. It will thicken as it cools. Stir in the reserved onion if you fancy it. You can reheat it by submerging the bowl in hot water.