Consider this opening, by an apparently sincere lifestyle writer in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper, in an article titled, “50 shades of vegetarianism: how going meat-free got complicated:”
“As I write, I am eating a Hoisin duck wrap, yet for most of my life I have described myself as vegetarian. Well, semi-veggie. Friends scoff, pointing to the numerous occasions they’ve seen me order steak tartare and medium-rare burgers. But with endless meat-related health warnings ringing in my head, I do try my best to abstain.”
Several things going on with that statement.
“Endless meat-related warnings” pretty much sums up the last decade for both mainstream media and anti-industry activists. From early death to incurable cancer to a slew of (alleged) chronic diseases such as diabetes, there has indeed been what seems like a never-ending string of reports, studies and exposés that purport to convince the public that a bite of beef or a strip of bacon is equivalent to drinking bleach or ingesting rat poison.
Second, if this reporter’s friends are dedicated veggies, I can understand why they’d scoff at someone who calls herself a vegetarian … and then orders steak tartare!
That said, why is the “solution” always abstinence? What happened to moderation? In fact, isn’t that the idea behind Meatless Mondays? Don’t give up eating animal foods entirely, just dial it back once a week, right?
Of course, we all know that some of the biggest proponents of that proposal are the very ones who stand to benefit from it, with Exhibit A being Sir Paul McCartney, who happens to own a vegetarian foods company.
Of course, as anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed, “What people say, and what they do, and what they say they do are three completely different things.” Simply saying that one is a vegetarian has virtually no specificity anymore.
What’s it mean to be ‘veggie?’
That’s because there are now as many permutations of “veggie” as there are gender identities on a college admissions app. Here are some of the more common variations:
ü Vegetarian. According to the (British) Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is “someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, fungi, algae, yeast and/or some other non-animal-based foods... with or without dairy products, honey and/or eggs.” By that standard, you basically stop eating beef, pork or chicken, and you’re good to go.
And no steak tartare, either.
ü Vegan. As The Telegraph story explained, “entry-level vegetarianism” allows professed adherents to enjoy such verboten treats as toasted cheese sandwiches, milkshakes and even scrambled eggs (hopefully, naturally raised, free-range, organic, vegetarian-fed brands, of course). A vegan diet, however, excludes all meat, all dairy, all animal products period. Moreover, vegans need to oppose not just the death of animals — although that’s an unspeakable tragedy when it involves pets or livestock; just another day in the woods when it involves wildlife — but all “exploitation,” too. Thus, true vegans must avoid using any animal products, such as leather, any animal-derived ingredients, such as honey, and any activity involving animals, such as medical research or pet breeding.
There’s some gray area involving companion animals, watchdogs or K-9 animals, but true vegans consider them to be necessary evils, not positive examples of human-animal interaction.
ü Reducetarian. According to the Reducetarian Foundation, these are people who try to “improve human health, protect the environment and spare farm animals from cruelty by reducing consumption of animal products.” Essentially, they’re people who are walking, talking proof that Margaret Mead had it right on the nose about what people say, and what they actually do.
ü Flexitarian. Flexitarians also aspire to eat less meat, but with a more structured approach, such as going meat-free on a designated day of the week, only eating meat at weekends or when dining out. In other words, not a vegetarian at all.
Now, for some really thin slices of the vegetarian demographic:
ü Veggan. A vegan who eats eggs. Agreed: eggs are tasty, convenient and highly nutritional. And I guess technically, you don’t have to kill a chicken to get them. But aside from changing the spelling, how in the heck is that a vegan diet?
ü Pegan. A pegan is someone on a modified paleo diet — the seasonal, “cavemen regimen” that includes limited eggs, fish and red meat, but virtually no cereal grains, since Neanderthals, despite their skill at painting on the walls of their caves, didn’t know anything about the dangers of eating carbs while trying to maintain ripped, six-pack abs. Which probably wasn’t a big issue with males back then, since they had no shirts to peel off at the beach, and anyways, they were covered in fur.
ü Frutarians. These geniuses eat nothing but fruit, along with an occasional nut or seed. It’s a highly restrictive diet and carries an extreme risk of malnourishment. Although the late Steve Jobs of Apple fame was reportedly an occasional acolyte, even the Fruitarian Info website warns that “A 100% fruit diet is not recommended.”
Finally, as The Telegraph writer aptly noted, she’s “nothing but a faketarian” when it comes to giving up meat, claiming, however, that she’s not alone. She noted that she’s “doing [her] best to follow a vegetarian diet, but not foregoing meat altogether if it looks good on a restaurant menu.”
And that is precisely how I’d describe many of the people who love to say they’re vegetarians — until they start reading the menu.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.