To Meat, or Not to Meat? (Is That Really the Question?)

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?

Photo: Pexels.com

Photo: Pexels.com

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.)

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

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.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

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.

Pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators.


*A common response I received was that a vegan/vegetarian diet was used to hide or aid an eating disorder. In the words of one respondent: “I said I loved animals too much to eat them but I was also really excited about the opportunity to be able to decline to eat in front of other people with a legit excuse.” Fortunately, this respondent later said that they got therapy and learned coping mechanisms as they gradually reintroduced meat to their diet. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the sudden elimination of entire food groups or adoption of dogmatic dietary practices can be red flags for disordered eating. For a brief exploration of this darker side of vegetarianism, read this Psychology Today article by Hal Herzog, Ph.D.

Pro-meat health motivators.

Above: pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators vs. pro-meat health motivators.

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.

Advertisements

You’ve Got to Love Your Tree

by Hannah Meier

“Love Your Tree.” It’s a directive inspired by Eve Ensler, the writer and activist behind the one-woman play, The Good Body (you may also know her as the playwright for the wildly popular Vagina Monologues). “Love Your Tree” is also the foundation of a creative arts eating disorder prevention campaign that started at the The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Maryland in 2006 and has since expanded nationally. Today, organizations across the country, including Massachusetts, are invited to participate in the 2018 campaign and submit artwork that illustrates body diversity, acceptance and positivity.

“Eve, look at that tree? Do you see that tree? Now, look at that tree (pointing to another one). Do you like that tree? Do you hate that tree ’cause it doesn’t look like that tree? Do you say that tree isn’t pretty ‘cause it doesn’t look like that tree? We’re all trees. You’re a tree. I’m a tree. You’ve got to love your body, Eve. You’ve got to love your tree.” (Excerpt from The Good Body, 2004 by Eve Ensler). 

In the Baltimore-based Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, art therapy is a main component of recovery—helping patients approach body image struggles in a non-threatening way. Friedman alum, Christine Diven (Nutrition Communication, ‘12), assists with communications for the center where Julia Anderson, a Certified Eating Disorder Art Therapist created the Love Your Tree (LYT) Campaign in 2006. LYT is inspired by the metaphor in Ensler’s play, and is designed to cultivate an appreciation for the natural diversity of body sizes and help young people fight against society’s narrow and marginalizing standard of beauty and worth.

Love Your Tree Like a tree…my body is similar to no other. Lily D. Sudbrook Magnet Middle School 2016

As someone who personally struggled with an eating disorder that stemmed from dysmorphic body image throughout my childhood and adolescence, I emphatically understand how important it is to build an acceptance and appreciation of all bodies—especially in childhood. With increased attention drawn to childhood obesity and even weight loss in youth, establishing a sense of body trust and acceptance in childhood is of the utmost importance for educators today to prevent the development of eating disorders for these kids down the road.

What We Know About Eating Disorders

Unfortunately, research on eating disorders is anything but well-funded. Current statistics estimate that between 0.5 to 3.7 percent of American women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime, and about 1 percent of female adolescents currently have anorexia[i]. Bulimia nervosa affects an estimated 1.1 to 4.2 percent of women in their lifetime. Binge-Eating Disorder, one of the most recently codified eating disorders in the diagnostic manual for psychiatric illnesses, is the most common, affecting 3.5 percent % of women and 2 percent of men in the United States, according to the latest statistics[ii].

Clearly, these numbers are conservative, and they do not account for the millions of individuals who may suffer from disordered eating but do not meet one or more of the required criteria for a clinical diagnosis. These numbers also assume that those with eating disorders seek treatment, which is sadly not always the case. Also worth noting, most of our understanding of eating disorders comes from research conducted on women, since anorexia and bulimia are traditionally perceived to affect women more than men; however, men are no less likely to suffer from eating disorders[iii].

Dieting and disordered eating often come back to poor body image or a desire to alter one’s body to better fit societal norms, putting thinness above real physical health. Results from a  2008 Canadian study found that 40% of Canadian girls in tenth grade and 37% of girls in ninth grade thought of themselves as “too fat,” and 19% of those with a normal BMI considered themselves to be overweight. Twelve percent of those with a normal BMI admitted to trying to lose weight[iv].

All Different, All One
Like a tree, my body…is unique and part of a whole. Melissa B. Bel Air High School 2017

Body dissatisfaction has a lot of other negative effects on kids and teens beyond increasing the risk for developing eating disorders. Some studies have shown that when students feel badly about their bodies, their GPAs are likely to be lower than students who don’t feel badly about themselves. And while we might think these types of issues arise in adolescence, body dissatisfaction and body anxiety may begin as young as second grade across varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, in both boys and girls.

How does Love Your Tree fight back?

According to current program director Brianna Garrold, the LYT campaign is currently in its 12th year. It was originally structured for middle and high school students in the Baltimore and surrounding area, but now reaches outside the state with organizations in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Schools and organizations that host programs invite students to submit artwork representing their response to the Tree metaphor.

The campaign is even expanding overseas and across age groups. “In 2014, an organization in Australia picked up the message and contacted the creator of the program for more information about LYT and tips for hosting their own show and awards ceremony,” Garrold explained. “Over the years, Love Your Tree has expanded to include college students, and as of 2016, kindergarten and elementary-aged students. LYT has also started branching out beyond school-based workshops and into community organizations as well.”

Just Beginning “Like a Tree…I am full of so much potential.” Katherine H (Dulaney Middle School) 2015 

For school participants and eating disorder patients alike, the metaphor of a tree helps to explore healthy body image and self-image in a non-threatening way. According to Garrold, art therapy often feels “easier and safer” for participants than other approaches.

What are the common risk factors we can focus on to prevent eating disorders?

Garrold points to the biopsychosocial model of development—an understanding that biological, psychological and social factors all can play key roles in determining whether someone will develop an eating disorder.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society that is comparative, image focused, and perfectionism driven—all things that fall under the ‘social’ part. Body dissatisfaction and body anxiety are beginning at younger ages due to exposure to these messages, and as our society becomes more connected and ‘plugged in,’ it is getting seemingly harder to ignore them,” she says. Frequently, comparison to peers and media influence are major factors that contribute to the development of low self-esteem and poor body image.

“It can feel like an uphill battle to help reach out and provide support for kids,” Garrold admits.  “Keeping an eye out for warning signs, like social withdrawal, critical or comparative comments about or related to peers or celebrities, fixation on being ‘the best’ or feeling the need to be perfect, [and] fixation with weight or food can offer insight into areas kids and teens might be struggling with.”

“Body of a Tree”
Like a tree…my body is as healthy as it can be.
Ethan S. (Pine Grove Middle School) 2015

What can we do in Massachusetts to get involved?

Garrold invites those of us outside of Maryland to participate as an out-of-state chapter, especially if we work with students or young adults. “Outreach programs like Love Your Tree are designed to combat negative messages by educating students about the effects of the media on self-esteem and body image. Allowing space and time for conversation around topics like body image can be empowering for students […] and providing education about media literacy (understanding some of the dynamics of advertising, [and] the use of photo alteration programs) is a great topic to include as well.”

Even if we can’t fully participate fully in LYT, the website offers resources and support, and Garrold stresses that the most important part is to help kids feel like they have someone to talk to and activities to engage in. She recommends the online gallery at www.loveyourtree.org to spark the conversation.

“Our culture seems to spend a lot of time discussing criticism and flaws and not enough time discussing successes and positive attributes. Encouraging kids and teens to get involved in activities they enjoy, engage with peers, feel comfortable and safe enough to explore their talents, and celebrate what makes each individual unique are all ways we can help foster healthier students, which in turn, fosters healthier communities. The hope is that starting on a small scale will snowball into larger messages of healthy self-esteem and body acceptance.”

Bringing it back to Friedman

As part of a school focused on nutrition science and policy, we are well aware of the health challenges our nation faces, and the role proper nutrition can play. Decades of research associating overweight and obesity with increased risk for disease and lower quality of life has called us to lead the crusade for health—to prevent or reduce overweight and obesity by empowering individuals and communities to prioritize nutrition and its downstream health benefits. We know that obesity and disease disparately affect those of low socioeconomic status, and understand that it takes a multi-pronged intervention to make a dent in reshaping a community.

“Love Every Tree, Love Every Body
Like a tree…my body is unique and beautiful.
Amelia R. (Patterson Mill High School) 2015

But have we been paying enough attention to weight stigma? The American Academy of Pediatrics very recently released a policy statement about weight stigma experienced by children and adolescents with obesity, which is a must-read for anyone working with this population (likely all of us, in some regard). In it, they point out that weight stigma is widely tolerated because our society believes it will motivate people to lose weight, despite its counterproductive contribution to behaviors such as binge eating, social isolation, avoidance of health care services decreased physical activity and ultimate accelerated weight gain over time[v].

Instead of focusing on reversing weight gain trends, perhaps we should focus on reversing the plague of weight stigma. Health behaviors exist outside of body mass index, and focusing wholeheartedly on weight has proven to be undeniably ineffective, and perhaps harmful, in cultivating healthy behavior change[vi],[vii],[viii].

As Garrold encourages, “helping establish a healthy (or healthier) self-image is essential to prevention of and recovery from eating disorders.” Everyone can benefit from feeling more connected to and proud of their body.

If you are interested in getting involved in the Love Your Tree campaign, visit www.loveyourtree.org for more information. The 2017-2018 campaign is NOW OPEN and accepting poster submissions from students of all ages. Visit the website to view past submissions and learn how to submit an entry.

Hannah Meier is a Registered Dietitian, second year Nutrition Communications student, aspiring eating disorder specialist and an advocate for healthcare that does not stigmatize based on weight. Her favorite ways to honor her body include twisting and balancing in yoga poses and wearing extra soft pajamas as often as possible.

Resources

[i] The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources, 2003.

[ii] Hudson, J., Hiripi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2007) “The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the national comorbidity survey replication.” Biological Psychiatry, 61, 348–358.

[iii] Strother, E., Lemberg, R., Stanford, S. C., & Turberville, D. (2012). Eating Disorders in Men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood. Eating Disorders, 20(5), 346–355. http://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2012.715512

[iv] Boyce, W. F., King, M. A. & Roche, J. (2008). Healthy Living and Healthy Weight. In Healthy Settings for Young People in Canada.

[v] Pont, S. J., Puhl, R., Cook, S. R., & Slusser, W. (2017). Stigma Experienced by Children and Adolescents With Obesity. Pediatrics. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2017/11/16/peds.2017-3034.abstract

[vi] Thompson JK, Stice E. Thin-ideal internalization: Mounting evidence for a new risk factor for body-image disturbance and eating pathology. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2001;10(5):181-3.

[vii] Pelletier LG, Dion SC, Slovinec-D’Angelo M, Reid R. Why do you regulate what you eat? Relationships between forms of regulation, eating behaviors, sustained dietary behavior change, and psychological adjustment. Motivation and Emotion. 2004;28(3):245-77

[viii] Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005;105(6):929-36.