Barely Anyone Is a Vegetarian—and That Might Not Be a Problem

A new study shows that people who stop eating meat tend to lapse quickly.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 9, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

My 20-some years as a vegetarian were exceptional. Not so much in the sense that I personally did something special, or that I’m exceedingly proud of having not eaten meat for so long—my parents were and remain vegetarians, and I didn’t eat meat from birth until college largely because that’s the way things were in my house. No, my two meatless decades are statistically exceptional, judging by a new report published by the Humane Research Council, an organization focused on animal rights advocacy. The study found that Americans who switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet are likely to go back to eating meat after just a year, with close to a third giving up after fewer than three months.

“Though there is rarely just one reason for people adopting or giving up a veg diet, it is not completely clear if lapses are due more to social pressures (eating a diet that seems unusual or outside the norm),” the researchers write, “or based on some other difficulty inherent to the diet itself.”

With the sad state of factory farming and the mounting research that eating meat has an outsize effect on climate change, the numbers presented in the study aren’t promising: Just 2 percent of the population doesn’t eat meat, with former vegetarians or vegans representing 10 percent of Americans. The study, based on a survey of more than 11,000 people, says that 88 percent of Americans have never tried a vegetarian diet.

But deciding when and where and how to eat or not eat meat is far different in 2014 from what it was in 1984. Vegetarians no longer have to shop in small, dimly lit stores that cater to the macrobiotic crowd, or eat exclusively at Thai, Chinese, or other tofu-serving restaurants when on vacation. You need not look further than the kale craze to see that vegetables are weirdly cool, Meatless Monday is certifiably “a thing,” and the market for meat that’s raised in an ethically and environmentally sound manner continues to grow.

Only 2 percent of the population is fully vegetarian, but a small survey of 3,000 conducted by NPR in 2012 showed that 39 percent were eating less meat than they had three years prior, and other research suggests that there’s been a gradual decline in consumption over the past 20 years.

I’ve eaten meat for much of the past decade, but at this point, it figures into my diet one or two nights a week, and I’m lucky enough to be able to afford the grass-fed, pasture-raised, thoughtfully coddled stuff. It’s an informed decision, rather than the passive choice that my vegetarianism was. While I don’t have data to back this up, it seems that more than 2 percent of the population are eating in such a manner—and if more people are eating less meat with the consequences in mind, that can make a difference.