Vegetarian? From either/or to both/and

There are powerful reasons to stop eating meat, to become a vegetarian (or to stop consuming any animal products, to become a vegan). The reasons for making this choice include reducing the cruelty to animals and the enormous environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture, and the benefits to human health.cow-277727_640

Numerous books (e.g., Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals) and films (such as Forks Over Knives and Vegucated) make the case, and it can be a compelling one.

Nonetheless, according to a 2008 study by Vegetarian Times magazine, the portion of the U.S. population that has chosen to go vegetarian is small, (approximately 3%) and the percentage that has adopted a vegan diet is smaller still (roughly 1%). A 2012 Gallup survey indicated that 5% of Americans consider themselves to be some kind of vegetarian. (Other surveys have generated somewhat different numbers.)

For a variety of reasons–including personal taste, family background, social convention, and the dominant food culture in most of the country–going vegetarian seems to many Americans like a big, difficult and extreme thing to do. These surveys suggest that for many people, when the question is presented as an either/or proposition, it is a larger step than they are prepared to take.

Engage people in your social or work circles in conversation about vegetarianism and meat-eating. It won’t be long before you’ll hear from those who can’t imagine living the rest of their lives without eating another cheeseburger, serving chicken wings at the Super Bowl party, or partaking of Aunt Sally’s lasagna with meat sauce.

But clearly, it doesn’t have to be either meat or no meat. Many compromise, part-time and part-way strategies have been proposed, such as:

  • The “meatless Monday” campaign, which suggests skipping meat one day per week, has been around for over a decade
  • Mark Bittman’s book Vegan Before 6 (VB6) advocates having whatever you want for dinner, but opting out of consuming animal products the rest of the day
  • Activist Graham Hill has promoted a “Weekday Veg” approach, having whatever he wants on the weekend and following a vegetarian diet during the week
Image of vegan gnocchi dish

Vegan gnocchi & vegetables (image courtesy of

Anyone can come up with his own variations: Cook meat dishes at home but order meatless in restaurants, or vice versa; eat whatever you want for breakfast, but go veg after noon; choose to be vegan or vegetarian on weekends; etc. There are many ways to shift from either/or to both/and on this issue–to expand your options, at least temporarily, rather than severely limit them all at once.

These approaches won’t necessarily please either the meat industry or many of the dedicated activists for whom veganism is an organizing principle in their lives. By definition, of course, these compromise positions are not designed to do that.

For all the shortcomings from a pure vegan point of view, the impact of these compromise positions could be huge. If one in five American meat eaters adopted Bittman’s VB6 approach, for example, consider the number of cows, pigs and chickens that would not be slaughtered. And contemplate what that shift would mean in the supermarket and restaurant industries: in response to market demands, the pressure to increase vegetarian options would be felt from your local grocery to national supermarket and restaurant chains with hundreds of outlets. Those expanded offerings would make it easier for more people to experiment and explore meatless alternatives. Given the way our consumer economy works, the ripple effect could produce transitional change.

One of the reasons vegetarianism seems so extreme to many people is that they imagine how difficult it would be to shop, eat out, entertain guests, or join the family for holiday dinners. What may be relatively simple and easy in major cities can seem complicated and impractical in small towns and rural areas, at the company cookout or back home with Mom and Dad. Making different choices in different situations is one way for people to cope in the moment, or to navigate a larger transition.

As Graham Hill notes in his TED Talk, if everybody ate half as much meat as they currently eat, it would be as if half the population went vegetarian.

The impact would be the same. You could make the same statement if the percentage was 33% or 25% or 10%. Frankly, the percentage of people who have gone vegetarian is not close to any of those numbers.

If you’ve read this far and have never tried meatless eating, consider one of these:

  • go to a favorite restaurant and order a meal with no animal products, even if you have to tell the server to hold the cheese on the salad and ask if there is a meat substitute for the pasta,
  • buy some meatless meatballs or seitan or textured soy protein on your next trip to the supermarket and commit to use it in a pasta dish or stir fry in the next two weeks, or
  • check out an appealing vegetarian cookbook at the public library and try a couple of the recipes before returning the book

There is nothing extreme about any of these choices. It doesn’t require a commitment to deprive yourself of your favorite foods next week, much less for the rest of your life. But actions like these can offer a glimpse of new possibilities; and they could lead to a bigger shift in your future. It also can expand options: a broader range of choices about what to prepare the next time you cook dinner for a friend who may be vegetarian or an added impetus to support the vegetarian restaurants in your area, or advocate for more meatless options at your favorite cafe.

From either/or to both/and: it can be an empowering shift.

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