The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You might think there are more vegetarians than ever. You’d be wrong.

Charred Carrot Dogs. (Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

The number of Americans who self-identify as vegetarian or vegan has remained steady over the past 20 years — and it’s still a pretty small group, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Five percent of Americans identify as vegetarian, a rate that has remained unchanged since the previous survey in 2012. In 1999, when the survey was first taken, as well as in 2001, 6 percent of Americans identified as vegetarian. Rates of veganism have followed a similar trajectory. This year, 3 percent of respondents identified as vegan — a slight increase from 2 percent in 2012.

What’s remarkable is how little has changed, even as our food culture and habits have evolved over the past 20 years. In 1999, there were no “Meatless Mondays,” no Pinterest, no “Food, Inc.,” no fast-casual salad places, no Goop. Information about a vegetarian diet — at least for middle- and upper-class people who have more dietary choices — has seemingly never been more abundant. But it’s not resulting in any noticeable increase in the rate at which people adopt the diet — a fact that may prove either galvanizing or discouraging for plant-based advocacy groups.

It may be bad news for PETA, but one thing the survey doesn’t take into account is how many people are eating less meat, a figure that may prove to be just as important over time. Flexitarianism — the term was coined in the early 2000s — is the practice of reducing the amount of meat you eat or eating meat only with certain meals. A recent British study found that one-third of all dinners in the United Kingdom are meatless. And there are more options than ever before: Market research firm Mintel found that the number of new vegetarian products introduced to the market doubled between 2009 and 2013. According to Gallup, sales of plant-based food grew 8.1 percent in 2017 and exceeded $3.1 billion last year.

Studies have found that semi-vegetarian diets have a positive effect on weight loss, diabetes prevention and blood pressure. And even though some vegetarians might classify flexitarianism as cheating, the label may help people adhere to a more plant-based diet without feeling as though they are failing if they slip up. “The ‘flexitarian,’ ‘climatarian’ and ‘reducetarian’ movements mean there are three more clubs out there helping people work toward goals to improve the health of their bodies and the planet,” wrote Brian Kateman for the Atlantic. Still, a separate Mintel survey found that 51 percent of Americans think a meal is not complete without meat. (And, given the hostility toward some of The Washington Post’s vegetarian recipes — carrot dogs, anyone? — that mentality seems difficult to change.)

People younger than 50 are slightly more likely to be vegetarian or vegan than older people. And people who make less than $30,000 a year are likelier to follow either one of the diets — a factor that may be related to age, as well as financial decision-making, as meat adds expense to an already-tight grocery budget. People who make more than $75,000 a year are less likely to self-identify with either diet. And, confirming all of the Fox News stereotypes, Gallup found that there are far more liberal vegetarians and vegans — approximately 1 in 10 liberals don’t eat meat — than conservative ones.

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