It used to be that vegetarian and vegan diets were looked down upon as almost sect-like fads. But that no longer holds true.

"They're gaining in popularity. It's not a trendy, hippie way of eating anymore," says Dayna McIntyre, president of the Vegans and Vegetarians of Alberta Association. Now, "you see a range of age groups all moving towards a vegan diet."

In many parts of Canada, but particularly in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, alternative diets are gaining momentum. Grocery stores are providing meat substitutes, restaurants have more variety on their menus and vegan/vegetarian restaurants are proliferating.

Both the young and old are changing their lifestyles, dietitians are saying, whether for reasons of health, the environment or animal rights.

Alternative diets

A vegetarian eats no meat, but may consume animal by-products such as milk, honey and eggs.

A vegan doesn't eat any animal by-products and being vegan is more of a lifestyle: committed vegans don't wear leather or fur.

Then there are those who don't cook their food and eat what is called a raw diet, as they believe cooking destroys enzymes and nutrients.

One of the more noticeable shifts seems to be taking place on college and university campuses. Hamilton's McMaster University was ranked number 1 out of the top 10 Canadian schools in PETA2's "most vegan-friendly college of 2010" contest, for the second year in a row.

PETA2 is the student wing of the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and it has been conducting an annual competition since 2006 to rank the best vegan and vegetarian universities throughout North America.

"McMaster took the top spot in Canada, thanks to items like vegan soya beef quesadillas, vegan chili served over grilled flatbread and curried chickpea burritos," says Ryan Huling, PETA2's manager for college campaigns. "Which are appealing to all students whether they are vegetarian or not."

According to the 2010 contest, McMaster is widely known for its Bridges Cafe, which is entirely vegetarian.

The "freshmen 15 (pound)" weight gain may soon be a thing of the past as more university campuses offer healthier options.

A growing trend

Brenda Davis has also noticed an increasing number of non-meat eaters of late.

A registered dietitian, living in Kelowna, B.C., Davis says that when she was in university in the late 1970s and early '80s, being vegetarian was seen as risky and even dangerous to your health.

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Georges Laraque, the former Montreal Canadiens tough-guy who ran for the Green Party in the 2011 federal election, may be Canada's best known vegan, and animal lover. He regularly donates large amounts to animal rights groups. (Canadian Press)

"Back then people didn't even know what a vegan was. They probably thought it was someone from a different planet," says Davis. Now when you look at restaurants and school cafeterias in university and colleges there is so much more variety.

Society is more informed when it comes to vegan, vegetarian and raw diets, and this has helped dispel the myth that these diets are harmful.

People are also more informed about how their food is produced, which is encouraging the search for alternatives.

Another sign of the times is that June 11 will mark the first of what is to be an annual Raw/Vegan Festival in central Toronto.

According to Patricia McAllister, organizer of the Toronto Raw/Vegan Festival, what once was an alternative movement has evolved to become mainstream.

A big indicator here is "The rise of the power vegans," as a recent article in Businessweek magazine put it.

According to Businessweek, a growing number of high-powered CEOs and movers and shakers are going vegetarian, including casino mogul Steve Wynn, publisher Mort Zuckerman, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and former president Bill Clinton.

Athlete vegans include a handful of NBA players as well as former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque who has co-owned two vegan restaurants in Montreal.

Celebrity vegetarians are "just an example of how far we've come, in terms of the shift that has happened," says Davis.

"It's interesting if you look at vegan athletes, body builders and even a lot of endurance athletes who are becoming vegans just to give themselves an edge," says Davis.

You don't have to be a power broker or a celebrity athlete to join the vegan bandwagon.

Even if you just want to satisfy a sweet tooth, you can now simply walk into most grocery stores and see cookies and other food items with vegan labels.

As Davis puts it, if society still thought alternative lifestyles were dangerous such food labels wouldn't be nearly as common.