What do you call a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat?
If you guessed omnivore, you're not alone.
But you're not right, either. At least not according to the American Dialect Society, which gave the term flexitarian -- used to describe meat- eating vegetarians -- its top honor for most useful word of 2003.
Flexitarians adhere to a mostly vegetarian diet because it's a healthy lifestyle rather than because of ideology. They feel an occasional meal that includes fish, fowl or meat is acceptable.
Margie Roswell, for example, is passionate about her plant-based diet. She holds monthly potluck vegan dinners. She attends Vegetarian Summerfest every year in Johnstown, Pa. And she has even held a raw-food seder for her family.
But once or twice a month, she usually eats some type of meat, often free- range chicken or turkey.
"I just feel like a little bit of meat is a natural part of the human diet," says Roswell, a 42-year-old Baltimore resident. "I will go 100 percent vegan for a period of time, but that doesn't mean when I go to my sister's house for Thanksgiving that I won't have part of the turkey."
Although Roswell says she's not sure she will call herself a flexitarian, she likes knowing there is a term to describe her eating habits.
"It's a pretty good word," she says. "I always thought I was in the very, very tiny minority. ... It's nice to know you're not alone."
Flexitarians a large group
The market for vegetarian food in the United States has grown significantly in the past five years, from about $646 million in 1998 to $1.6 billion in 2003, according to a report by the Mintel Group, a consulting company that tracks consumer habits. The report predicts that the market will reach $2.5 billion by 2008.
Baltimore's Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that about 3 percent of the population is vegetarian -- consuming no meat, fish or fowl. About 1 percent of that number includes people who consider themselves vegan: They also exclude dairy, eggs and other animal byproducts from their diets.
But flexitarians could be as high as 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Stahler is not particularly fond of the term flexitarian, but he views this newly defined group as being good candidates to become future vegetarians or vegans.
"There is no reason not to be vegetarian," Stahler says. "It used to be hard from a supply point of view.
But now it's much easier to be vegetarian. And certainly from a health point of view, it makes sense."
Health, ethical reasons
The rise in flexitarians, he says, could be linked to a number of factors, including issues such as health and fitness and animal rights. Also, economic pressure has forced traditional grocery stores to carry more ethnic and natural foods, making it easier to buy vegetarian products.
Stahler isn't surprised at the growing number of flexitarians. "I do think that organic and free-range is a trend most people are headed to" in their diets, he says.
Editors at Vegetarian Times in Virginia dropped the magazine's activist editorial tone two years ago after a survey revealed 60 percent to 70 percent of its readership did not consider themselves strict vegetarians.
More products available
"It made sense for us to refocus ... to be more inclusive of the people who were just starting to learn about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, " managing editor Carla Davis says.
Even traditional grocery stores such as Giant Food are giving organic food and vegetarian foods such as tofu hot dogs and veggie burgers more space.
"It's definitely a growth area," says Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs for Giant Food of Landover, Md. "There's more interest and more demand. We didn't ... carry organic food in every store, and now we do."
Janna Howley, with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future, likes the term flexitarian because it suggests moderation, something the center has been trying to promote in its Meatless Monday health campaign.
Meatless Monday is a national program to help prevent heart disease, stroke and cancer -- the three leading causes of death in the United States. The goal is to reduce consumption of saturated fat by at least 15 percent by 2010. The campaign defines meatless as abstaining from meat and poultry, but not fish and seafood.
"We thought it was a great term when we first heard it," Howley says of the word flexitarian. "These are some of the people we want to target. We are not promoting giving up meat entirely, but want to recognize the health benefits connected with decreasing consumption of meat."
From vegan to merely health-conscious
There are all sorts of vegetarians, including so-called flexitarians, who adhere to a mostly vegetarian diet but still occasionally eat meat. Here's a look at the various categories of food consumers, provided by Baltimore's Vegetarian Resource Group.
Vegans: Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs or honey.
Strict vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry or fish.
Flexitarians: Include the groups below:
-- Vegetarian: Those who say they are vegetarian, or "almost vegetarian," but use some meat, poultry or fish.
-- Vegetarian-inclined: Replace meat with meat alternatives for at least some meals, usually maintain a vegetarian diet, or eat four or more meatless meals per week.
-- Health-conscious: Strive for a balanced eating plan or eat two to three meatless meals per week.