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Vegetarian is vogue

You've probably noticed the change: Vegetarian diets are getting more respect.

Talk to Linda Gilbert, president of HealthFocus, Inc., a marketing/consulting firm specializing in consumer health trends:

"Ten to 15 years ago if you said you were a vegetarian, it meant you were kooky: People said, "My crazy niece, the vegetarian.' Now it means "I'm a smart, thoughtful eater.' It's a changed image."

Or cookbook author Diana Shaw:

"Vegetarian used to be a pejorative term. Now the whole thing has flipped. The number of people who eat chicken and fish but call themselves vegetarian outnumber the real vegetarians. I think they are mainly those who aspire to a healthier way of life."

Shaw may be one of those people herself. Her latest book, The Almost Vegetarian (Clarkson Potter, $18), is "a primer for cooks who are eating vegetarian most of the time, chicken and fish some of the time and altogether well all of the time," according to the book jacket.

"I know a lot of people who are like I am," she says. "My book has brought so many people out.

Call them meat restricters, part-time vegetarians, vegetarian-aware, "pollo-pisco" vegetarians (meaning they eat some chicken and fish) or even vegetarian wannabes, but from a health standpoint, people eating mostly fruits, vegetables and grains are getting into a very good thing, dietitian Suzanne Havala says.

"It's very positive when people take a step toward a plant-based diet," says Havala, the nutrition adviser to Vegetarian Times magazine and the author of the American Dietetic Association position paper on vegetarianism. "The bottom line is that we all have to increase the ratio of plant to animal food."

By replacing meats with vegetables, fruits and grains, people not only increase the amount of fiber in their diet but also increase their intake of the protective substances found in plant foods, such as vitamins and antioxidants, she says.

A significant number of people seem to be doing that, says Gilbert, who estimates as much as 60 percent of Americans are eating meatless meals at least twice a week, even if it is just a salad or spinach pizza.

Though definitions change, true vegetarians or "vegans" eat no animal products, including milk and eggs. "Ovo-vegetarians" will eat eggs, and "lacto-vegetarians" eat dairy products.

A national survey of 2,000 shoppers, conducted by HealthFocus last October, found that about 3 percent followed a strict vegetarian diet, 7 percent said they usually eat vegetarian, 17 percent said sometimes and 21 said rarely. And 52 answered never.

In individual interviews, many of those who said they were strict or usually vegetarian admitted that they do eat meat _ mostly fish or chicken _ but just not very much of it, Gilbert says.

It's incorrect to call yourself vegetarian if you eat meat, Havala says, but "who cares about labels?

"If somebody asks them if they are vegetarian, they answer "yes,' because they know their diet doesn't resemble the typical American diet where meat is the center of the plate. They see their diet as more vegetarian because it is not focused on animal products."