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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