Psychology Today on Lapsed Vegetarians

June 27, 2011

Important Psychology Today piece exploring why vegetarians and vegans go back to eating meat. There’s a tribal tendency within the vegan world to look at these lapsed vegetarians as traitors, but that’s a cop-out, and this is too important a topic to not give careful thought to.  There are apparently three times as many former vegetarians as current vegetarians, and we need to get a handle on why so many people are switching back.

According to the article, the top four reasons people return to eating meat are:

  1. They’ve experienced poor health.
  2. They perceive vegetarianism as a hassle.
  3. They have cravings for animal products.
  4. They’ve decided the social cost of being vegetarian is unacceptable.

Reason #1 accounts for 35 percent of lapsed vegetarians.

If I had to guess, this group is made up of three different subgroups. Let’s look at each in turn:

Subgroup #1: I’m willing to believe that there are a minority of people who, even if they eat a well-planned vegan diet, won’t do as well on it as they would on a diet that contains some animal products. As a movement, we need some hard numbers on how big this group is. Is it 0.2 percent of vegans, or is it more like 20 percent? In any case, we can’t do much when it comes to retaining these folks. But what we can do is encourage them to explore how little animal products they need to achieve optimum health. My sense is that some of these people bounce from strict vegan to hard-core carnivore, and that as a movement we can look for ways to help these people find a middle ground.

Subgroup #2: I’d be willing to bet that most people who fail to thrive on a vegan diet have made some basic blunders regarding nutrition, that a bit of education could have prevented. Maybe it’s not getting enough Vitamin B12 or Vitamin D, or perhaps these people are soda pop and potato chip vegans. Whatever the reason, we see people abandoning veganism and claiming it’s unworkable, when in truth they made some simple and entirely preventable mistakes.

One of the reasons I so admire the work of Jack Norris and Ginny Messina is that they’re forthright in admitting that a poorly planned vegan diet can lead to all sorts of health problems. I’ve no doubt we would see far fewer people abandoning veganism if all new vegans educated themselves on the basics of nutrition. Jack and Ginny’s brand new book is a one-stop source for vegans who want to learn this information and stay out of trouble.

Subgroup #3: The vast majority of adults have minimal ability to evaluate the veracity of competing claims. Just as there are plenty of quacks and charlatans advocating veganism, there are plenty of profoundly misinformed anti-vegans like Nina Planck and the cast of half-wits at the Weston A. Price foundation.

The people who adapt vegan living after being exposed to unrealistic pro-vegan arguments are exactly the people who will jump ship the moment they hear arguments to the contrary. It’s very hard to hold on to these people and keep them in the vegan camp. About our only method of doing so is to emphasize reliable literature within our movement, and to do what we can to encourage newcomers to expose themselves to quality information written by the most respected vegan authors.

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Two final points about this study:

First, the number of respondents was tiny—just 77 people—and doubtless a cohort ten times larger would have produced more reliable results as well as some additional insights about the problem. Still, these results are probably fairly accurate, and are sufficient to give us some understanding about why people abandon their vegetarian lifestyles.

Second, Change of Heart author Nick Cooney makes a very good point that these findings trample one of the key talking points of abolitionists: that eliminating factory farms and outlawing specific cruelties will make vegetarians feel OK about going back to eating meat. We see pretty much zero evidence here that anything like that is going on. It’s further confirmation that people who oppose cruelty bans for strategic reasons are not acting in the animals’ best interests. (Thanks, Jon.) Link.

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