In an illustration, a figure with light skin and long brown hair pushes an oversized shopping cart full of raw meats.
(Photo: Malte Mueller/Getty)
Adventures in Audio

A Vegetarian Runner’s Quest to Become a Meat Eater

In an illustration, a figure with light skin and long brown hair pushes an oversized shopping cart full of raw meats.

Endurance athlete Mallory Arnold was struggling with extreme fatigue when her coach made an unexpected suggestion: start eating meat again. Arnold, 26, had adopted a plant-based diet in high school and was initially reluctant to reincorporate to animal protein. But she was also desperate to avoid the post-training crashes that left her passed out on the floor. So she decided to give meat a try—and immediately realized that she had no clue how to cook even a simple chicken breast. Thus began a journey with the Outside Food team that took her from a family farm to a whole-animal butcher to a professional kitchen, with the primary goal of finding her lost energy while actually learning to enjoy preparing and eating meat along the way.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Maren Larsen: From outside magazine, this is The Outside Podcast.

Mallory Arnold: I didn't want my boyfriend to come down and see me putting a piece of chicken in my mouth. So I went into our pantry and I stood there in the dark and ate a few pieces of my just blackened charred chicken. And honestly felt a little weepy about it because I was like, ‘oh, this, I can't believe I'm, I'm doing this.’

Maren: I'm Maren Larsen, and the shame-ridden chicken eater you just heard is Outside assistant editor, food correspondent, running enthusiast, and newly former vegetarian Mallory Arnold. And the path that brought her to that recent moment, sitting in a dark closet secretly choking down over cooked poultry, began eight years ago.

Mallory: I went vegetarian when I was around 17. I was so uneducated. It was just sort of a I-wanna-get-healthy, and that's the thing to do, is to go vegetarian. so I did that when cold Turkey just right away. It was not hard for me, because I really didn't eat a lot of meat to begin with.

Maren: Mallory jumped into vegetarianism in pursuit of vague ideas she had about its potential health benefits–and not much else. But over the next few years, she would dive into research about why other people were choosing to forgo meat, eventually leading her to a strong set of personal beliefs that valued protecting animals and the environment, and which fit perfectly with her meat-free lifestyle.

Mallory: It kind of led me to really have this distrust in the farming industry as a whole and how the treatment of animals is and what it does to the environment. And I just really couldn't align myself with that. So that's why I continued with it up until about six months ago. 

Maren: That's when Mallory's vegetarianism came up against another great passion in her life–and perhaps the only thing that could derail her long-held plant-based ideals–running.

Mallory: A few years ago I started doing long distance runs, got into half marathons, and then full marathons. You learn once you run your first marathon that it's not really something you should continue to do if you're doing it, lackadaisically and you know, no plans, no training schedules, you're not honed in on your nutrition. Because it, recovery, is really difficult and I learned that really quickly.

Maren: She learned her hardest lessons when she started trying to improve her times and her endurance. Her training was sapping all her energy, and she was struggling to regain it afterwards.

Mallory: I always do long runs on Sundays when I'm training for a race. After my long runs consistently, I would come back and just pass out on the floor. It was like a scheduled thing. I wouldn't faint, but I would, you know, spread eagle on the carpet and just go to sleep for a good hour. There's no way around it. It just happened every single time. I would feel physically ill, like I had the flu, I would get chills, it just was not a good situation.

Maren: Mallory knew that something about what she was putting in her body to fuel herself for her runs, or how she was trying to rest afterwards, wasn't cutting it. She just wasn't sure what.

Mallory: I mean, I tried everything. I was drinking water with Himalayan pink salt. I was eating particular foods that I knew would get me really quick PAUSEeven one tip was like to sleep diagonally in the bed for some reason because it was good for your legs.

Maren: Finally, Mallory's coach told her that her chronic post-run crashes might be due to a lack of protein in her diet. As a vegetarian, she was eating tofu, seitan, tempeh, and egg whites in an attempt to make up for a lack of animal protein. For many vegetarians and vegans, these substitutions are enough to keep their bodies running smoothly. But all bodies are different, and for Mallory, it just wasn't working. So her coach very delicately suggested that, maybe, she should try eating meat again for the first time in eight years.

Mallory: She definitely didn't want to push me to do that cuz I don't think she wanted to urge me to do anything that would break like my morals or whatever. But it definitely was talked about, like, ‘it could be this, I'm not saying it is, but it could be a problem with your recovery and you're not getting the essential proteins that you need.’

So eating meat was literally the last resort, cuz I did not intend on ever going back. But eventually it was kind of like, you've tried everything else and running is super important to me.So Maybe you should try this cuz it's the one thing you haven't done. 

Maren: Even though it made sense to her, Mallory was still reluctant.

Mallory: I didn't want to believe that I would do this, but I was so desperate to the point where this would never be a consideration if I hadn't tried everything else. and it really kind of brought me back to my why. Why I wasn't eating meat.

And I figured if I could do it responsibly and educate myself on what options there are to eat meat sustainably without going into factory farming, I thought it would be okay. 

But there still was a, a terrible regret and a terrible guilt that I felt. I was kind of embarrassed because for so long I'd been like a proponent of being a vegetarian and how great it was and how like sustainable it was and good for the environment.

And then here I was kind of going back on that.

Maren: The guilt weighed so heavily on Mallory that her first foray back into omnivorism forced her literally into a closet.

Mallory: So I went ahead and bought chicken just secretly. I live with my boyfriend and I did not tell him where I was going in the middle of the day, what I was doing. Kind of snuck out and, um, brought it back to the kitchen and just charred it to pieces. I just. completely obliterated that chicken because I've never cooked chicken myself.

When I was, you know, 17, I wasn't making my own meals. So I didn't know what I was doing and I wanted to make sure I didn't get salmonella, so I just charred it to, to black. And then, because I still felt that like extreme embarrassment and shame, I didn't want my boyfriend to come down and see me putting a piece of chicken in my mouth. So I went into our pantry and I stood there in the dark and ate a few pieces of my just blackened charred chicken. And honestly felt a little weepy about it because I was like, oh, this, I can't believe I'm, I'm doing this.

Maren: It was in this literally dark moment that Mallory finally realized -- it didn't have to be this way. So many people out there eat meat, and they actually enjoy it. She didn't have to do this alone. 

Mallory: I need help. I need help doing this. I can't be eating my chicken in the dark for the rest of my life. 

Maren: So, Mallory reached out to some of the meat eaters in her life to help her design a training plan that would bring home the bacon. We'll hear about it after the break.

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Mary: After eight years of a vegetarian diet, runner Mallory Arnold was ready to beef up her nutrition. But to preserve her conscience -- and her taste buds -- she wanted to know exactly where that meat was coming from and how the heck to cook it.

Luckily, Mallory's boss is kind of the perfect person to ask for help on a project like this.

Mary-Frances Heck: I'm Mary Francis Heck, and I'm the Senior brand director for Food and Health at Outside. I'm a classically trained chef. done butchery in restaurants and in test kitchens, for meat and for fish. And I think it was probably when I was breaking down a really big fish early in my career that I really understood. I mean, this is an animal, this was a creature that lived a life. And you start to approach animal protein consumption with a reverence for me and my nutritional needs. I do feel like I need animal protein to feel healthy, but I personally am married to someone who doesn't consume meat. And when we met, she was actually almost a vegan. So I rarely cook meat at home unless it is a very high quality piece of meat and it's like a Sunday supper type of thing.

Maren: Mallory told her charred closet chicken story to Mary-Frances, who was, to put it mildly, horrified.

Mary-Frances: She like had put it in a hot oven for like an hour, uh, with no salt on it. And she was like, it really wasn't very good. I was like I can imagine how bad that was.

The tricky thing was that she hadn't eaten meat in a number of years, and she had sort of missed the point of life where you learn how to cook meat for herself and had no idea where to start. 

I care about sustainability a lot, and I think nutrition's very important, but I'm most motivated by deliciousness, and I want to eat the most delicious things available.

Maren: Mary-Frances wanted the same for Mallory, so she planned a day-long farm-to-table excursion, both to help quell her anxiety about eating animals and to teach her how to get at least some flavor and enjoyment out of the whole experience.

Mary-Frances: Mallory and I met up in Nashville and we were able to go visit Bear Creek Farm. where they're raising some of the highest quality meat in the southeast. And we were able to follow the path of a couple of animals post slaughter to the butcher shop where they're doing whole animal butchery.

And then, From there, go to Henrietta Red and work with Chef Julia Sullivan to cook the steak and so we were able to follow that path along and appreciate the sacrifice of the animal from the beginning to the end.

I think it's really important for consumers of meat to see that full cycle and to understand that eating meat is not a good or an evil. Humans are designed as omnivores, and most humans will consume animal protein. And there's a healthy way to do that both for the environment and for their bodies.

Maren: When the day came to see how the sausage gets made, Mallory was more than a little apprehensive.

Mallory: Initially in my mind when I thought of a farm that produced meat for consumption, I immediately thought of a farmer being very unpassionate, uh, cold, maybe a little bit. I just had this evil image in my mind after years of just being a vegetarian.

It was completely incorrect, obviously.

Maren: The owners of Bear Creek Farm, Leanne and Bill Sherry, quickly proved her wrong.

Mallory: The way Leanne specifically talked and expressed her feelings about these animals was so different than I thought it would be.

Maren: Here's Leanne, talking about one of her dearly departed boars, Earl, who sired hundreds of piglets on the farm.

Leanne Sherry: I could just lay down like, you know, snuggle with him. Mm-hmm. and he was just so tame. And Wilson's like that too.

Mallory: You snuggled with Earl?

Leanne: Oh yeah. 

Mallory: Really? 

Leanne: Mm-hmm. 

Mallory: Wow. Yeah. That's what I need to hear. Like I know those factory farms are not snuggling with their pigs, you know? Put that in the– It's a family farm, right? They're all close.

Mallory: She showed us the cows in the pasture. These rolling lush green hills where these cows were grazing and just really enjoying their lives, which was totally different from what I thought it was gonna see.

Mallory: And then she led us to her pigs, which she talked about, like they were her own children. They're treated like royalty up until the very end. And, just the way she talked about how much she loves her animals and how thankful and grateful she is for what they sacrificed for them to have their livelihood. It, it, it was really moving.

Maren: For Mallory, visiting the farm was a surprisingly warm and fuzzy experience. But Mary-Frances was practical about the whole thing, in part because she knew exactly what was coming next.

Mary-Frances: They're really cute and really sweet, but also, you know, understandable that these are domesticated animals that are intended ultimately to grow to a certain size and then be humanely slaughtered and, and become meat for consumption.

Mallory: And then we went right to the butchery, which is a, a, a jarring experience.

Maren: Bare Bones Butcher in Nashville is a whole-animal shop managed by Kyle Colvard.

As shocking as it could be for Mallory to see an entire side of pork being butchered after having just watched happy piglets playing in their pen, Mary-Frances knew that visiting a whole-animal butcher was important for showing Mallory the most ethical path to meat-eating.

Mary-Frances: The important thing about whole animal butchery, is that it is a sustainable way of harvesting and serving meat.

Now think about like the Super Bowl pack of jumbo wings. That is not a sustainable way to serve meat. Like every chicken only has two wings. So when you buy 50 of 'em, what the heck happened to the rest of the chicken?

All these animals are broken up into their different parts and then they're all sold separately.

And unfortunately, consumer preferences and supply and demand don't support the even consumption of whole animals. And so we end up with low grade products, where the thing that would be the most healthy is if a butcher takes a whole animal, knowledgeably, breaks it down into cuts that can be cooked in specific ways, and then educates the consumer how to cook them.

So Mallory got to go and see that process.

Mallory: He brought out a massive half slab of pig that I just was not anticipating at all, and kind of throws it on the table and says like, ‘Ask away. I'm just gonna go through and carve the pig and show you what we do and explain the steps to you step by step.’ 

And after I got over the initial shock, it was really actually quite fascinating. 

And this is coming from someone who couldn't even look at like a chicken breast in the past, cuz I got nauseous.

Kyle Colvard: If it's done properly, it's done well. It's just we. Things are on the up and up. 

Mallory: It's not as gory as I thought it would be. 

Kyle: Yeah, it's really not. 

Mallory: It honestly was impressive of how much of the animal that they were using, cuz you could see the meat that he was gonna, you know, toss, and the meat that he was gonna keep. And the toss pile, it was nothing. Nothing went to waste. 

And I, I really appreciated that. And I think Bear Creek Farm would appreciate that too, just because it's, it's like so much energy and time goes into these animals and, and to respect the animal like that, by making sure nothing goes to ace is I, I just thought that was really neat and I had no idea that that happened.

Maren: Even after having met the animals coming under Kyle's knife, Mallory found that actually seeing the butchering happen was…oddly comforting.

Mallory: It kind of like cemented my feelings of, ‘okay, this is right. This is okay to do.’

Throughout the whole process, I still was kind of holding onto a little bit of guilt, especially after seeing the animals in person and seeing how happy they were and their lives on the farm.

But then, you know, it, it goes back to the appreciation of the animal and being thankful that it's a source of sustainment. And I really appreciated the respect that they gave. And afterwards, I felt okay. I felt like kind of at peace with that.

Maren: That peace came at the perfect time, because Mallory's next stop, a cooking lesson and tasting with chef Julia Sullivan at Nashville's Henrietta Red, was about to raise the steaks…literally.

Mary-Frances: Julia's one of my favorite chefs in the country. and she welcomed Mallory into her kitchen and cooked up one of these steaks for her from Bear Creek Farm.

Mallory: She kind of went through the process of cooking a steak step-by-step with me.

And then I got to try the steak, my first steak since I was 17.

The chefs were preparing everything for dinner that night. It was bustling and, and here I was just having this very like existential crisis in the middle of everything. Like, I'm about to eat a cow. How am I gonna do this? But it looks so good.

And then when I had it, it was delicious.

Mallory (field): Oh my God. I've been doing it wrong for so long. Oh my God, that is so good.

Mallory: I feel kind of bad, but this is so good. But I know where it came from and I feel good about that. So it was a lot of feelings mixed with like banging pots and, and chefs shouting things in the background.

It was, it was beautiful.

Maren: Sure, taking a bite of your first steak in almost a decade–which just happens to come from a cow that was treated like royalty in life, humanely slaughtered and respectfully butchered, and then cooked by one of the best chefs in the country–is an enlightening experience.

But the real question is: did it convince Mallory to come out of the meat-eating closet once and for all?

Mallory: I would say like at least once a day, I'm eating some kind of meat.

I go down to our Nashville farmer's market and I have learned a few different ways to prepare chicken breast, and I think I'm pretty good at it now. I don't wanna like pat myself on the back or anything, but it's edible. And it's, it's good enough for my boyfriend to eat. So I would say that's a win.

Maren: After seeing the care that went into every step of bringing Bear Creek Farm's animals to the table, she knows that's the model of meat-eating she wants to follow. Mallory isn't just an omnivore now, she's a loca-vore: sourcing her meat entirely from local farmers. Because she wants to know that every single animal is raised the way that steak at Henrietta Red was. Not everyone can afford to buy expensive local meats, but if eating higher quality products means that Mallory eats less meat than she would otherwise, that's okay with her.

Most importantly for Mallory, just two months after her dietary switch, she started to see improvements to her recovery after those long runs.

Mallory: I did run a half marathon, in the Smoky Mountains, and I can't speak on for sure if it was due to eating the meat, but I did feel exponentially better after my race. 

I did not pass out. I did not feel that kind of exhaustion that just follows a really tough race. Obviously my legs were tired. Your whole body is tired. But it wasn't like a sick feeling. So that was a plus sign for me and kind of a little bit of an encouragement to keep going, and see what other benefits I may reap in the future.

Maren: You're not regularly passing out after your Sunday runs anymore?

Mallory: I am not. No. And it's the strangest thing. I, I have so much time. I have like another hour in my day because I'm not passed out on the floor.

Maren: And, Mallory has finally extinguished the last little bit of her lingering guilt about her lifestyle change.

Mallory: I was really worried about what my little sister was gonna think. My little sister has been a hardcore vegan for as long as I was a vegetarian. And she really believes in it and I just really didn't want her to think of me differently and I just had it in my head that she was going to.

So when I finally admitted, you know, I was eating meat again to try to help my recovery issues with running, her initial reaction was immediately, ‘yay. Oh, I'm so happy you're trying to solve that. I know how much you've been struggling and how much you wanna run.’ And she was super happy for me, which like honestly made me cry

Maren: Mallory believes that eating some meat is the right thing for her body. And the whole experience has given her a new perspective on nutrition.

Mallory: This is such a personal journey and personal to me, and my health and my running. And that doesn't mean that runners need meat or if you follow like a vegan lifestyle you can't run long distances, nothing like that.

If anything, I've learned that nutrition is so personal. And I've always known that, but going through it firsthand, it just definitely cemented that idea that like, it's not a one size fits all and everyone has to follow their different journeys,

Maren: There may not be one right way to eat meat, or not, but there's definitely a wrong way to do it.

Mary-Frances: Once you get a taste of really great quality meat, you can't go back to the factory farm stuff.

Maren: You can't go back to the factory farm stuff that you like burned to a crisp and then ate in a closet.

Mary-Frances: Yeah. Exactly.

Maren: Thank you to Mallory Arnold for sharing her story with us, and to Mary-Frances Heck for her guidance and expertise. You can read Mallory's writing about her journey at outsideonline.com/food

This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.

Listener, if you have a story about a big lifestyle change that you'd like to tell, record it as a voice memo and email it to us at podcast@outsideinc.com. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave us a review wherever you listen, or tell your local butcher about it.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.