The survey, given to just over 2,000 adults, found that baby boomers and adults over 65 make up the largest percentage of adults who eat vegetarian diets. Ten percent of people who never eat meat fall into that age range, versus 9 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 44.
The difference gets even bigger when looking at people who eat vegetarian meals occasionally but don't consider themselves vegetarians. While just 41 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds and 39 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds eat one or more meatless meals each week, 44 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, 46 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds, and 45 percent of the over-65 crowd do.
What's driving the trend? It could be the influence of baby boomer celebrities like Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney, who've adopted a meat-free life, but nutritionists suspect that it's simply a greater sense of health consciousness among older adults that's leading them to shun meat, the heavy consumption of which has been linked to higher blood pressure and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
"Vegetarianism can be used as a way to combat many conditions that plague boomers: heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity," Joan Salge Blake, Boston University's registered dietician, told The Washington Post in an interview on the subject. And past research has linked vegetarian diets to lower rates of colon, lung, esophageal, and liver cancers. So it makes sense that this population would jump on the vegetarian bandwagon.
Still, the older you get, the more important it is to maintain healthy levels of vitamins, minerals, and protein, which keep your muscles toned, your immune system healthy, and your brain functioning. For instance, vegetarian diets for people of any age can easily become deficient in vitamin B12, a nutrient abundant in fish, meat, eggs, and dairy. Vitamin B12 deficiencies have been linked to memory loss and depression. Zinc, another meat-centric mineral, keeps your immune system functioning and can ward off pneumonia, a common condition among older adults.
Want to strike a balance? Go meatless a few days a week and still get your B12 and zinc from foods, instead of having to rely on supplements or fortified foods:
• Celebrate a Meatless Monday, a day when you eat vegetarian for every meal.
• Aim for at least one meatless meal each day for the rest of the week. Worried about your protein intake? Don't, with these 9 Super-Healthy, Vegetarian Protein Sources.
• Vegetarians can get their zinc fix from lentils, black-eyed peas, and leafy green vegetables, and if you really do want to nix meat, continue to eat eggs and dairy products to maintain healthy levels of vitamin B12.