At this point, “vegetarian” and “vegan” aren’t exactly novel terms in the U.S. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, some 5 percent of Americans report that they’ve given up meat, while 2 percent have forsaken animal products entirely.
When talking about their dietary habits, people tend to speak in absolutes—they give up all meat, or all foods that come from animals; on the other end of the spectrum, they give up nothing at all. But there’s a wide berth between the enthusiastic carnivore and the vegetarian, and many people lack the vocabulary to describe the many, many food different choices that exist within those shades of gray.
Terms like “flexitarian,” “climatarian,” and “reducetarian” all share a central focus on eating fewer animal products, but as the people who claim these labels will tell you, each has its own definition as distinct as that of “vegetarian.” A flexitarian is someone who rarely, though occasionally, consumes meat, including red meat, poultry, and seafood. A climatarian is someone who eats less meat—especially the most energy-consuming meats, like beef and lamb—specifically for environmental reasons. Meanwhile, a reducetarian (a term I coined) is someone who makes an effort to eat less meat, no matter the motivation, or degree of reduction (this is also inclusive of vegans and vegetarians who have reduced their meat consumption so effectively they eat none at all).
More often than not, people who make a conscious decision to eat less meat will simply describe it in those terms, rather than adopting one of these more esoteric labels—chances are, you’re more likely to encounter someone who says they’re “trying to stay away from animal products” than you are to meet someone who self-identifies as a climatarian. But I think people sometimes underestimate the power of these labels: Calling myself a reducetarian has helped me understand and stick to my eating choices, and has helped others to take them more seriously. It’s also given me a feeling of belonging to a larger community of people who share my values.
A person incorporates collections of beliefs across all kinds of elements—academic performance, gender roles, sexuality, race —into his or her sense of self, and that these beliefs in turn cause them to take actions that they view to be consistent with these identities.
Consider research by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia. In 1982, Wilson and his colleagues conducted a study with first-year college students who were struggling academically. He hypothesized that they were at risk of adopting a self-defeating thought pattern in which they absorbed their poor performance as part of their identity, thinking of themselves as unsuited for college altogether.
Wilson and his team of researchers randomly divided the students into two groups. The first group received information suggesting that many students fare poorly during their first year but perform better thereafter. The second group was told nothing about whether or not grades increase after the first year. The researchers found what you might expect: Compared to the control group, the group that received the encouraging words achieved better grades the next semester and performed better on sample questions from the GRE.
A similar idea can be applied to frequency of meat-eating. Terms like “flexitarian,” “climatarian,” and “reducetarian” don’t need to be just a linguistic fad. Instead, they can be a source of motivation, helping people to integrate these habits into their identities.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with following trends—they make people feel like part of a community, and as a result can be motivating in their own right. (Hence the popularity of reduction programs like Meatless Monday, Veganuary, Vegan Before Six, and Weekday Vegetarian.) The “flexitarian,” “climatarian,” and “reducetarian” movements mean there are three more clubs out there helping people work towards goals to improve the health of their bodies and the planet. So, while these words may sound silly, I’m glad they exist.