Cristianne Johnson did not transition to vegetarian lifestyle out of necessity. She had no allergies, no environmental concerns, no political motives.
“My roommate told me I couldn’t do it,” Johnson said, “so I told her to watch me. And here we are 10 months later.”
Johnson, a senior journalism communication major at Gannon University, represents a very small segment of the U.S. population.
A 2012 Gallup poll found a mere 5 percent of American adults consider themselves to be vegetarians. That number remains largely unchanged from the 6 percent who identified as vegetarian in 1999 and 2001.
The survey further broke down respondents by gender, age, education, ideology and marital status. Nearly all these subcategories had similar numbers of vegetarians, suggesting that the stereotypical vegetarian is nothing more than a myth.
Five percent of people ages 18 to 29 identified as vegetarian, versus 7 percent ages 50 to 64. Six percent of people who hold a high school diploma or less considered themselves vegetarian, versus 3 percent of college graduates.
The biggest distinction applied to marital status. A scant 3 percent of married respondents considered themselves vegetarian. Meanwhile, 8 percent of unmarried respondents affirmed their vegetarianism.
But what exactly is a vegetarian?
Dawna Mughal, Ph.D., an associate professor in Gannon’s sport and exercise science program, described vegetarianism as a plant-based diet.
“There is no single type of vegetarian diet,” Mughal said, citing research from the National Institutes of Health.
Instead, she said, several kinds of vegetarian diets exist: the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which includes both eggs and dairy products; the lacto vegetarian diet, which includes plant foods plus dairy products; and the vegan diet, which excludes all meat and animal products.
Furthermore, some vegetarians, called pescatarians, eat fish but reject poultry and meat. Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, only consume meat occasionally.
Despite varying definitions, nutrition experts and health organizations agree that a more plant-based diet is beneficial, Mughal said. Vegetarian diets typically have fewer calories as well as lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. They also incorporate more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than other diets.
Compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians usually weigh less and have decreased risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Still, researchers are unsure if the absence of meat is solely responsible for all these benefits. Many vegetarians are more physically active than their carnivorous counterparts, and they eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.
Mughal said that people who follow vegetarian diets can, in fact, meet their nutritional needs. They must take extra care to get enough protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Because dry cereals, breads and other foods are often fortified with these nutrients, vegetarians generally do get enough. Beans, nuts, eggs, soy products and leafy greens are other sources of crucial nutrients.
Ben Speggen, an adjunct lecturer in the English department at Gannon, completed three stints as a vegetarian. The first lasted about six months in 2006. He said he initially struggled with the adjustment and noted that the first two weeks of the switch were the most challenging for him.
Speggen said he began replacing lunchmeat sandwiches with peanut butter and jelly. After tiring of that combination, he switched to hummus and cheese. Eventually he realized he really didn’t have to eat a sandwich for lunch.
“Seeing food differently is key to a better diet and a better appreciation of your food,” Speggen said.
Between 2007 and 2008, he went vegetarian a second time and stuck with it for a year or so.
In 2009, Speggen recommitted. He said ethics played a bigger role in his decision the third time around. Films such as “Meet Your Meat” and “Food, Inc.” increased his awareness of what goes on in the food industry.
“We’re not kind to our food,” he said. “I think that in American culture, because we see things in such mass quantities, we don’t perceive where our food comes from.”
Nominated for best documentary in the 82nd Academy Awards, “Food, Inc.” shed light on the big business behind agricultural and animal food products. In doing so, the film demonstrated why some people choose to forego meat.
Regardless of motivation or duration, Speggen’s periods of vegetarianism all had one aspect in common: the way he felt physically.
In his first month on a meat-free diet, he said, he lost 30 pounds. Additionally, he experienced renewed energy.
He discontinued the diet for work-related reasons. As the managing editor at the Erie Reader, he often writes restaurant reviews.
“To adequately review a restaurant,” he said, “you need to be able to partake in the whole menu.”
Johnson said restaurants have become a source of frustration since becoming a vegetarian.
“It’s really hard to find good places to go that offer a variety of options for me to eat,” she said.
Speggen said he agreed, adding that a vegetarian must embrace a more ethnically diverse palate. He recommends Khao Thai, Raj Mahal and Casablanca – all based in Erie.
“One of the nice things about being vegetarian is that it generally forces you to look at local restaurants,” Speggen said.
Chains with flexible menus also can be suitable for people on a meatless diet.
“Honestly, the places that are best for vegetarians are places where you can dictate what goes into your food,” Johnson said.
She said she enjoys the fare at Moe’s Southwest Grill and Chop’t Creative Salad Company because it’s fresh and made to order.
Despite their restrictions, both Speggen and Johnson said they would encourage others to eat less meat or eliminate it altogether.
“You feel better, you’re making more responsible decisions when you eat,” Speggen said.
“Ultimately, it’s just healthier.”