Flashback: This post is a good one so it’s getting republished. The original publish date was July 2, 2011. It was republished June 8, 2013 after minor edits. Now, with new research, it’s published once again.
Do Most Vegans Go Back To Eating Animals?
The Myth of the Ex-Vegetarian
In 2011 among the veg community there was a lot of talk about ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians. There was a short blog post in Psychology Today that asked Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat? Vegan advocates have chimed in on the issue including Ginny Messina and Erik Marcus. (As well as Matt Ball).
But if you actually take a look at the studies, you’ll find that the issue isn’t so much an issue of “failed vegans” or “ex-vegetarians.” It appears that the majority of the people who now claim to be ex-vegetarians were never actually vegetarian.
According to Herzog, the author of the Psychology Today article who did a study about the motivations of ex-vegetarians, “Most participants ate some meat when they were in their vegetarian stage” (source link).
Let me repeat that because it deserves emphasis:
According to Hal Herzog, who did an internet survey of so-called ex-vegetarians, “Most participants ate some meat when they were in their vegetarian stage”
But he didn’t say that in his article, only in the study conclusion. Instead, Herzog wrote:
“[A]ccording to a 2005 survey by CBS News, three times as many American adults admit to being ‘ex-vegetarians’ than describe themselves as current vegetarians. This suggests that roughly 75% of people who quit eating meat eventually change their minds and return to a diet that includes animal flesh.”
In the CBS poll that Herzog cites there’s a margin of error that virtually erases his entire claim that “Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat.” CBS found that 2% of people claimed to be vegetarian whereas 6% claimed to be ex-vegetarian but the margin of error was 3 percentage points!
Other studies indicate that about half of all people who claim to be vegetarian actually eat animals:
“A small proportion of U.S. adults (1-3% of the population, or 2-6 million adults) are ‘actual’ veg*ns, though about twice that number (4-6%) consider themselves vegetarian when asked by researchers.” (source: Humane Research Council)
“The number of self-reported vegetarians and vegans is roughly double the number of actual vegetarians and vegans” (source: Cultivate Research)
The key flaw in the studies that suggest there are swaths of ex-vegetarians is a simple error: they mistake the identity labels of “vegetarian” and “ex-vegetarian” as indicative of actual human behavior.
The fact is, human beings are complex. They don’t always act in accordance with their stated identities or values.
Instead of asking Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat? Herzog should have dropped the “why” and simply started with the question: Do Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat? In fact, his study – and others – suggests that people who call themselves vegetarian but aren’t vegetarian are better labled as “meat-reducers.” Herzog found that when these “meat-reducers” increased their meat consumption they identified themsleves as “ex-vegetarian” rather than as “ex-meat-reducer” or simply as “omnivore.”
Keep in mind, too, that they may never have actually even reduced their meat consumption. They merely intended to do so. We don’t really know for sure what they did or didn’t do because that’s not what was measured. Self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate.
Clearly, the issue isn’t so much getting vegans to stay vegan. Rather, the issue is getting people to actually do what they say. As in, when people say they “love animals” yet instead of going vegan, they support factory farming by eating animal products at every other meal.
Why do so many people behave in ways that run counter to their stated ideals? Melanie Joy (partially) answers the question in her recent article, Understanding Neocarnism: How Vegan Advocates Can Appreciate and Respond to “Happy Meat,” Locavorism, and “Paleo Dieting”. Joy writes:
“it is not despite vegan advocacy, but largely because of it that such defensiveness has made its way into public discourse. The new wave of pro-meat arguments is in part an attempt to defend the weakened meat-eating establishment against the very real threat posed by an increasingly powerful vegan movement. ‘Happy meat,’ locavorism, and ‘paleo dieting’ are signs of society’s willingness to examine the ethics of eating meat, eggs, and dairy, and they reflect people’s genuine concern for animals (and the environment and health). But they also reflect the resistance of the dominant, meat-eating culture to truly embracing a vegan ethic. The new pro-meat arguments are part of a carnistic backlash against the growing popularity of veganism, and vegans and non-vegans alike must understand and appreciate them in order to move toward a more humane and just society.”
I would add “ex-vegetarians” to her list of neocarnists. And I’d agree with her that their existence is evidence that the AR movement is successful. Similarly to Joy, the Winograds explain:
“How do such individuals overcome the guilt of knowing they are engaging in admitted unethical behavior which is detrimental to both animals and the environment, without also admitting to being unethical themselves? They rationalize.”
Continuing with the science compiled at The Humane Spot, we find that “The most significant barriers to vegetarianism and veganism are concerns about preferred taste, nutritional deficiencies, and convenience.” (source: HRC)
So it’s obvious that vegan advocates should use solid nutrition information when encouraging nonvegans to choose vegan. Duh. But since convenience and taste are also one of the three major reasons given for avoiding veganism, we ought to make sure the nutrition information we provide is easy to understand and provides tasty, appealing options.
UPDATE: Research conducted by Kenneth Menzies and Judy Sheeshka (University of Guelph) has found this about “ex-vegans”:
“Exiting vegetarianism is similar to the process of leaving other important individual identities, including exiting diets containing meat. It is a process, not an event, and partially a response to inconvenience, particularly when the person’s table companions were not vegetarians. [...] Exiting processes show the five central food values of taste, health, time, cost, and social relationships undermine people’s commitment to a diet chosen largely for moral reasons.”
This study, like the other, did not appear to seriously consider whether or not the self-identified ex-vegetarians were ever actually vegetarian. But like other studies it does suggest there are still significant barriers for some people in choosing and maintaining a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Looking at this information I came to a few conclusions about how to be effective advocates of veganism:
- We ought to offer easy solutions to common problems.
- We ought not overcomplicate vegan nutrition.
- We should offer social support as well as methods to counter any real or perceived deficits of veganism in terms of taste, health, time, or cost.
- And lastly, we ought to take new information with a grain of salt.* Be a skeptic.
*Preferably, iodized salt.