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Why are Vegetarians Returning to Eating Meat?

08 December 2014

One in five people in the US, who become vegetarians or vegans, maintains the diet.

According to a new Harris Interactive survey for the Humane Research Council this means that 84 per cent of vegetarians or vegans revert back to eating meat or other animal products.

HRC’s study of former and current vegetarians and vegans was drawn from a representative sample of more than 11,000 adults in the US.

The report shows that former vegetarians or vegans in the US have an average age of 48 and first adopted a veg diet at around age 34.

Nearly half of former vegetarians or vegans (44 per cent) are over the age of 50.

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of former vegetarians or vegans are women.

A large majority of former vegetarians or vegans (65 per cent) say they changed to a vegetarian diet quickly, in a matter of days or weeks and more than half of former vegetarians or vegans (58 per cent) cite health as a motivation, making it easily the most common reason that former vegetarians or vegans tried the diet.

A slight majority of former vegetarians or vegans maintained the diet for less than a year.

Current vegetarians and vegans in the US have an average age of 42, notably younger than former vegetarians or vegans.

Six out of 10 current vegetarians or vegans are between the ages of 30 and 49.

Those who currently eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are even more likely than former vegetarians or vegans to be women (74 per cent vs. 69 per cent).

Existing vegetarians or vegans are also much more likely to lean toward liberal politics (52 per cent identify as liberal, versus only 14 per cent who say they are conservative). Current vegetarians or vegans are also less likely to say they actively practice a religion.

The report shows that two-thirds (65 per cent) of former vegetarians or vegans changed to a vegetable diet in a matter of days or weeks, which, it says, might be too fast for some people.

This is significantly more than the proportion of current vegetarians or vegans, who changed over the course of days/weeks (53 per cent).

The report adds that these findings suggest that most vegetarians or vegans alter their diets quickly, but people, who changed their diets quickly to a vegetarian/vegan diet are less likely to stay with it.

In addition, the window of opportunity is limited for vegan and vegetarian advocates to help people maintain their dietary changes. More than half of former vegetarians or vegans abandoned the diet within the first year, and a third of them abandoned it in three months or less, the report says.

“For a long time we have had strong anecdotal evidence that relationships and families place stress on one’s ability to maintain a vegetarian/vegan diet,” the Humane Research Council said.

“Indeed, in our study half of former vegetarians or vegans (49 per cent) said they were living with a significant other when their diet lapsed. Most of those (a third of all former vegetarians or vegans) were specifically living with a non-vegetarian or non-vegan partner when they resumed eating meat.”

The HRC said that nearly 10 years ago it conducted a comprehensive study of meat reduction, vegetarianism, and veganism.

“In that report we used the term “incrementalism” to describe the approach of encouraging people to take small steps with the end goal being a diet (and lifestyle) free of animal products,” the HRC said.

“As we wrote, “getting people started on the path toward a desired change is itself a major breakthrough,” and the current study of former vegetarians or vegans underscores this fact.

“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.

“Given that 43 per cent of lapsed vegetarians or vegans say they found it too difficult to maintain a “pure” diet, advocates would be well advised to soften their appeals to avoid suggesting the choice is all or nothing.

“Advocates should also start to concentrate on messages to reduce consumption of chicken and fish, in particular, given the very large number animals consumed.”

The HRC said that the value of the “health argument” as a means to encourage plant-based diets is a subject of much debate among vegetarian/vegan advocates.

“While health-driven behaviour change may lead to a reduction in the number of animals slaughtered, it does not necessarily lead to more positive attitudes toward farmed animals,” the council said.

“However, most long-time advocates think the health argument is effective as a “foot in the door” approach.

“Our study provides solid evidence to support these notions. Most former vegetarians or vegans stated that health was the number one motivator for eating the diet (58 per cent). Perhaps more importantly, health was also the key motivation for current vegetarians or vegans (along with animal welfare).

“In the case of former vegetarians or vegans, health and other common motivators (such as taste preferences, animal welfare, and being disgusted by meat) were not enough for them to sustain a veg diet.”

While health was the main motivator for former vegetarians or vegans to alter their diet, the report says that 27 per cent of them also say they were motivated by animal welfare.

“Current vegetarians or vegans are much more likely to cite multiple reasons for choosing the diet,” the HRC said.

“In relation to current vegetarians or vegans, it is unclear whether all of these reasons were actually part of their initial decision to become veg, or if some of the motivations arose later. But what is clear is that having multiple reasons for being vegetarian or vegan is associated with being able to maintain the diet for the long-term.”

While the HRC said the study provides a clarion call for advocates to think more about retention and supporting and retaining new vegetarians or vegans as they face any of a number of challenges, meat organisations have welcomed the findings.

The American Meat Institute welcomed back the vegetarians and vegans, who were resuming a meat diet.

Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs at the American Meat Institute said: “This new data shows what we’ve known intuitively. Meat and poultry are irresistible for their taste and nutrition.

“A growing body of evidence reveals that balanced diets that include meat and poultry are the best option for good nutrition and for weight control because meat controls hunger.”

The AMI said that while Harris Interactive conducted the survey for the Humane Research Council, which undoubtedly hoped for a different survey outcome, consumers can also feel confident that animal handling and humane treatment are better than ever.


Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

December 2014

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