Former vegetarians: Who they are and why we lost them

By Nick Cooney

May 1, 2012

Why do many vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat? When I was in college, one of the most active members of our campus animal rights group went from dedicated vegan activist to dedicated chicken eater in a matter of months. If you’re like me, you’ve probably scratched your head wondering why some people stick with veg eating and others don’t.

Academic studies published over the past 10 years, as well as an informal survey by Psychology Today columnist Hal Herzog, give us some insight. According to former vegetarians, they’ve typically put meat back on their plates for the following reasons:

Taste – Many craved meat and were bored with vegetarian food

Health – Some had less energy, were anemic, or had other health issues

Inconvenience – A number felt eating vegetarian took too much time, they didn’t know how to prepare veg food, or it was annoying to be vegetarian when eating with friends.

We need to keep these issues in mind when encouraging individuals to eat vegetarian. Aside from just telling people why they should change their diet, we need to tell them how: how to make or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals, and how to eat healthy.

Of course, those of us who stayed vegetarian or vegan encountered the same problems. We just had the resources and dedication to work through them. So what gives? Are there simply fundamental differences between people who stay vegetarian and people who don’t? A new study published in the journal Appetite suggests there are. The study found four key differences:

Motivation – Both current and former vegetarians care about animal welfare, health, and the environment. But those who stick with veg eating care more about these issues, especially animal welfare. Concern for animals represents, by far, the biggest difference in beliefs between current and former vegetarians. Therefore, regardless of why people initially went veg, after they’ve made the switch we need to inspire them to care about farm animals. The more they start to care about farm animals the more likely they’ll stick with vegetarian eating. Since their behavior is now animal-friendly, it will be easier for them to adopt an animal-friendly attitude if we encourage them to do so.

Identity – People who stay vegetarian think their food choices are an important part of who they are. This was never the case for former vegetarians, even when they first went veg. Why is this the case? Well, it’s a fact of human psychology that we don’t like to change our sense of self-identity. The more we see veg eating as part of our self-identity, the harder it is to go back to eating meat. Therefore, after someone becomes vegetarian we should encourage him or her to see vegetarian eating as an important part of who they are. For example we might give them vegetarian bumper stickers or t-shirts, encourage them to talk to their friends about why they’re vegetarian, or sign them up for Veg News magazine or a vegetarian email list.

The Switch – People who stay vegetarian are more likely to have made a gradual switch. Maybe that’s because a gradual switch is easier, both for the person going vegetarian and also for family members with whom they eat. In contrast, former vegetarians were more likely to have made an abrupt switch when they first went veg. With this in mind, we should encourage people to take the first steps towards vegetarian eating rather than encouraging them to go from zero to vegan in sixty seconds.

Support – Those who stay veg are more likely to have joined a vegetarian potluck group, message board, or other social circle. These support systems provide both encouragement and practical advice on veg eating. Of course, people who see vegetarianism as part of their self-identity (in other words, those who are already more likely to stay vegetarian) are also more likely to seek out vegetarian social groups. So it’s possible that, for many people, social support is just icing on the cake and not the reason they stay veg. Still, social support can only help, especially if we can get less-enthusiastic vegetarians to join.

Whew! That’s a lot of information to take in. Who knew that helping people eat vegetarian could be so complicated?

To boil it down, if we want to help more people stay veg, we should help current vegetarians: a) learn how to cook or buy quick, delicious, meat-like meals; b) learn how to eat healthy; c) care a lot about farm animals; and d) see vegetarianism as an important part of who they are.

Any time we do one of these things, we will help current vegetarians stay the course. As Ben Franklin wrote, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Helping someone stay vegetarian can be just as good for animals as inspiring someone else to go vegetarian.

 

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CCC volunteers hit the streets

By Nick Cooney

April 17, 2012

Just one month has gone by since the Compassionate Communities Campaign was launched, and we could not be happier! Volunteers are hitting the streets to educate the public about the cruelties of factory farming and the benefits of vegan eating, leaving a trail of compassion in their wake.

Volunteer Erika Hirsch is distributing vegetarian literature every other week at a farmer’s market in San Luis Obispo, CA. She noted that “Many people stopped by and some wanted to talk about health, environment or animals. Some people just wanted to say ‘good job’ and other people inquired about how to make dietary changes.” For each person who reduces the amount of meat they eat, dozens of farm animals will be spared a lifetime of suffering.

Constance Li and other students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ passed out vegetarian leaflets on campus along with free food samples. The group followed three rules that every animal advocate should take to heart:  ”Smile, validate everyone’s opinions (if they feel like you listened to them, they will return the favor), and compliment people.”

Christina Perkins’ vegan social group in Maine is attracting both vegetarians and current meat-eaters. Christina notes, ”All commented on how delicious the food was and the restaurant staff is now quite competent in cooking a vegan meal even on short notice. And just as important, they take pride in that. All in the midst of a not-so-veg-friendly blue collar mill town in Maine.”

Susan Earnest has been handing out leaflets about factory farming and vegetarian eating on her lunch break in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s even recruited some friends to help her create new vegetarians in the Steel City.

Compassionate Communities volunteers have distributed over 20,000 pieces of vegetarian literature in the past month. In doing so, they have created dozens of new vegetarians and spared thousands of farm animals a lifetime of misery on factory farms. Volunteers have also shared video of farm animal cruelty with thousands of people, started vegan social groups, and begun working on local veg dining guides.

Please make a commitment to get active for farm animals! Email us to order vegetarian literature or to get started with a Compassionate Communities program. The animals will thank you, and so will we!

 

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I’m going meat-free…How about you?

By Nick Cooney

April 3, 2012

“How I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say…You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs.”

If you’re familiar with the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration,” you can thank Frank Luntz. You can also thank him for the powerful quote above.

Luntz is a Republican Party consultant who conducts polling to see which words and phrases resonate with the public. Luntz popularized the terms “death tax” and “energy exploration” after polling showed they were more effective in promoting Republican ideals than the original terms “estate tax” and “oil drilling.”

Whether or not you agree with Luntz’s politics, his point rings true: language matters. When making the case for vegan eating, the words we use matter too. Some phrases appeal to meat eaters, and some phrases will be more likely to turn them off.

Case in point: a study by British trade magazine The Grocer found that the public was more likely to embrace vegetarian meat products when the products were labeled “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian.” Over the past four years an increasing number of British supermarkets and vegetarian meat producers have switched labels from “vegetarian” to “meat-free,” and as a result they are seeing increased sales among meat-eaters.

On this side of the Atlantic, vegetarian meat producers are catching on. Pick up a bag of Gardein vegetarian meat, and you’ll see the label “I’m meat-free!” Even Lightlife is catching on, labeling their products “meat-free” or noting they are packed with “veggie protein.” Virtually none of their products still carry a prominent “vegetarian” label.

Why does “meat-free” seem to go over better than “vegetarian” with the general public? Industry experts think the term “vegetarian” has negative connotations for many people. Maybe some have had negative experiences with vegetarians. Perhaps, due to guilt, social norms, or other reasons, they simply look down on all things “vegetarian.” For those over 30 years old, the term might conjure up memories of a flavorless tofu burger they tried back in college.

(It’s possible that for those who are 21 and under, “vegetarian” does not have as negative a connotation. Higher percentages of those age groups consider themselves vegetarian, and they have grown up with a much tastier selection of vegetarian products.)

Using the word “vegetarian” also raises the sticky issue of self-identity. The public may see vegetarians as a distinct group of people quite different from the average American. Ditto for vegans. That’s why, when asked about my diet, I don’t say “I am a vegan” or “I am a vegetarian.” I say, “I don’t eat meat.”  I don’t want the people I’m speaking with to lump me into a box, as if who I am is determined by what I eat. More importantly, I don’t want them to think they need to take on a new identity – joining me in the box – in order to cut cruelty out of their diets.

For a funny parallel example, consider the following. Which of these statements sounds more palatable to you? “You should become a Canadian,” or “You should move to Canada.” The first statement focuses on identity, while the second focuses on action. The second statement is probably more palatable to most Americans.

The bottom line?

When we leave issues of self-identity off the table, we make it easier for our audience to hear our message.

When we use words that don’t have negative connotations in the minds of our audience, our audience will be more likely to listen.

At times “meat-free” can sound a bit awkward when you try to work it into conversation. But after learning what the research has to say on this issue, I’m planning to use “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian” whenever possible.

In other words, I’m going meat-free. How about you?

 

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