Do Most Vegans Go Back To Eating Animals?

Do Most Vegans Go Back To Eating Animals?

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.

23 Responses to Do Most Vegans Go Back To Eating Animals?

  1. Thank you for this great, very insightful article!

  2. When I first read the Psychology Today article I was skeptical right away because anyone who has done even a tiny bit of work with stats knows how easily they can be manipulated. For example, three times as many Americans sounds a lot more dramatic than 6%, especially when 6% of 936 = only 56 people, and as you pointed out, the margin of error makes the finding statistically irrelevant anyway! That’s why I always prefer to see real numbers rather than percentages only. In the comment section you also pointed out the problems with labels which Herzog never bothered addressing. Seeing the actual questions of his survey would have been awfully nice too.

    Besides, I always like to check out other stuff written by an author (including book reviews) and given the fact that he seems to think there may be a link between vegetarianism and eating disorders leads me to think he may be biased anyway. So yep, a huge grain of salt is in order here!

  3. Great commentary. I think that you’ve hit one truth and that is that a lot of people who claim to be veg aren’t because they identify it with being better/more ethical. But I think it is also true that a number of those who do, fall off the wagon.

    Here is another good insight on the PT blog, which tackles Herzog’s arguments from that perspective:

    Put your two responses together and Herzog’s piece is totally decimated.

  4. Sharon, great link! Thanks for sharing :)

  5. Two things. Herzog has been on a mission for decades to discredit animal rights activists. Keep in mind that we are talking about a guy who used to make his money running tests on animals; and he thought animal rights activists were gaining to much attention in the mainstream public. In one of the first articles he wrote on this subject he focused on the cognitive functioning of animal rights activists (The Movement is My Life; Journal of Social Issues, 1993, Vol. 49, No. 1, p. 103-119). Second, Psychology Today got into deep trouble about a month ago for publishing a so-called research article that “proved” that black women are objectively less attractive than women of any other race ( I rest my case.

  6. “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.”

    Need I point out that this is not a logical conclusion at all?

    Let’s suppose we have a society where everyone lives to 80, and the population is evenly distributed across ages (number of 5-year olds = number of 23 year olds = number of 72 year olds, etc). Suppose that at age 20, 11% of the people go vegetarian. Then, suppose that at age 35, until death at 80, ALL of them go back to eating meat. Then, at any given point in time, 2% of the population is vegetarian and 6% of the population is ex-vegetarian, but actually ALL vegetarians eventually become ex-vegetarians.

    Okay, I know the example I picked to disprove that isn’t a very flattering interpretation of the data, but the it was the easiest counterexample I could think of to the silly “2% vegetarians and 6% ex-vegetarians means 75% of vegetarians go back!” fallacious argument.

  7. EC, thanks for this article. The insight is tremendous. I also followed the link that Sharon put up and think that one is excellent also. I agree with her that if you put the two analyses together, each approaching the issue from a different perspective, that the Psych Today piece is decimated.

    One thing I would like to point out is your reference to Marcus and Messina. I realize they may be “big names” in the vegan movement, but they’ve entirely missed the boat on this. Their obsessive focus on nutrition comes off as a monomania. Because of their obsession, they see proof of nutritional deficits everywhere they turn. And they make adopting a vegan diet appear harder than it is. Have you ever seen anyone with gout? No? Neither have I. Yet, the constant harping on iodine and the threat of gout makes it appear that the vegan diet is unnatural and we are all one step away from growths on our necks.

    Moreover, they do not appear to have taken their own advice and read that awful post on Psych Today with a few grains of (iodized) salt. ;-)

    Your analysis lapped them. Just a suggestion that your voice stands alone. Their names only weigh yours down.

  8. Julian, good point.
    And of course, the math changes if the terms don’t describe the same thing. It’s likely that the CBS poll actually shows that 1-2% of the population is vegetarian and 6% of the population experimented with meat-reduction in the past.

  9. I was a vegan for two years – loved how I felt and did not feel it was a hassle to eat out – though my loved ones often felt as such. In ’08 I became ill and proceeded to spend a year and a half on and off antibiotics due to chronic infections, near hospitalization due to my inability to take care of myself. In the end I was diagnosed with celiac disease and told to get off soy. Given how sick I was, I had no choice but to believe that returning to a non-vegetarian lifestyle would help. It has, I’ve returned to a normal life, being off medication, active (running marathons) and without pain. I do not believe that veganism is the reason I have celiac disease or any of my other health issues, which is what some might believe. I do believe that your ideas on veganism support are positive and important, but just remember some of us who fall off the wagon if you will don’t do it because they want to.

  10. Jenn, I’m sorry you have celiac disease and soy-intolerance. Glad you got a diagnosis.

    Just as some diseases and conditions might make eating a plant-based diet slightly more difficult, the opposite is true too. Someone with PKU will struggle (to put it mildly) with a diet that is full of animal products.

    Some diseases require particularly cumbersome nutritional planning. That’s unfortunate, but that’s life.

    That’s got nothing to do with my article above. My article is not about people who have diseases or about people who “fall off the vegan wagon.” My article above is about being skeptical of poor science. Just because a bunch of people said they are ex-vegan doesn’t mean they were ever actually vegan!

  11. Yep. Of all the self-proclaimed “ex-vegans” I’ve ever met, not one of them was ever actually a vegan. Most weren’t even vegetarians. It’s getting to the point with me where I simply don’t believe anyone who claims this about themsleves… not even the ones who had “health issues.”

  12. I’m meeting a lot of “mostly vegetarians” lately, citing fish or *humanely* butchered animals as their allowable flesh. I’m trying to wrap my head around that phrase and it’s not working. By definition, being vegetarian is not. eating. animals. period. How can people rationalize away the fundamental meaning of being vegetarian so that it permits them to eat meat?

  13. Jenn, we are not supposed to eat soy. Just eat a normal diet, based on a wide variety of fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. You can also try algae, mushrooms, legumes and whole grains.

    Animal products are the worst things that you can eat. Soy and other processed foods are also very unhealthy.

    Most of those who claim that they were ”veg” are just fakes. And a few of them that actually felt ”bad”, felt ”bad” because they were eating only 1 or 2 types of foods, or because they were not eating enough calories. You know, most people think that they can blame the plant based diet for their own mistakes.

    Check out my page for info about veganism and plant based diets!

  14. I think using an illness as an excuse to revert back to the cruelty of supporting factory farms is one of the most pathetic things a person can do.
    You’d look less ignorant and arrogant if you just said you couldn’t handle being a vegetarian; you were too weak.

  15. I suspect that very few vegans go back to eating animals. Some may lapse and take a less strict attitude to the presence of animal derived ingredients in food and other products which they buy but remain vegetarian, to all intents and purposes.

    Other vegans – and I am one of them – get fed up of the loony left politics that many vegans ally themselves with, though the loony lefties don’t usually reciprocate, because individual initiative is anethema to their ‘collectivist’ politics.

  16. Good heavens! Can this data analysis be true? So pleased I found this.

    The Hal Herzog stuff was really bothering me lately, because his conclusion made it seem like the odds were so badly against us (surely his intention – I didn’t know about the animal testing thing). It knocked my confidence, especially when I researched into the details and found stuff like Rhys Southan’s blog (because, you know, intellectual honesty. It was painful to read but I reckoned I had to confront the dark side of things I might disagree with) and spent some time looking into exvegan stories. I found a lot, but on the other hand ‘dude goes veg, loves it, happy to stay there for rest of life’ is less newsworthy than ‘I WENT VEGAN AND MY HEAD FELL OFF IT’LL HAPPEN TO YOU TOO WITHOUT CHEESE!’. So there’s a bias there. And we’ve got no data yet to prove it either way.

    You know, I’d love to study this. I’d love to get a much more accurate study sample, look at the correlations for what makes people more likely to stay and include more detailed descriptions for things like ‘lapsed with bacon whilst drunk once, seriously regretted it, and has been properly vegan these past 12 years since’ or ‘once tried to lose weight before an event by eating no meat for two weeks, thinks can now officially call self ‘ex-vegetarian’ on this basis’…

  17. Almost every vegan I knew/know is not vegan anymore. I was vegan (proper, vegan police type vegan ;p, check every item on the grocery list for a possible extract of an extract that may have been derived from or mixed with an animal by-product) for 15 years. I am no longer vegan, I eat eggs, dairy and fish. Why have I and many of my friends turned away from ‘The path’ – simple: health problems. Not small but serious health issues that long term vegans suffer from. I took the supplements, I researched everything and I still got it wrong somehow. I was not a junk food vegan, one is not a vegan for 15 years without doing your homework. Yet in the last 3 years or so my health deteriorated, drastically – serious eye sight issues, muscle spasms, restless leg syndrome, brain fog, severe depression and skin problems. ALL of those have improved with the change in diet and I don’t take supplements anymore.
    I know how it works in the vegan world – you are supposed to be OK with being ill because you are morally superior, you are saving lives with your suffering, so it’s worth it. Vegans are supposed to keep quiet about health issues and they do, I did, until it just became impossible to maintain the lie.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that Veganism is a great philosophy, but we just don’t have the technology to make it work yet, it does not work long term. When we understand human biology better, I’ll be the first to go back.

  18. Sorry to hear that Jinx, but I disagree with you on every count. I have been vegan for well over twenty years (ie half my life), having been lacto-vegetarian for a few years leading up to it. I am neither a health-food fanatic nor a junk-food one; everything in moderation as the saying goes.

    My health hasn’t deteriorated in the slightest due to my diet and is most likely not much different than if I had remained omnivorous all those years ago, except that as with most vegans I have cholesterol levels that are lower than ‘normal’ Western levels. I’d need an omnivorous twin to be able to ‘check’.

    As for supplements, if I were omnivorous I guess I’d take glucosamine sulphate rather than glucosamine hydrochloride for my knee cartilage (a self-inflicted running injury – lifestyle rather than dietary) and fish oil rather than Vertese Omega 3-6-9. I do weight training (no steroids or any special dietary stuff) and I am pretty well toned for a middle-aged man.

    Veganism is perfectly achievable in dietary terms as long as you recognise that trace ‘contamination’ is no more than you take in the air that you breathe. In non-dietary terms it has become significantly easier over the past twenty years, when good non-leather shoes were difficult to come by.

  19. There are many intriguing aspects to this story as well as the comments from people citing health issues as reasons for returning to carnism. As in similar reporting, I wish I was reading one or more peer-reviewed scientific studies of those people whose health declined while practicing a vegetarian or vegan diet. It would include a comprehensive profile of nutritional intake, blood/urine chemistry and other indices of health or lack of it; the professional diagnosis of these illnesses, the qualifications of the health professionals (innate bias filters)who diagnoses the illnesses being suffered, family histories for predispositions for these illnesses, and other confounding factors that are not adequately nor objectively measured here.

    I do believe the statements being made by those who became ill. While I am not convinced there is a proven linkage between between these dietary experiments (so it turned out, perfectly or imperfectly attempted), I do know we need to understand these anecdotal reports from a scientific platform so that they can be addressed. Everyone would benefit.

    I would add that “vegetarianism” no longer serves anyone—not people, not individuals from other species, not ecosystems. Vegetarianism is a form of carnism as evidenced by the linked suffering of fish, chickens via eggs, and milk products via the cows and their calves. The environmental impacts remain. I wish I had known that after wasting decades of thinking I had made the right choice as a vegetarian prior to becoming vegan.

  20. I once saw some pro-vegan protests in front of a big dorm in my city.

    Which big dorm?

    The one where the university houses mostly freshmen and freshwomen fresh out of their parents’ homes and runs a big dining hall funded largely by meal plans mandatory for residents.

    Not any of the ones where the university houses mostly older students already accustomed to living on campus and provides many small kitchens.

    So, let’s review. This go-vegan demonstration targeted an audience of people who:
    – are going through a lot of stressful upheavals in life
    – have already paid for a semester’s worth of meals yet to be eaten
    – are probably not yet accustomed to managing their own diets at all whether vegan or not
    – usually don’t have enough facilities to cook for themselves

    Now, ex-vegans both seem to be even less likely to go vegan again than never-vegans are likely to go vegan, and seem to often be told that veganism didn’t work out for them because they were doing it wrong.

    If vegans doing veganism wrong become ex-vegans, then why on Earth try to convert people who *don’t have what it takes to do veganism right*?

    Were these people just targeting freshmen and freshwomen by thinking “away from home and more anxious? easier to convert!!!” the same way the parachurch missionaries targeting freshmen and freshwomen think?

  21. Well I’ve been a real vegan for almost 9 years but as a fat vegan I feel shunned and have no support. I used to enjoy vegan events at a local organization until I heard a speaker heavily associated with the organization state vegans should be advocates by their “appearance.” That was over 3 years ago and I’ve never gone back. No motivation. I can’t visit the animals I used to donate for. (the “appearance” of my donations was acceptable I guess) I’m about out. I went vegan for the animals but I’ve had it with the jerk people.


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