What can we learn from research on ex-vegetarians?

Recent, extensive research by the Faunalytics (they are celebrating 15 years, go support them!) has indicated that in the US, only one in five new vegetarians or vegans maintains the diet. Put another way, 84% of vegetarians/vegans revert back to eating meat or other animal products.

First of all, while this may seem appalling news at first sight, I think it is actually not. It means that there is a much bigger potential for veg*ism than the few percentages we have right now. It means that so many more people have considered or may consider going veg*n. It means that if we manage to take some barriers away, there is enormous growth potential for the movement. Look at it like this: if all people who started on a veg*n diet, stuck to it, we would already have the necessary critical mass!

Secondly, about motivations.The fact that current vegetarians check “animal protection” as reason to be vegetarian a lot more than ex-vegetarians (68% vs 27%) makes some people (among whom Matt Ball) conclude that “altruistic” reasons provide the most “staying power”. Health as motivator in particular, according to this interpretation, would hence not be a good argument to communicate about in our outreach. I think this is might be a wrong conclusion to take away from the research. At the very least, I’d like to offer an alternative interpretation.

If we want veg*ism to have more staying power, it is undoubtedly beneficial to make sure people have solid motivations, which make them less likely to stray from their vegan path. Ethical motivations, in that sense, seem more solid. And virtually the only reason to consistently stick to a vegetarian/vegan diet, is because one believes animals shouldn’t be eaten (any other argument would have no problem with at least a very low consumption of animal products). However, there are different ways of making it easier for veg*ns to stay veg*n. One of them is increasing their motivation, another one is tackling the environment in which they move. Sure, if we can add one or two veg*ns in their environment (especially in their family or among their colleagues) that will help. But making the environment generally more understanding and more accommodating to veg*ns doesn’t require that they become veg*n themselves, and is probably a much faster way. And for that – to make veg*ism more mainstream –  health seems to be a motivator that can convince more people.

Some other doubts I have about the interpretation that HRC research tells us we should focus on ethical motivations, particularly animals:

  • if I’m correct, we cannot interpret from the data what people’s initial motivation was for going veg, vs. what their present motivation is. It may very well be (as indeed some research seems to indicate) that many people evolve from health motivations to ethical motivations. What if health motivations and health communication would be more suitable to attract people initially? If this were the case, the argument for focusing on animals in all our communication doesn’t hold up. On the contrary.
  • there may be a kind of self selection in the respondents at work, where ethically (esp. animal rights) motivated people are more easily drawn to respond, and where they might be more prone to give certain answers
  • we need also to take into account if recidivists go back to eating meat like before, or whether they may be still mostly veg*n, say eating veg like 6 days a week. Big masses of people like that make a big difference. Even if health vegetarians wouldn’t stick to their diet consistently but stuck mostly to it, and we could easily “make” more health vegetarians, this would be an argument in favor of health communication. Likewise, to get a good idea of everything, we would need the years that people have been veg*n into account.
  • a real cause for concern would be, however, that ex veg*ns become bad spokespeople for veg*ism


It’s all good and well to say that people should be motivated by ethical reasons, but that doesn’t mean they easily will be. It seems to me common sense – and is repeated in much of the change literature I come across – that it is more productive to formulate our message in a way that it connects to values that people already have (health, environment), instead of trying to get them adopt the values we would like them to have. We will make faster progress mainstreaming the veg*n idea, without necessarily bumping up the number of vegans, but drastically reducing meat consumption and increasing veg*n offers in restaurants and stores. The change in society this will cause will make it easier for everyone to be a full time veg*n.

One of the things I see being repeated again, and which I think is a big mistake, is the emphasis on the number of veg*ns, rather than on the number of veg*n meals being eaten. The second is a lot more important than the former, not only because in absolute numbers it can have a bigger effect on animal suffering, but also because in this stage in the history of our movement –  it is probably both easier and more beneficial to rapidly increase the number of veg*n meals being eaten than the number of veg*ns. This is the incrementalism that HRC also stresses in their conclusions: “the latest findings once again show that a message focused on reduction instead of elimination of animal products may be more effective to create an overall decline in animal product consumption.”

Something else I was very happy to read in HRC’s conclusions was the importance of our attention to the how. I think veg activism should focus on facilitation and lowering the barriers, rather than on convincing people why they should be veg*n.

Another lesson, in my humble opinion is: preaching to the choir is not to be underestimated. Organizing potlucks among vegans is sometimes frowned upon by ‘real’ activists who are out there in the streets. I think these results indicate something else. Giving each other support is majorly important.

In any case, we can not be in denial. I’ve seen animal rights activists be very quick to respond with statements like: we know better, for us it’s not a phase. Of course it’s not a phase for some, but apparently for a majority, it is. Let’s take away the barriers.

4 thoughts on “What can we learn from research on ex-vegetarians?

  1. In Belgium, we have an awareness raising campaign called Thursday veggieday. On that day in most cities, schools only offer vegetarian meals and a lot of big companies (banks, universities, government) try to convince their staff to eat veggie that day, by advertisement for the campaign and offering more veggie meals in their own lunch rooms. The idea behind that is what you stated, raising the number of veg*n meals is easier and also very important. Even my dad, a die hard meat eater, now occasionally voluntarily chooses a meat alternative. One of the culture shocks I got when we recently moved to Ireland, is that vegetarianism isn’t that mainstream here. There isn’t even 1 veggie meal offered in the 2week school menu of the kids 🙁

      1. ja lap, met dat alles in het engels is en er nogal universeel uitziet, had ik de about nog niet gelezen, oeps… De eva-campagne is echt super en heeft al verrassend veel mensen overtuigd om wat vaker het vlees links te laten liggen. En al ben ik zelf geen full time vegetariër, ik blijf het wel echt jammer vinden dat Ierland zo verrassend achterop hinkt.

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