Vegetarianism is on the rise — especially the part-time kind

Eschewing meat has become increasingly mainstream.
Madeline Monroe/Getty Images/iStock

Story at a glance

  • Americans who identify as vegetarian or vegan now make up at least 6 percent of the population, and possibly 10 to 15 percent, according to recent surveys.

  • Three-fifths of American households go meatless at least sometimes, a sharp break from meat-and-potatoes tradition.

  • The generational shift toward vegetarianism is perhaps best embodied by “flexitarians,” people who eat vegetarian most but not all of the time. 

Denizens of the D.C. food scene, with its plethora of plant-based proteins, might be surprised to learn that vegetarians make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population in 2022. Yet, even that modest figure may mark an all-time high. 

In 1994, when Baltimore nonprofit the Vegetarian Resource Group first polled the public, barely 1 percent of Americans eschewed meat. In the 28 years since, health concerns, the animal rights movement, environmentalism and celebrity vegans all have conspired to normalize vegetarianism. 

Other recent surveys suggest that 10 or even 15 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian or vegan. Three-fifths of U.S. households now eat vegetarian at least on occasion, the Baltimore group found, a dramatic departure from the meat-and-potatoes diet of yore.  

“We’ve really, totally changed,” said Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group. “If you remember, growing up, meat was really at the center of the plate for every meal.” 

In the last several years, longtime vegetarians have watched their fringe culture bleed into the mainstream: Meatless Mondays. The Impossible Whopper. Entire cases of vegan milk alternatives at the grocery store. Veganuary.  

“There’s, like, Diet Coke commercials now that are like, ‘Oh, vegans!’” said John Beck, 41, a vegan in York, Pa. “Taco Bell’s coming out with new products that are vegan. KFC just had a Beyond Chicken. Burger King has the Impossible Burger. It’s getting huge.” 

Beck went vegetarian at 14 and vegan in his 20s, inspired by a vegetarian cousin and a sense of camaraderie with the animal kingdom. “I have my cats and my dogs, and I would never eat them, so why would I go eat a cow or a chicken?” he said.  

Years ago, Beck struggled with his diet when he toured with his hardcore punk band, Reignition. “We’d be in the Midwest,” he recalled. “I’d basically have to live off of Swedish Fish. Swedish Fish and potato chips.” 

Eating healthy proved easier back home, especially after Beck joined a local Facebook group that worked with York restaurants to promote vegan entrees. Today, Beck administers a Facebook group, Fatass Vegans Are Awesome. Meta standard-bearers aren’t particularly fond of the name, but the group’s daily menu of vegan “food porn” has found a niche.  

“In the last two years, it has just exploded,” Beck said. The group now boasts 84,000 members. 

Beck is probably too young to remember Diet for a Small Planet, the 1971 bestseller by Frances Moore Lappé that helped to launch the modern vegetarian movement. Lappé made a case for vegetarianism as a solution to world hunger, which she ascribed to a wasteful and carbon-spewing meat industry.  

Lynn Peterson went vegetarian in 1977, as a student at the University of Texas. “I think my family kind of thought I’d joined a cult,” she recalled.  

Peterson grew up on a hobby farm in Minnesota. “I remember, as a kid, my father would bring home hundreds of chickens,” she said. “When we went to butcher chickens, my job was to chase the chickens when their heads were cut off.” 

Much has changed since then. “All these decades later, a couple of my brothers and sisters are vegetarians now,” she said.  

Sam Zerante, 68, went vegetarian at 18. Half a century later, he said, Zerante knows one other person “who has done this even remotely as long as I have.”  

Fifty years ago, Zerante lived in small-town Indiana, and going out to eat meant “having a baked potato and a salad,” he said. Today, Zerante lives in Chicago, where the vegetarian diet has never posed much of a challenge. One of his favorite eateries is the Chicago Diner, with a slogan that reads, “Meat free since ’83.”   

Anecdotal evidence, especially in America’s urban centers and grocery-store aisles, suggests the vegetarian tribe has exploded in recent years.  

One survey, conducted in January by Oklahoma State University researchers, found that 10 percent of American adults identify as vegetarians. That figure surpasses most current and past estimates by the Baltimore vegetarian group, Gallup pollsters and others. 

More compelling, an ongoing survey of meat-eating by researchers at Oklahoma State and Kansas State universities has found a steady rise in Americans identifying as vegetarian or vegan.  

At the start of the survey, in 2013, “we were getting roughly 3 percent” of respondents reporting vegetarian or vegan diets, said Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist who initiated it. “By 2017, we were getting 6, 7, 8 percent. It’s still a small number, but it’s roughly double what it once was.” 

In demographic terms, Lusk said, vegetarianism correlates with “being young, highly educated, liberal and single.” 

A new version of the survey, conducted by Kansas State researcher Glynn Tonsor, has consistently found 10 to 15 percent of Americans identifying as vegetarian or vegan since 2020. In October, 8 percent declared as vegan, 6 percent as vegetarian, and 12 percent as mostly vegetarian, or flexitarian.  

The term “flexitarian” seems to have appeared in popular culture around 2004. This expansive gastronomic tribe of veggie-leaning omnivores may best exemplify the generational shift in eating habits.  

“Often, they don’t even recognize the term,” said Richard McIlwain, chief executive of The Vegetarian Society, a British nonprofit founded in 1847. “But they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we’re eating less and less meat. We’re having a couple of meat-free days.’” 

Polls suggest vegetarians make up 4 to 7 percent of the British population, McIlwain said. But nearly everyone in Britain knows about Veganuary, an annual challenge, launched in 2014, that encourages Britons to forgo meat for the first month of the year.  

“The last five years have been a really defining period, I think,” McIlwain said.  

The Great British Bake Off hosted its first vegan contestant, 19-year-old Freya Cox, in the autumn of 2021. Around the same time, Cadbury, the British confectioner, introduced a vegan variant on its signature Dairy Milk bar.  

“It’s the Netflix factor as well,” McIlwain said. “It’s films like ‘Cowspiracy,’ ‘Seaspiracy,’ ‘Game Changers,’ ‘Earthlings.’”  

In the United States, vegetarians and flexitarians may total 18 percent of the adult population, according to surveys by the Vegetarian Resource Group.  

Stahler, the co-founder, believes his surveys come closer than others to gauging the true vegetarian population. Other surveys typically ask if respondents identify as vegetarian, a descriptor that some occasional meat-eaters embrace. Stahler’s surveys require respondents to affirm that they never eat meat, fish, seafood or poultry. 

In its 2022 survey, the Vegetarian Resource Group found that roughly 6 percent of Americans eat no meat or fish at all, a group equally split between vegetarians and vegans. A larger group, 12 percent, said they usually eat vegetarian or vegan meals. A still larger group, 45 percent, eat veggie or vegan at least on occasion.

Eric DeFeo of Wilmington, Delaware, converted to veganism six years ago, after watching “Forks Over Knives,” another influential documentary about plant-based nutrition. 

“I went cold turkey that day,” he said.  

DeFeo is now vegan, 57 and single, struggling to meet women who tolerate his diet, let alone share it: “That’s a comedy itself,” he joked. “For the most part, in my age group, I just don’t run across it very much.” 

On Thursday, DeFeo will host a vegan Thanksgiving, with vegan stuffed shells as the main course.  

“My mom, she’s Italian,” he said. “She was over. She said she can’t taste the difference.”