What’s a vegetarian? The FAQ.
Maybe vegetarians will always be looked at as weirdos. I’ve been one for 25 years and find acceptance by non-vegetarians to be little different now than when I stopped eating meat. When I walk into McDonald’s and ask for a “Big Mac, extra cheese, hold the meat” I still get looked at as if I asked for a live turtle on a sesame-seed bun.
For those curious about us curiously-odd vegetarians, the following explanations might help you understand why people choose to be vegetarian, why their diets may differ and even why there’s fake meat. Use the handy index below to find your answers.
- What does it mean to be a vegetarian?
- Are there part-time vegetarians?
- Does a plant-based diet mean vegetarian?
- Why do people become vegetarians?
- Is vegetarianism contagious?
- Is vegetarianism growing in the US?
- Is it dangerous to your heath to be a vegetarian?
- Do vegetarians hate spicy food?
- Isn’t being a vegetarian a little silly?
- Why isn’t there a big vegetarian restaurant chain?
- Why is there fake meat?
- Is it easy to become a vegetarian?
No two vegetarians will agree on what being a vegetarian is. It comes down to this: Vegetarians are what they don’t eat. Here are the stages of vegetarianism from least to most restrictive (with some members of each group feeling higher and holier than the group before and feeling much more sensible than the group that follows on the list.)
- Pollotarians eat chicken, but not beef. While not considered vegetarians by the other 98% of the population, pollotarians identify themselves as being vegetarians.
- Pescatarians include fish in their diet, but no animal or bird meat.
- Lactovians or ovo-lactarians, whichever you prefer, are vegetarians who include eggs and dairy in their diet, but no meat or fat from killed animals. So broth and refried beans with lard are usually no-nos, but a cheese omelet may be fine. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy, but no eggs. Ovo-vegetarians do eggs, but no dairy. This is the largest group of people who don’t eat meat and account for about 2-3% of the US population.
- Vegans eat purely plant-based diets. Beegans are vegans who also eat honey. This group is about .5-1.5% of the US population.
- Fruitinarians only eat fruits of the earth that can be picked, but that don’t hurt plants or trees themselves. They eat nuts, beans and tomatoes, but no root vegetables. This group is the smallest, since some vegetarians don’t know it exists.
Yes, they’re called Flexitarians. They have a predominantly plant-based diet, but eat meat occasionally. While it may seem they’re cheating (kind of like not keeping kosher) some vegetarians find their options for good nutrition in their daily lives makes it difficult to maintain a completely plant-based diet. This is especially common when people have minimal access to fresh produce, but animal protein is abundant. For example: living on a boat or in an environment where the land or weather don’t support farming. Curiously, my sister brought me back a vegetarian cookbook from Alaska with most recipes calling for canned vegetables.
Not necessarily. As a lactovian (saying that makes me feel I’m a species on Star Trek) I eat some eggs and dairy in my plant-based diet. But non-vegetarians that eat small amounts of meat can also have a plant-based diet. It’s more accurate to say that Vegans have a plant-only diet.
There are a wide variety of reasons why people choose not to eat meat:
- Health. Doctors may recommend a plant-based diet for those with coronary artery diseases and who are prone to cancer. I did it for health reasons. I was eating a half-dozen fast-food burgers a week.
- Religion. The India-based Jains are the only religion on the whole that requires followers be vegetarian. Christian sects, such as devout Seventh-Day Adventists are typically vegan. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and B’hai encourage vegetarianism. Kosher law says no cheeseburgers (well, it says no meat and dairy served together). In Judaism, Islam and Rastafarianism, pork is taboo, as is beef in Hinduism.
- Politics Political vegetarians use their abstinence from meat to make a statement. But the statement varies wildly from not exploiting animals (no dairy or honey) to saving the planet (70% of food grown is livestock feed.) Interestingly, 11% of liberals and 2% of conservatives claim to be are vegetarians.
- Peer pressure. Being accepted into social circles or looking responsible to others is a big reason for dabbling in vegetarianism. This ranges from teens through adults. It often doesn’t stick once the peer pressure is off.
- Fuzzy animals. This group sees an ick factor in eating meat. It’s usually a very personal choice. The group generally consists of kids and teen when they realize where their bacon comes from. It can also start in early adulthood, once fledglings get out from under mom and dad’s claws and can make their own choices.
Don’t laugh. I’ve actually been asked this, as well as told I can’t talk about being a vegetarian in their house with children around. The answer is no, it’s not. But peer pressure is contagious and can make it seem like vegetarians are part of an “Invasion of the Meat Snatchers” movie plot. Many parents get fearful when they’re told by their ten-year-old they’re now a vegetarian because their best friend just announced they’re vegetarian. They haven’t thought this through and usually revert to meat-eating when they realize that hamburgers and pepperoni pizza are no longer on the menu.
On the other side of this controversy are people who accuse vegetarians of brainwashing their kids. Over the years the few vegetarian parents who’ve imposed a strict vegetarian diet on their kids in order to “raise them right” find it backfires since their kids can feel ostracized. Letting your vegetarian child try chicken McNuggets at a birthday party is their decision, not yours as a parent. I never encouraged either of my children to become vegetarian and neither of them are. Again, it’s best to make it a personal decision.
No. According to Gallup, 5-6% of the US population identify as vegetarians and this number has changed little over the past 20 years. Since 2% of the population are non-red-meat eaters who identify as vegetarians, the number of stricter vegetarians is actually about 3-4%. While the numbers aren’t growing (and vegetarians come and go) they also prove that vegetarianism is not just a fad. But don’t worry: we don’t meet in secret and blot the takeover. The only manifestos we pass around are the occasional recipe.
“Vegetarians aren’t healthy” is often the excuse parents give for not letting kids try vegetarianism. But a vegetarian diet can be much healthier than a non-vegetarian diet. I say can be because a majority of junkfood is vegetarian. This can make teenagers considering vegetarianism think it’s open season on a diet of soft drinks and chips. Doctors and nutritionists note that sensible, plant-based diets are heart-healthy, they lower cholesterol and they lower rates of some cancers.
Lack of protein is often cited as an excuse for not becoming a vegetarian or not allowing someone to become a vegetarian. The FDA says you need 50 grams a day. This is easily workable (even without dairy and eggs) in a diet that relies on nuts, beans and other planet-based protein.
Lack of vitamin B12 can be an issue for some vegetarians. Since B-12 is a water-soluble vitamin that’s out of your system about five hours after ingesting, the body needs a small amount, 1mcg, at every meal. While maintaining a healthy gut with probiotics can fill some of this need, it’s not enough. For lactovians, this isn’t an issue, since an egg, a cup of milk, a cup of yogurt or a slice of cheese provide 1mcg.
For vegans and fruitarians, there aren’t many easily-absorbed, plant-based sources of B12, but an excellent one is nutritional yeast. Many vegetarians, vegan or not, use this as a condiment—sprinkling it on salads, cereals, entrees and yogurt. It’s a wonderful and hearty flavor that’s one of those secret ingredients for chefs. (Shhh.) If there’s any doubt about not getting enough B12, there are vegetarian-based suppliments. Interestingly, few vegans show any deficiency in B12.
No more than non-vegetarians. Spicy things, like peppers, wasabi and garlic, are all vegetarian.
Funny you should mention that: Many life-long vegetarians can’t understand why non-vegetarians eat beef and chicken, but are grossed out by the thought of eating horse and dog. It’s all domesticated meat and eaten in other societies around the world. Being a vegetarian is not more silly than any other self-imposed diet restriction.
Another common question is “If you don’t eat cows why do you wear leather shoes?” Strangely, I get this more from non-vegetarians than radical vegetarians. I became a vegetarian for health reasons, so leather shoes haven’t been an issue for me. I do tell those well-meaning, radical vegetarians that (from giving up burgers) I save the life of half a cow annually. They don’t seem to question where those dozen cows are now and why they aren’t now running free as a result.
Simple math: At 3-4% of the population, there aren’t enough vegetarians to support many vegetarian restaurants. Complicating it more: people usually don’t go out to eat alone. If five people go to lunch and one is a vegetarian, odds are four to one that they won’t go to a vegetarian restaurant. The good news is that more restaurants have become open to including options for vegetarians.
Fake meat is a crossover food between into vegetarianism. It’s the bridge. It’s the gateway-drug to becoming vegetarian. (Kidding. Kinda.) Fake meat, like Impossible burgers, Smart Ground and vegetarian sausage, is becoming more and more convincing and seems to have become a holy grail for food creation. The people who may try fake meat are:
- non-vegetarians curious about vegetarianism and looking for validation that they can give up meat
- non-vegetarians looking for food familiarity while becoming vegetarian
- former meat eaters who find the vegetarian plate feeling somewhat empty without the central focus point that meat once had
- vegetarians seeking ways to convince others they don’t dine exclusively on weeds
Curiously, the fake meat burgers don’t really appeal to me. The first time I tried a vegeburger it was crispy, hearty and didn’t resemble meat in any way. It gave me the perspective that vegetarians are clued in on amazing flavors that others are ignoring.
This article isn’t meant to proselytize, just answer a few questions about us curious little vegetarians. Like eating paleo, or giving up gluten, becoming vegetarian is a lifestyle change. The decision often requires giving up foods you love. So, it may not be easy.
At the start of this article I mentioned that acceptance of vegetarianism hasn’t changed much over the years. But there is hope, thanks to the growing number of people on other restricted diets. Today people have so many dietary restrictions that are not just “low”, but “no”—that no pork or no meat have been joined by no carbs, no gluten, no dairy, no processed foods, etc. It’s likely vegetarianism will get clumped in with an overall “no” dietary mindset and just be more expected, as well as respected. The dietary restrictions people have are so prevalent today that hosts are more likely to ask if you have any food intolerances when they invite you over to eat. That respect is good for all of us to observe.