WHILE all the save-the-Earth hoopla shakes up the country, another, quieter, ``green'' movement is gaining ground. Kevin Dyier was a ``meat and potatoes individual'' until he decided to exclude meat from his diet and ``go vegetarian.'' ``I don't eat meat at all, and I don't miss it,'' he says matter-of-factly while seated at a vegetarian restaurant in Boston. ``There are so many other things on this Earth to enjoy,'' he says.
Mr. Dyier represents a growing number of people who see benefits in adopting a non-meat or less-meat diet. Americans are interested in vegetarian meals as never before.
In airline food, for example, vegetarian meal requests have increased 100 percent just over the last year, says Herbert Hellauer, sous chef for United Airlines in Chicago. Of the 1,200 specialty meals ordered each day, two-thirds are for vegetarian fare.
The number of restaurants offering vegetarian menus has more than tripled in the past 5 years, as measured by a list from the Vegetarian Times magazine. ``Four to five years ago, we had around 300,'' says Carol Wiley, an associate editor. ``Last year there were 1,000 [in the United States and Canada], and since we've gathered, a lot more.''
When the Country Life Vegetarian Buffet restaurant opened in Boston's financial district two and a half years ago, ``most people thought we wouldn't make it a week,'' says manager Craig Ashton. But the restaurant is thriving, serving a packed lunchtime crowd. Lines form outside Country Life when vegetarian lasagne is on the menu.
Close to 80 percent of the customers are non-vegetarians, Mr. Ashton estimates. Menu items include enchiladas, spinach quiche, spaghetti with wheatballs, eggplant Parmesan, and loads of fruits (fresh and dried) and vegetables (cooked and raw) - all prepared without animal products. In addition to a large salad bar there is a ``bread bar'' with nut butters and fruit spreads.
Business at The Good Earth restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., has been ``dynamite,'' says Richard Pagan, director of operations. ``We're opening up another location,'' he says, noting that the popularity in ``whole foods'' (natural, unprocessed, unrefined) has brought many customers to the restaurant, part of a chain. They serve a wide variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.
As for vegetarian cookbooks, ``they move tremendously,'' says Barry Bluestein, co-owner of Season to Taste Books, Ltd., in Chicago. In the past two years, since the cookbook store opened, ``we've gone from four to 100 titles. We sell everything now from the `only-eat-tofu-on-Tuesday' diet to haute cuisine,'' says Mr. Bluestein.
But many people are hesitant to use the word ``vegetarian,'' notes Bluestein. They come in the store and say: ``I want a vegetable-as-a-main-course cookbook.'' ``The average public think if they say `vegetarian,' they have to go out and pick berries with Euell Gibbons - they have this view that vegetarianism is left-wing and radical, when it's mainstream.''
The estimated number of vegetarians in the United States is 8 million to 9 million, according to the North American Vegetarian Society. A ``vegetarian,'' by definition, doesn't eat meat, poultry, or fish. ``Vegans'' are vegetarians who don't eat any animal products, including dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians cite various reasons for their choice: economic (meat is expensive), health, personal taste, religious, ethical (not wanting to support what they see as animal suffering and exploitation), political, and environmental (animals raised for food use up far more resources than plants do).
Is a wider acceptance of vegetarian dining emerging?
``Absolutely,'' says Martin Duffy, a management consultant who has stopped off at Country Life restaurant for lunch. ``Look at how crowded this restaurant is,'' adds his wife, Rusty Stieff. Mr. Duffy and Ms. Stieff, both athletes, are not vegetarians, but say they enjoy vegetarian cuisine.
Most observers attribute the trend away from meat to health concerns - avoiding fat and eating more vegetables, fruits, and whole grain foods, as Surgeon General Koop urged Americans to do in 1988.
Attitude changes can be seen elsewhere: People used to judge a supermarket by its meat department; now they are more likely to judge it by its produce. Athletes who used to be advised to eat a big steak before competition now are urged to stock up on ``carbos'' - carbohydrate-rich foods such as as pasta, breads, and vegetables.
Gradually, people who limit or exclude meat in their diets are seen as more mainstream. ``People are aware that vegetarians aren't flaky fringes and that maybe they're onto something,'' says Muriel Golde, food editor for the Vegetarian Voice. ``Now we're accepted as avant garde.''
Deborah Eastmann of Cambridge, Mass., and her family are vegetarians. ``We just eat a tremendous variety and as fresh as we can, and feel that we're getting everything we need,'' says Ms. Eastman. She and her husband have a three-year-old son and another child on the way. ``People are more conscious of vegetarianism,'' she says, adding that it's more accepted now.
Some question a non-meat diet, wondering if it is nutritious enough. ``Studies confirm that vegetarian is a healthful and balanced diet,'' says Wiley of the Vegetarian Times.
Protein is often cited as a concern. ``It's not the amount of protein, it's the kind of protein,'' says Fergus Clydesdale, food scientist at the University of Massachusetts. Most vegetarians probably are aware that they have to eat certain plant proteins in combination to get adequate protein quality, he says (beans and rice, for example).
``That's old thinking,'' argues Sharon Graff, director of the North American Vegetarian Society. If you eat a variety of whole foods and enough of them to maintain your weight, you will get enough protein and the right kind, she says. ``Protein quality is not an issue if you are getting enough calories from a varied diet,'' according to ``The New Laurel's Kitchen'' vegetarian cookbook and nutritional guide.
Nutrition aside, the growing interest in natural foods in general has non-meat meals are easier to enjoy than, say, 10 years ago: ``Now there's a diversification of products,'' says Ms. Golde. She mentions vegetables that have graced mainstream supermarkets recently such as tomatillos, chyote squash, and oodles of different kinds of sprouts.
``More people are realizing that they can do without meat,'' says Wiley. Some are compelled to switch their eating habits after hearing how animals are raised and slaughtered. Others take note of the environmental aspect: It takes more land to feed a meat-eater than a vegetarian.
Many environmentalists urge people to eat ``lower on the food chain'' to lessen resource depletion. ``So direct is the relationship between meat production and deforestation,'' writes John Robbins in ``Diet for a New America,'' ``that Cornell economist David Fields and his associate Robin Hur estimate that for every person who switches to a pure vegetarian diet, an acre of trees is spared every year.''
``It takes 500 times the land, 100 times the water, and 25 times the fossil fuel to produce one pound of beef as opposed to one pound of plant food'' - grains, produce, beans - says Marilyn Diamond, author of ``The American Vegetarian Cookbook from the Fit For Life Kitchen,'' who says her research comes from government reports. She adds: It seems natural that ``what's good for us is good for the planet.''