Vegetarian fans planning to attend the Games this year in Rio need not fear starvation. Although Brazil may be known for its barbeque and kabobs, the largest nation in South America is also home to at least 15 million vegetarians.
According to a 2012 poll conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion (IBOPE) and Statistics, about 8 percent of the Brazilian population is vegetarian or vegan. (The study didn’t ask people to distinguish between the two lifestyles.)
That rate of vegetarianism is about the same as in the United States, where a 2012 Gallup poll found that 5 percent of people identify as vegetarian and 2 percent say they’re vegan.
And being vegetarian in Brazil is getting easier, many locals say. The alternative diet used to be found largely among those who followed alternative lifestyles such as the straight edge and punk movements. Today, meat-free options can be found in some of the nation’s finest restaurants, where vegetarians can choose between soups, salads, veggie burgers, and even a version of Brazil’s traditional feijoada dish made with soy meat.
“Vegetarianism has reached a point where it has the attention of those in the higher classes,” Tainá Grassi, 24, said. “It has become a business.”
Grassi is an animal-rights activist and vegetarian from São Paolo, the Brazilian city with the largest number of vegetarians. Rio ranks second, according to the IBOPE study. The city with the highest percentage of vegetarians is Fortaleza, where 14 percent of the population doesn’t eat meat (compared to 8 and 7 percent in São Paolo and Rio, respectively).
There isn’t enough data to determine how these rates have increased over the last decade, but data released by the USDA in April show that Brazil is being surpassed by China as the world’s second largest cattle producer.
One Brazilian chef, André Vieland, 33, never sees milk from a cow in his kitchen, let alone a slab of its carcass. Vieland has been the head chef at São Paolo’s Casa Jaya restaurant since 2011. The food his staff and he prepares is entirely vegan — just one of the deliberate choices the owners of Casa Jaya make in order to reduce their restaurant’s ecological footprint.
Casa Jaya is one of a number of restaurants in Brazil’s biggest cities that are making efforts to curb the nation’s meat consumption or at least cater to the dietary preferences of a portion of the population. A handful of restaurants in Sao Paolo and Brazil have even started participating in the Meat Free Monday movement – called segundas sem carne en Portuguese.
Despite these efforts, some vegetarians say Brazil still has a long way to go. Brazil produces more beef and veal (9.6 million metric tons a year) and consumes more (7.8 million tons annually) than every country except the United States, according to the USDA’s 2016 livestock and poultry international report. As much as Brazilians enjoy their pão de queijo (cheesy bread) and açaí (berry ice cream), they also appreciate churrasco and fish stew.
Viviane Sanchez, 25, became vegan while living in Germany in 2013. The São Paolo native said that despite having a vegetarian friend since 2011, she didn’t think about adopting the lifestyle for herself until her time abroad, when she regularly ate at the home of a vegan family friend. Although Germany’s rates of vegetarianism are similar to the U.S. and Germany, Sanchez said she found it much easier to cook and buy vegan food there.
Upon her return to Brazil, Sanchez found she didn’t have the money required to buy ingredients for her diet or the money to cook them. Plus she was living in her parents’ house, and they were skeptical of her vegan lifestyle.
“They kept saying, ‘When you go back to eating meat, we’ll have this, or we’ll have that,’” Sanchez said.
Soon, Sanchez was eating meat again. She said she did this for one year but said she gained weight and had a guilty conscience. She ultimately decided that even if it wasn’t as easy for her in Brazil as it had been in Germany, she would take up her alternative diet again.
Sanchez is now a vegetarian working toward being vegan. She said that she’s optimistic about the future of vegetarianism in her culture, even if the Brazilian market still has a way to go.
“We’re seeing more vegetarian options in restaurants that before, but it can be expensive. And what’s offered in the grocery stores is nothing like the supermarket I went to in Germany,” Sanchez said. “That was a vegan’s paradise.”
Victoria Ison is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Ind., to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.