Who Are The Vegetarians?
Who Thinks They Are Vegetarian?
Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsors an incredibly detailed set of health surveys called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They collect data on a nationally representative sample of the civilian, non-incarcerated U.S. population through extensive interviews and medical examinations. Each year since 1999, approximately 5,000 people took part in NHANES—giving us nearly 20 years of data on the nation’s diet and health.
Between 2007 and 2010, NHANES asked respondents if they were vegetarian. This presents a unique opportunity. Since the surveys are not sponsored by an animal welfare organization nor focused on vegetarianism or animal welfare, respondents are not primed to give pro-vegetarian responses. The datasets are also large and extremely high-quality—these surveys are designed and carried out by some of the best epidemiologists and survey methodologists in the world.
Spoiler Alert: “Vegetarians” Are Not All Vegetarians
This post describes characteristics of self-identified vegetarians. These are the respondents who answered “Yes” to the question “Do you consider yourself to be a vegetarian?” NHANES also collects food consumption data through two 24-hour dietary recall surveys. Surveys like these—in which a person is asked to recall everything she ate over the previous 24 hours—are considered a highly reliable record of what was actually eaten.
In this case, many of the self-identified vegetarians reported eating meat when they completed the dietary recall surveys. According to an analysis by WenYen Juan and colleagues, 48% of self-identified vegetarians reported eating red meat, poultry, or fish over a 24 hour period.
What follows, then, is about the demographics—gender, race/ethnicity, and education—of self-identified vegetarians on the basis of an analysis of over 20,000 NHANES respondents. A follow-up post will look at what, if anything, distinguishes the meat-eating “vegetarians” from the others. Details on the background, methods, and results can be found in the full report.
Demographics of Self-identified Vegetarians
An estimated 2.2% of the non-incarcerated civilian U.S. population consider themselves to be vegetarian (+/- 0.37%).
Two-thirds of self-identified vegetarians are female and one-third male. Put differently, 1.5% of males and 2.9% of females identify as vegetarian.
For the most part, the racial/ethnic composition of self-identified vegetarians did not substantially differ from the U.S. population as a whole. The one difference that really stands out is that a quarter of self-identified vegetarians report their race/ethnicity as “other,” meaning not White, Black/African American or Hispanic, while this group makes up just 7% of the general population.
70% of self-identified vegetarians were born in the U.S. in comparison to 86% of the general population. This difference reflected the high proportion of self-identified vegetarians born outside the United States in non-Spanish speaking countries (23% versus 7% of the general population).
Among adult vegetarians, 43% had a college degree, versus 27% in the general population. Self-identified vegetarians did not differ substantially in age or income from the general population.
How Do These Results Compare?
A previous Faunalytics survey looked at current and former vegetarians and vegans. It also estimated that 2% of the U.S. population are vegetarian. However, we should be wary of thinking that this agreement in estimates means the 2% figure is accurate. The Faunalytics survey was careful to check whether respondents said that they consumed any meat or fish items as well as whether they regarded themselves as vegetarian. This should lead to a lower estimate of the number of vegetarians. But the Faunalytics sample was also not representative of the US population—it is skewed female, white, and more educated than the population overall. We’d expect this to lead to a higher estimate of the number of vegetarians.
Despite these differences, the results of the two analyses largely agree on the demographics of vegetarians. Both surveys showed that self-described vegetarians were more likely to be female and college-educated than non-vegetarians. Also consistent with NHANES, in the Faunalytics survey vegetarians were more likely than non-vegetarians to identify as Asian/Pacific Islander or “other” race/ethnicity (i.e. not white, Black/African American or Hispanic).
Further Thoughts, Further Questions
Given the quality of the NHANES surveys and the sample size, this data provides one of the best available estimates of the number of self-described vegetarians. Given how many self-described vegetarians also report eating meat, it is also highly misleading as a statistic for the number of actual vegetarians. Nonetheless, even self-described vegetarians who eat meat may be more receptive to pro-veg*n messaging than other groups, so the information is still useful information to have.
Why the discrepancy between self-reported vegetarian status and diet recall exists is unknown. It is possible that the term “vegetarian” is understood differently by different people or that aspirational vegetarians self-identify as vegetarian.
The race/ethnicity data collected by NHANES is not fine-grained. But it is striking that such a large proportion of people whose self-reported race/ethnicity is “other” self-identify as vegetarian. One possibility is that many of these people were born in or have cultural ties to countries where a large proportion of the population is vegetarian, such as India. This explanation would fit with the disproportionate number of self-identified vegetarians who were born abroad but not in Spanish-speaking countries.
Self-identified vegetarians make up approximately 2.2% of the non-incarcerated, civilian U.S. population, according to a very large, high-quality dataset. Self-identified vegetarians are more likely than other people to be female, college-educated, born in a non-Spanish speaking country outside the U.S., and to belong to a race/ethnicity other than White, Black, or Hispanic. Since nearly half of self-identified vegetarians report eating meat or fish, further research is needed regarding characteristics of “true” vegetarians and how terms like “vegetarian” are understood.