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Climatarians had a big 2015. Here's why we may be just at the start of a surge of new food identities.
Climatarians had a big 2015. Here's why we may be just at the start of a surge of new food identities.
Credit: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

The next time you’re at a dinner party and someone identifies themselves as a climatarian, don’t look shocked.

Climatarians just had a big year. The term, referring to an individual whose diet is geared toward reducing the effects of climate change, was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 most interesting new food words of 2015, among a glut of occasionally bemused media attention, including from this outlet.

Biba Hartigan believes it is with good reason that climatarian seems to be catching on.

Hartigan is a co-founder of the London-based Climates, a fledgling international social network which introduced the climatarian diet, which essentially consists of cutting out beef and lamb, last July.

She says the term is taking off because the environmentally conscious have been yearning for a way to tackle carbon emissions, an issue that seems massive, in a meaningful way that is both simple and more precise to communicate to others when compared to more familiar terms like flexitarian or part-time vegetarian.

“The climatarian message is so simple that people grasp the idea and think, yep, this is something I can do. It’s a very simple shift,” Hartigan told The Huffington Post of the climatarian diet. “Reducing your intake of meat is a difficult concept for people to deal with. What we’re aiming for with this is making it very clear, simple and easy.”

Climatarian is just one of several new terms -- or micro-identities -- eaters are coming up with to describe their increasingly specified diets beyond the more straightforward distinctions of carnivore, omnivore or herbivore. There are locavores and Paleo enthusiasts, fruitarians and, here's another rookie, reducetarians.

Brian Kateman is a co-founder and president of the New York-based Reducetarian Foundation, an education and research nonprofit established last year.

According to Kateman, reducetarians are individuals who are dedicated to cutting back on their meat intake.

That message is resonating. Kateman says thousands of people have already signed onto a reducetarian pledge on the foundation’s website. A TEDx talk he gave on the subject has been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube.

While some reducetarians may share climatarians’ environmental concerns, he described the community he has spearheaded as being agnostic when it comes to motive.

“We don’t want to dictate why a person is eating less meat,” Kateman said. “We want to celebrate them for whatever reason they have for going on this journey.”

This, Kateman explained, sets reducetarian apart from other identities with a similar objective that can intimidate those who fall short of cutting their meat intake entirely. And that distinction, he believes, is essential.

“People view behavior as an all-or-nothing premise, especially on something as morally charged as meat. But it’s simply not true that it has to be all or nothing,” Kateman explained. “I think changing the tone of the conversation around meat consumption is an incredibly important thing.”

But can these feel-good identities truly deliver on their lofty goals, sticking around for years to come? Or are they just another fad, another way for people to feel unique from their neighbor?

After all, these words and diets tend to fade in and out of fashion. Ten years ago, the Paleo diet was non-existent and few people were talking about gluten or going vegan.

As a Google Trends analysis shows, all three terms have steadily risen in popularity over the past decade, while a term like vegetarian has remained level. The Atkins diet, for comparison sake, was once hugely popular but today is barely on the radar.

Certain food-related search terms, like gluten, have grown massively in popularity over the past decade. Others have plateaued.
Certain food-related search terms, like gluten, have grown massively in popularity over the past decade. Others have plateaued.
Credit: Google

Samuel Boerboom, an assistant professor of media studies at Montana State University Billings, who last year edited and contributed to an essay collection titled The Political Language of Food, believes there are good reasons behind the surge of new food identities.

Boerboom believes it is a response to a food information environment that is often vague, thanks to conflicting advice from government agencies, marketers, researchers and the media. Identifying one's diet with a new term or ideology can help an overwhelmed eater make sense of it all.

From there, we add it to our ever-growing list of identities and alliances we broadcast to the world through social media, he explained.

“My best hypothesis at the moment is that this has something to do with how our identities are mediated online,” Boerboom said. “We present so much of ourselves online and it’s nice to have a category for this and an index to link up with other people.”

But can climatarians and their ilk change the world? While Boerboom agreed their motives may be genuine, a continued fracturing of new identities could reach a tipping point where their impact becomes moot.

“If there are too many of these identities and no one can clearly say this is what it means to be a climatarian or vegetarian, we run the risk of losing political solidarity,” Boerboom said. “I think there will be a saturation point where it will become difficult to even have a conversation with other people about your food-based identity.”

For his part, Kateman thinks that point, if it comes, is still a long way away.

“I don’t think it’s that we need to replace existing words. I think all those words are fine,” Kateman said. "But [having a word like this is] a really important thing when you’re trying to communicate to friends and family the admirable actions you’re taking in your diet.”

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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