About three weeks before Christmas, having spent the previous year gradually cutting back, I finally took the plunge and gave up meat for good. Many people told me it was the worst possible time, but by the time I'd piled my plate with goats cheese and apricot nut roast, stuffing, cauliflower cheese, roast potatoes and parsnips, and my very own jugful of veggie gravy, I was wondering what I'd ever seen in dry, bland turkey.
I haven't given meat a second thought since then, although I still eat fish, and I've been pleasantly surprised by the ever-increasing range of options for non-meat eaters. Pret even announced they're launching a veggie-only pop-up in central London this summer, which was basically the best news I've heard all year. It seems more and more of us are becoming conscious of what we eat and where it comes from – at a recent pub dinner with mates, nearly half of us (meat-eaters and veggies alike) opted for the sweet potato burrito over a burger.
So are young people falling out of love with meat? Recent research commissioned by the Vegetarian Society suggests mine and my mates' changing diet is part of a bigger pattern – three out of ten Brits have reduced the amount of meat they eat over the last year, including 34 per cent of women. And, although over 65s are the most likely to have reduced their meat intake, more than a third of 18-34 year olds said they'd either stopped or cut back on eating meat, or were considering doing so. So why are so many young women reconsidering their meat-eating ways?
27-year-old Hayley ditched meat just over a year ago, mostly for health reasons. 'It's a much healthier option, and a feel a lot better for it in a lot of ways – I've lost weight, I feel a lot more awake, just healthier in general,' she says. 'Also my partner's a vegetarian and I do most of the cooking, so I wasn't going to do us two different meals!'
She adds: 'I've never been a massive meat eater anyway, and as I've got older and understood more where meat comes, it's very much become an animal rights' issue too – so [going veggie] was a long time coming. I'm gradually cutting out fish too, because I feel like a hypocrite when I say I don't eat meat but still eat fish.' Vegetarianism has been part of a bigger lifestyle change for Hayley, who says she's now far more conscious about buying fresh fruit and vegetables from her local greengrocer, rather than getting it from the supermarket.
Although she hasn't quit meat altogether, 24-year-old Kirsten recently decided to cut back. 'I previously ate meat a couple of times a day, and now try to eat it only a couple of times each week,' she says. 'It's mainly out of compassion for animals. I have some friends who are veggie or vegan, and they share a lot of facts about how eating meat affects the environment, and how badly the animals are treated, so it's helped me to intellectually see the value in cutting back.'
For both Hayley and Kirsten, the change has been made easier by the fact that restaurants and cafes are getting better at catering to vegetarians; gone are the days of mushroom risotto or goats cheese tart being the only veggie option on many restaurant menus. Even meat-eaters, like my mate Hannah, are increasingly seeing veggie choices as not just for veggies. 'To be honest I just get bored of meat, and there's a better choice of veggie options around now. I can't sit here and say it's for animal-related reasons because it's not consciously,' she tells me.
And it's not just meat we've been rethinking: 2016 is the year that veganism was catapulted from obscure hippy diet to on-trend lifestyle choice, and there's more consumer appetite than ever for entirely plant-based recipes and options.
'It does seem to be a bit of a trend at the moment; I hope it's not just a phase!' says new vegan Polly, who's 26. She was raised vegetarian but started eating meat during uni because it was easier to eat the same as everyone else. 'I went back to being veggie in December, then at Easter I visited my mum who had gone vegan and we visited a vegan restaurant, which I'd been to before and loved every time,' she explains.
'We just got to talking really, and there were lots of leaflets about the hideous dairy industry – things I did always know, but as a cheese, milk and chocolate lover I think I had always tried not to think about! As soon as I allowed myself to think about it, I just couldn't justify it to myself. So literally overnight I cut out all dairy and egg products. My mum sent me lots of recipes, and I ordered a couple of free vegan starter kits for ideas, and just went for it.'
Another meat-eating friend, Sam, recently announced that she's thinking about giving up dairy. 'I've watched a few videos recently about dairy farming and I think it's crueller than the meat industry,' she tells me. 'I also watched a video of a doctor talking about dairy milk, where he says it's baby cow growth formula – it's what they need to become huge animals; it's not meant for humans. There are plenty of other substitutes which are a lot better for us.'
26-year-old Amy had never even heard of the vegan diet until last Christmas, and initially thought it sounded weird. 'I read up about it though, and watched a film called Vegucated; it made me rethink what is really healthy and what's not,' she says. Amy now eats vegan about 80 per cent of the time, and adds: 'I feel much healthier, like I'm taking on more vitamins now. I love to cook, and I've enjoyed the challenge it brings!'
When I (briefly) dabbled with veganism in 2012, I really struggled to find vegan options in cafes and restaurants, but Amy says she's found that eating out as a vegan is surprisingly easy these days – and not just in typically 'healthy' restaurants. 'I was in a Wetherspoons recently, and they had more vegan meals than some of the fancier places! I was super impressed,' she says. Polly adds: 'Most restaurants have at least one vegan option now – even Nando's! – so it hasn't affected going out with friends either, which I thought it might.'
Like all the women I spoke to, Polly says feeling healthier has been an added bonus of her ethical decision to cut out meat and dairy. 'I honestly feel so great, so much healthier, so much more energetic, and I feel good knowing that I'm doing the right thing for the planet as well as the animals,' she enthuses. 'I've turned into one of those annoying people you see memes about, always talking about being vegan, but I've found it so interesting and such a great life change that I just want everyone to know about it!'
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.