The rise of the incidental vegetarians

18 January 2017

The Aussie cliche of throwing a few steaks and snags on the barbecue may soon be a thing of the past, as people are slowly phasing out the meat and three veg staple in favour of a plate of, well, mostly just veg.

New research by Roy Morgan has revealed the number of Australians who eat "all or mostly vegetarian" has risen from 1.7 million to 2.1 million in just four years. And a total of 9.9 million Australian adults now eat less red meat than in the past.

It seems we're well on our way to meat- (and maybe dairy-) free living.

So what's behind the drive? While the increasing awareness of animal welfare likely plays a part, it seems there is a much larger lifestyle trend at work.

Introducing the incidental vegetarians – those who aren't exclusively vegetarian or meat eaters, but eat according to leading lifestyle factors such as the cost of living, quality and price of animal products and the want for a healthy body.

And when you look at the leading factors driving it, it makes sense.

Economically, red meat is no longer affordable. In Australia the cost of beef has risen 12 per cent, according to Meat and Livestock Australia, and is said to continue to rise, having done so in the past nine consecutive quarters.

Then there's the general cost of living. The Roy Morgan survey revealed interesting revelations about states, indicating a direct linear to the cost of living and veg uptake.

Sydney – as one of the of the most notoriously expensive cities in the world – now has the highest proportion of city dwellers rapidly adopting a "little or no meat diet" while Tasmania – ranked the second poorest economy according to a recent CommSec study – is leading the way as the most prevalent vegie diet state.

With an increased cost of living, it naturally makes sense then that younger people are spearheading the move to veg both for cost saving and health benefits.

The survey found 30 per cent of those adopting a mostly vegetarian diet were young people from inner city neighbourhoods who were sociable, sporty, always on-the-go and careful to balance their lifestyle with a healthy diet. Of the same over-18 group, they also agreed weight loss reasons played a large part.

Talk to any Gen Y-er and you'll find the prevalence of meat-free diets rapidly growing.

Emily Schade, 26, of Tasmania, says reducing her weekly meat consumption has not only helped save on her grocery bill but given her more options.

"I've learned it's surprisingly easy to make traditional favourites using substitutes such as lentils, legumes, beans and tofu. And by not buying meat it's lightened the shopping bill which means when I do choose to, I can justify buying more expensive locally sourced, organic meat."

But she still won't give meat up for good. "I still love a good steak – the reality is though I can still enjoy it, I just don't need to eat it every day."

Chris Sonneveld, 33, of ACT, has also adopted a more vegetarian lifestyle in the past six months and agrees money is an influencing factor in his decision.

"The cost and poor quality of meat from the supermarket over the last few years has definitely played a part in choosing to eat vegetarian meals," says Sonneveld.

"Meat, in my eyes, is overpriced for the quality. I can get optimal protein from beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts and wholegrains and save more."

The only downside was fearing initial acceptance from those who may snub his move to vegetarian eating, with meat still an ingrained norm in Aussie culture.

"I didn't want others to think I was picky about food, but people are quite open-minded. I'm not one to push my lifestyle choices onto others and I highlight this when speaking with people, in case they think they're about to get a lecture on animal rights," says Sonneveld.

"I did stop visiting eateries that didn't cater for my needs though and now visit those that do."

However, it appears Australian cafes and restaurants are not only adapting to offer more vegetarian choices, but making them the star dishes on menus.

Soul Burger in Sydney launched recently as the "first gourmet plant-based burger joint" and is a leading example of this change.

Amit Tewari, owner of Soul Burger, hopes to redefine the Australian food culture of what people classify as "tasting good" by emulating animal meat in taste and texture but offering a plant-based, healthy new spin on traditional classics.

"I think if we can continue to make it sexy enough, the Australian food scene will grow to have more mainstream restaurants that include plant-based options or entire plant-based menus," says Tewari.

At its heart, he believes Australians will continue to convert, as long as the message is right.

"We're careful to not lump plant-based eating with 'organic', 'healthy,' 'raw' buzz words and instead will discuss it as 'satiating', 'flavour', 'satisfying' and 'gratifying'," he says.

And it appears to be working. "I've noticed more people are definitely now eating this way – it's trendy, it's healthier, you feel lighter, your climate footprint is smaller and the dilemmas people face around the treatment of the animals are moot."

While cost and trends both play into it, the effect on animal welfare is still an influence trickling through to restaurateurs.

Gigi Pizzeria in Sydney's inner west has recently gone through a controversial overhaul, removing all cheese and meat from the menu and offering vegan-only pizzas.

Owner Marco Matino says converting to veganism made him realise the impact his business could have on the future.

"I had noticed the rise of veganism – although I would call it a shift in consciousness rather than a trend – and hoped we could direct more attention to the importance of adopting a plant-based diet," says Matino.

"Our customers are happy it doesn't cost lives or the earth and since changing to a plant-based menu the response from people is far more gratifying."

The noticeable impact on health and weight loss cannot be overlooked either.

"While people are now becoming more ethically conscious about the foods they consume they are also feeling better physically and mentally from eating less meat," says Melbourne based nutritionist Bannie Williams.

She also believes it's the same reason behind the dairy-free movement. "I think people are beginning to avoid it as they realise it doesn't agree with their bodies and are more attuned to their stomach discomfort."

She does warn though, while affordable and potentially better for the gut, cutting back on meat or dairy still comes with risk.

"When you remove a food group there's always risk of deficiency. I recommend young people and women aged from 20 to 35 seek advice from a practitioner in regards to their iron status and calcium intake if they want to follow more of a vegetarian or vegan diet," says Williams.

However, she still welcomes the trend. "Any diet rich in plant-based foods is healthy, so provided it's part of an overall balanced diet, it is definitely positive."

Dietitian Jo McMillan notes though, if going down the vegan route, be wary and don't buy into too much hype.

"A vegan diet can go very wrong if you cut out animal foods and don't supplement it with omega-3s and vitamin B12," says McMillan.

"To believe dairy is not natural for our bodies is nonsense. If you have a European ancestry (80 per cent of us have) then we have adapted via epigenetics to produce the enzyme lactase to digest milk. While we can clearly do without, for most of us it offers a fabulous source of protein and calcium."

So with the rise of incidental vegetarians and vegans growing, where does this leave us? Should we continue to swerve the meat and dairy aisles or request vegie buddha bowls over bacon and eggs?

McMillan says ultimately it's about forgetting fads and focusing on enjoying what you're eating, whatever that may be.

"Eating habits are what's important. Sitting around the table with friends or family should be a joyous part of the day and right now seems one that too many people are missing out on."

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