by Kathleen Nay
After eight years of keeping a vegetarian diet, I’m compelled to ask myself: why am I still a vegetarian? And more intriguingly, why are my former-vegan and -vegetarian friends not?
Eight years ago, transitioning to a vegetarian diet was my New Year’s resolution. I’d just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals about the dark side of animal agriculture, and I’d been with my partner—a lifelong vegetarian—for three years. At that point making the swap seemed inevitable, and I’ve pretty much been vegetarian ever since.
It wasn’t a difficult transition. My dad had become vegetarian when I was a pre-teen, and we never had much meat in the house to begin with. Meat was a “special occasion” food, or something I’d order at a restaurant, but rarely prepared at home. For me, the choice was convenient and socially acceptable. I felt convinced that a vegetarian diet was best for the planet, and it neatly sidestepped the complex feelings I had around causing harm to sentient animals and the workers who kill and process them.
But I’ve never lost that particular craving for meat that substitutes just don’t quite satisfy. Some people seem to get over this; my dad, for example, always said that he eventually stopped craving it, and no longer enjoys the taste or texture. Not so for me. If we’re operating on strict definitions of vegetarianism, then I’m technically not one—I sample a bit of turkey at the requisite holiday gatherings, and occasionally give in to a craving for a roast beef sandwich when I need a quick lunch away from home. I try not to hold myself to such high definitional standards, however, and usually identify as a plant-based eater. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve fleetingly thought about abandoning my vegetarianism, though I know that if I were to return to eating meat, I would struggle with the dissonance between my values—the social and environmental benefits of a low-impact diet—and my tastes.
I certainly wouldn’t be the first to experience such turmoil over my diet. I know several individuals who just couldn’t make a plant-based diet stick, and Internet listicles abound with people sharing how they lost their “veginity.” Reportedly, even celebrities once famed for being vegan—Bill Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, and others—have ended their exclusive plant-food affairs.
So I got curious. Why do so many people, once persuaded to give up meat, transition back to it? How do those reasons compare with their motivations for avoiding animal products in the first place? Do they experience guilt or social pressures around their dietary choices, and why?
Much research has been done on factors that predict the likelihood of someone converting to a vegan or vegetarian diet. For example, being female, having greater educational achievement, and higher IQ scores in childhood have each been linked with greater likelihood of becoming vegan or vegetarian as an adult. Some research has linked feminism with vegetarianism. Other work has demonstrated that people who are oriented toward social dominance—that is, those who believe that hierarchical systems should be maintained, a personality trait that predicts social and political attitudes—are actually less likely to become vegan or vegetarian, and are also likely to view vegetarianism as a social threat.
However, the research into factors predicting lapses from vegetarianism is scant, though there are some studies beginning to appear in the literature. One very recent study by Hodson and Earle (2017) looked at whether ideology plays a role in returning to meat consumption. They found that political conservatism tends to predict lapses from vegetarian/vegan diets, particularly among eaters for whom reasons of justice (animal welfare, environmental concerns) are weakest, and for those who do not have strong social support for their dietary choices.
I wondered what I would find if I surveyed my networks. I created a survey of 25 questions for former vegetarians and vegans about why they went vegetarian in the first place; how long they adhered to a vegetarian diet; and what caused them to revert back to eating animal products. In comparison to Hodson and Earle’s work, my investigation is perhaps less academically rigorous and more qualitative in nature, but still valuable for understanding former vegetarians’ dietary motivations.
Through conversations around Friedman I’ve gathered that there are a fair number of us who once identified as vegetarian and no longer do. But I didn’t limit my query to Friedman students or alumni. A large number of people in my life are or once were vegetarian for religious purposes. Having been raised Seventh-Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination whose adherents are well known for abstaining from meat, alcohol and cigarettes, it was once more common for me to meet lifelong vegetarians than to meet someone who regularly consumed meat. As I’m still well connected with this community, my survey skewed slightly toward former vegetarians who were raised with dietary restrictions and/or people who adhered to a vegetarian diet because of religious affiliation.
About 200 former vegetarians and vegans responded to my survey. Most respondents—around 77%—were female, while 18% and 4% identified as male and nonbinary, respectively (this is in keeping with considerable research finding that women are more likely to adhere to a vegetarian diet than men). Respondents’ ages ranged from 20 to 63 years, with the median age being 33. People reported having followed a vegetarian diet for an average of 9.2 years, though actual duration ranged widely, from 6 months to 39 years. Overwhelmingly (85%) respondents specified that they had followed a vegetarian diet, as opposed to being vegan, pescatarian, or fluctuating between the three. (For simplicity, I use the word vegetarian in the rest of this article to encompass all of these terms together.)
The largest groups of respondents said they became vegetarian during their teens (45%) and twenties (25%). Respondents also reported transitioning back to eating meat during their twenties (56%) and thirties (22%), potentially suggesting that your parents were right—going vegan in your teens was just a phase. This tracks with ongoing research into the development of the adolescent brain. In a recent episode of the podcast The Gist, journalist Dina Temple-Raston explains that the insular cortex, the area of our brains responsible for causing us to feel empathy, is on hyper alert during adolescence. In her interview with host Mike Pesca, she surmises that “this may explain why you want to save the mountain gorillas when you’re 16, or why you become a vegan.” (Catch Temple-Raston’s Gist interview here.)
Indeed, the most salient reason people gave for rejecting meat in the first place was out of concern for “animal welfare” (20% of received responses). The other most common motivators cited were “health” (17%) and “environment” (16%). That last one especially resonates with me; the enormous environmental footprint of animal agriculture compared to crops is what finally convinced me to give up meat.
But then we get to the crux of my question: what was it that ultimately persuaded my respondents to resume eating animals? Here’s where the data started to get interesting.
The top three reasons respondents provided for why they returned to consuming animal products were “personal taste preferences” (21%), “health” (20%), and “convenience” (16%). Interestingly, health was a significant motivator for transition both toward and away from vegetarianism.
That health showed up as a primary motivator in both places was really curious to me. I wanted to dig in there, so I filtered out all the responses from individuals who said that health motivated them to both adopt a vegetarian diet and to abandon it. Samples of their comments are reproduced in the tables at right.
Other questions that yielded interesting results were about convenience and perceived social/cultural pressures to eat meat. Aside from health concerns, frequently given reasons for reverting to omnivore diets included living or traveling abroad (also “living in the South” and living among First Nations peoples in northern British Columbia); not having the time or patience to prepare vegetarian meals; lack of available options on college campuses or at restaurants; causing conflict with loved ones (family members, partners); not wanting to inconvenience hosts or seem rude/ungrateful; unwillingness to “be constantly reading labels, turning down meal invites from friends”; the financial cost of keeping a vegetarian diet; employment (“I now work in a job where we encourage row crop producers to integrate livestock to regenerate soil health…” “I work in a restaurant”); and peer pressure (“Many of my friends ate meat,” “It was culturally weird among my friends… to not eat meat,” “social pressure around parenting”).
Finally, I asked respondents about whether they felt any guilt around eating animal products since resuming the inclusion of meat in their diets. Responses were about evenly split (48% Yes; 52% No). As expected, the majority of people mentioned feeling guilt over concerns about animal cruelty and environmental impact. Other common reasons included embarrassment for not sticking with what they felt was a positive lifestyle choice, unawareness of the meat’s origins, and contradicting their cultural upbringing or religious beliefs about the uncleanliness of certain meats. When asked how they alleviated their guilt or dealt with cognitive dissonance around choices to eat meat, most respondents said that they try to minimize or moderate their meat intake; attempt to source meat locally/ethically; look for alternate ways to reduce their carbon footprint; acknowledge the animal’s life; rationalize that meat is a necessary inclusion for their personal health; try not to think about it; or simply accept their guilt.
Having grown up a mostly-vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist, and having later developed a more personal, moralized dietary identity, has caused me to reflect on my own cognitive dissonance when I sneak a turkey sandwich. What does my dietary identity even mean? Upon reflection, it actually means quite little in my case; as I admitted earlier, my interpretation of a vegetarian diet is increasingly more relaxed than the term might imply to others. But the distinction between calling myself plant-based as opposed to strictly vegetarian is relatively small—a difference of one or two meals per month, at most. Somehow, to say my diet is “plant-based” makes me feel as though I can hold on to my social/environmental values while giving myself wiggle-room to accommodate the irresistible pull of sensory memory and cultural pressure—in case I get caught with said turkey sandwich.
We adhere to dietary labels and self-imposed restrictions in order to project something about our selves and our values to the world. And yet, some 84% of vegetarians and vegans eventually return to eating meat. If my survey shows me anything, it’s that people’s reasons are vast, varied… and not altogether unreasonable. Now that we’re already a month into our 2018 New Year’s resolutions, I say it’s time to adopt another goal: to start being a little more forgiving of other people’s dietary choices—and our own.
Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student and co-editor of The Friedman Sprout. For being a vegetarian, she spends an unreasonable amount of time thinking about meat.