One Nation, Under Green
Poll says vegans and vegetarians escape stereotypes, numbers steady.
Five percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and about two percent call themselves vegan, says a Gallup poll examining eating habits of adults in the U.S. These numbers indicate little change from previous figures from 1991 and 2001, Gallup says, indicating that the rates of vegetarianism and veganism are holding steady.
The poll questions did not offer definitions of vegetarianism or veganism for the respondents. Vegetarians do not eat any flesh foods, including meat, poultry, and fish or products made from those items. Vegans avoid all flesh foods and animal secretions, such as milk and other dairy products and eggs, as well as honey, and products including those ingredients.
Results announcing that these lifestyle choices are neither waning nor gaining in popularity are confusing to some trendwatchers—particularly those in the vegetarian and vegan community who have, anecdotally at least, witnessed growing interest in plant-based eating. With more restaurants offering vegan fare, more vegan products available in the grocery, and a plethora of vegans on the television and on bookshelves, these results were surprising.
One possible explanation for the numbers may be the increase of flexitarians, people who simply eat plant-based or vegetarian meals more often than their meat-eating peers, but do not identify as vegetarian or vegan.
“The number of people buying vegetarian and vegan foods has exploded,” says Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., director of nutrition education at Washington, DC-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). “Maybe more people are eating this way and identifying with this type of diet rather than claiming to be on board 100 percent.”
Another reason for the unexpected numbers is that some new vegans and vegetarians are under age eighteen, and age group that was not polled. “One of the largest sectors of vegetarians is teenage girls,” she notes.
The Gallup poll did not find significant differences between demographics in terms of education, race, or SES. The few distinctions are minor, the report notes, but the main differences exist in terms of marital status, sex, and age. Unmarried people tend to be vegetarian, as are women, and older adults.
Though the differences are minor, Levin says that they may be related to lifestyle. “Women tend to be more aware of health issues, and single people are probably more invested in how they look,” she states.
John Cunningham, consumer research manager at the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) , in Baltimore, MD, says that the Gallup numbers have been consistent with VRG’s own findings in polls that have been conducted by firms like Harris Interactive.
Cunningham says that the gender gap is closing, especially for vegans, whose numbers tend to be about 50/50, whereas vegetarian females have outnumbered males as much as as 2 to 1 in some VRG polls
“There seems to be an association with meat and masculinity in our culture,” he explains. “There is still a lot of value placed on men being able to be a provider—think ‘hunter’—as well as a protector.”
As more stereotypically masculine men embrace veganism, that may be changing, Cunningham says. ”This association seems to be fading—especially as more mainstream figures such as professional hockey—George Laraque and football—Arian Foster—players emerge.”
The statistical differences are so minor that no assumptions can be drawn about vegetarians or vegans overall.
“Almost all segments of the U.S. population have similar percentages of vegetarians, suggesting that most stereotypes of who is and is not the typical vegetarian in American society have little basis in fact,” the Gallup report contends.
“The poll findings largely agree with our latest poll,” Cunningham says. “This is a little surprising to me, actually, since we were measuring different things. The Gallup poll measures people who call themselves vegetarian or vegan, while we designed our questions to try to measure the people that actually are vegetarian or vegan.”
The conclusion that plant-based eating has no demographic barriers has been substantiated by the VRG as well, Cunningham says.
“In the popular imagination there are a lot of stereotypes about the kind of person that is vegan or vegetarian,” he says, noting Gallup’s similar demographic finding. “As far as we can tell, all of them are false.”
“The perception of veganism and vegetarianism has changed in the broader society. While in the 70s and 80s it may have been regarded as ‘fringe’ and ‘kooky,’ it's now more likely to be thought of as virtuous,” Cunningham adds. “These days, when one ‘goes veg,’ one is more likely to hear, ‘Wow! I wish I could do that,’ as opposed to, ‘Why would you do that?’"
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