By Maneka Gandhi
Even though people have been vegetarian for centuries (Confucious, Plato, Jesus and his brother John, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, are some that I can think of outside India), the term vegetarian was coined in 1839 and referred to people who ate a plant-based diet.
For the last 200 years, since commercial slaughterhouses were invented, people became strong meat eaters and the result has been devastation on the planet. Now, both, realisation and reaction has set in all over the world. Being vegetarian is fashionable. Few people will now insist in public that they are die-hard meat eaters. Most say apologetically, “we don’t eat meat at home” or “we don’t eat it very often”. Many people will say they are vegetarian – but they eat some fish, others eat eggs, others milk. I know one vegetarian who eats the gravy of meat dishes with the excuse that it is made of vegetables!! Everyone has a different definition of what they do and don’t want to eat – as vegetarians.
You must have heard this answer from a lot of people, whom you ask whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian: “Both”.
The road from carnivore to vegan is paved with small concrete steps, each with their own designation and description:
Omnivore: one who eats everything.
Carnivore: one who eats meat.
Pescatarian: someone who doesn’t eat meat but eats fish. The term pescatarian was coined in the early 1990s and is a combination of the Italian word for fish, “pesce,” and the word “vegetarian.” Some Bengalis call themselves vegetarians because they won’t eat meat, and fish are labeled Jal Torai or vegetables of the sea. Even with pescatarians there are sub-groups : for example, Jews eat fish, but are not allowed to eat shellfish. Some people eat fish but are allergic to shellfish.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: someone who won’t eat meat, chicken, seafood or fish, but will eat dairy products and eggs.
Lacto-vegetarian: someone who won’t eat meat, eggs, fish, seafood or chicken, but will take dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, ghee, ice cream, paneer and confectionary. Punjabis and Gujaratis come to mind.
Ovo-vegetarian: someone who does not eat meat, fish, seafood, chicken or dairy products but eats eggs. This is usually justified by saying that the eggs are not “fertilised” so they are vegetarian.
Pollovegetarian: someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy but will eat chicken.
Pesco pollo vegetarian: the person avoids red meat but eats chicken and fish.
Macrobiotic: A follower of this diet is mainly vegetarian, but it sometimes includes seafood. This “vegetarian” focuses on eating local and seasonal foods that balance each other. More than a philosophy, this is done for health reasons.
Living food eater: I don’t think this includes raw meat or fish (otherwise we go right back to the top with carnivore.) This person eats only raw foods. The concern is that heating foods above 116°F destroys important enzymes that help with digestion. This person also believes that cooking diminishes the vitamin and mineral content of the food.
Fruitarian: a person who eats only fruits and vegetables, often including beans, nuts, and grains, usually raw. These foods are taken from the plant without killing it.
Vegan: no meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products — and foods that contain these products. No honey, gelatin, albumin, rennet. No wearing of animal products like leather, wool, silk
Whatever the path being taken and the level of commitment, the reality is that cutting your meat consumption is a positive step. Reducing the amount of meat in your diet benefits your health, promotes animal well-being and helps the planet support the growing human population. Each vegan saves about 200 animals a year and makes a positive impact on saving water, lessening pollution and land degradation, saving hundreds of trees and lessening suffering.
The word most currently in vogue is “flexitarian”, which means “semi vegetarian” – primarily a plant-based diet but can include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion, or in small quantities. Someone who has just started the journey towards self awareness. A Meatless Monday beginning.
When a trend starts, obviously scientific study follows. An interesting study on the psychology of flexitarianism has been done by Rosenfeld, Rothgerber and Tomiyama (published in Food Quality and Preference Feb 4, 2021).
Flexitarians are omnivores who attempt to limit the amount of animal products they consume. While the number of vegetarians and vegans remains low in most countries, the number of flexitarians is far larger, with numbers as high as 14% in the UK, according to a recent poll done by YouGov, a UK polling company. According to the YouGov poll, 18% of women from 18-24 are flexitarian, and 3% are vegan. For men in the same age range, 10% are flexitarian and 1% are vegan. For, both, men and women, individuals under 35 are more likely to be vegan or vegetarian.
But vegetarianism isn’t just a diet choice. It’s a lifestyle and identity chosen for a variety of reasons, including moral, environmental and health. Vegetarians differ psychologically from omnivores. So, what is the psychology of flexitarians?
Researchers recruited 564 flexitarians and 154 vegetarians and asked them why they avoided meat, and whether the flexitarians intended to go vegetarian in the future.
This is what they found:
There were no age or income differences between flexitarians and vegetarians on average.
Both had a large number of vegetarians in their social network.
But they found, unlike vegetarians, that flexitarians were much less likely to say that avoiding meat was central to their identity. They were less judgmental of omnivores’ choice to eat meat, and less likely to feel that eating meat was morally wrong.
However, the flexitarians in the study believed that society judged them far more positively for avoiding meat. The researchers found that flexitarians were less likely to be avoiding meat for a cause beyond themselves, like animal welfare or the environment, or even personal benefits like health.
Vegetarians were much less concerned about how their diet was viewed by society. They had adopted the diet for causes outside themselves – and a few for health reasons.
The researchers asked flexitarians whether they intended to go vegetarian at some point. Almost all of them said yes, and one of the main reasons they gave was that society looks favourably on vegetarians.
Both, the study and the poll showed that flexitarians are nearly three times more likely, than the general public, to say that they are “actively trying to reduce their meat consumption”. The poll showed that Flexitarians, who intend to go vegan or vegetarian, are more likely to be students or part-time workers, live at home or with housemates, and expect a child in the recent future. They also tend to rely more on online media than print or television, and use social media at a higher rate. This suggests that they are in the under-30 demographic.
Flexitarians are also more likely to engage in general socially-conscious behaviour, like recycling and buying fair trade. They are generally more concerned with a brand’s social views and ethics, than the general population. Flexitarians and pescatarians consume dairy or meat substitutes at a far higher rate than the general population. They are also willing to try out new foods.
The problem lies now with defining flexitarianism. A vegetarian and a pescetarian are clearly defined. But a flexitarian eats everything. People are unreliable when it comes to assessing their own behaviour. Someone who eats meat daily also describes himself in public as a flexitarian. So, while he is conscious of where he should go, the lure of the palate is infinitely greater. While a significant amount may say they’re attempting to cut out meat and dairy, fewer will likely follow through.
So, how does one turn a flexitarian into a vegetarian? If one goes by this data, I would think the best way to do it would be to make the word flexitarian far more popular, and bring it up constantly when introducing, or talking to, someone who has decided to lessen their meat habit. You need to solidify their meat avoiding identity, and to encourage them to take pride in it and bring it up in their own conversation. If they felt they were part of a large community going in the same direction, they could be persuaded to walk on the same road as vegetarians.
These are people who are very aware of “society” and its trends. Which means that personal benefit is a strong psychological factor. So, pushing the health benefits to them would be helpful as a backup tool.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)