I Think, Therefore I Am? Self-Identification And Vegetarians
As vegetarian and vegan eating continues an upward trend across various parts of the world, it stands to reason that more people that are interested in identifying themselves with the diet. Additionally, there is a long history of people using a rather loose definition of the term “vegetarian.” Many animal advocates can recount stories of family members thinking that being “vegetarian” could include eating fish or chicken. Although most animal/veg*n advocates might correctly define a vegetarian diet, many members of the general public – including self-identified vegetarians – may not share our definition(s).
This study looks at the phenomenon of self-identification among vegetarians in the United States. Researchers wanted to study what kinds of food self-identified vegetarians actually consume, to better understand links between being vegetarian and various health outcomes: “The main purpose of this study,” they say, “was to compare the types and quantities of food groups and subgroups, as well as the average total energy intake and the number of food items consumed per day.” While this purpose is much more focused on health and nutrition, the research inadvertently shows us that many people who consider themselves to be vegetarians actually consume some type of animal protein as part of their regular diet. Using a combined data set with more than 15,000 respondents, the results reveal just how slippery the term “vegetarian” can be.
In their study, the researchers found that 2.1% of the US population identified themselves as vegetarian, which is in the range of many current estimates of the number of veg*ns in the U.S. Only 3% of those (i.e. 0.06% of the US population) reported consuming no animal protein whatsoever, Not surprisingly, the majority of self-identified vegetarians reported consuming dairy (93%) and/or eggs (65%). What might be surprising is that the study also found that more than a quarter of self-identified vegetarians (27%) reported “consumption of some type of red meat.” When they grouped together “meat, poultry, and seafood” they found that “almost half (48%) of self-identified vegetarians reported consumption of some food from this combined grouping.” The fact that about half of self-identified vegetarians are not actually vegetarian is important for advocates to keep in mind as we weigh the value of different surveys and try to identify trends.