by Jack Norris, Executive Director
On December 2, the Humane Research Council (HRC) released a report about vegetarian recidivism, How Many Former Vegetarians Are There? I would like to thank HRC and all the people who funded this important research.
The report had a lot of information, much of which they’ve summarized in the article linked above, and I’m going to comment on just a few aspects of it.
A quick overview of the report is that it was a cross-sectional survey of 11,000 people in the USA aged 17 and older. They found that 2% are currently vegetarian/vegan, 10% are ex-vegetarian/vegan, 86% of people who go vegetarian lapse back into meat-eating, and 70% of those who go vegan lapse.
Former vegetarians/vegans adopted the diet at an older age, were more likely to list health than other reasons for going vegetarian/vegan, and transitioned onto the diet faster than current vegetarians/vegans. Former vegetarians/vegans were likely to stick with it less than a year with one-third lasting three months or less; 43% found it difficult to be pure. This seems predictable – when making a resolution to improve one’s health, people often start strong and quickly fade.
The good news regarding former vegetarians/vegans is that about half are interested in trying again and the survey indicates they do not eat large amounts of chicken (on average one-third serving of chicken per day).
Of former vegetarians/vegans, 29% indicated suffering from at least one in a list of health-related problems while vegetarian/vegan. I have discussed this more in my post Vegetarian Recidivism Survey at JackNorrisRd.com.
I have traditionally resisted promoting a vegetarian/vegan diet for health reasons because it could cause people to give up the diet without much of an attempt to stick with it, go on to portray the diet negatively, and possibly eat more chicken than they previously did (in an attempt to avoid red meat, the most unhealthy of the animal products). Based on these results, I can see loosening that position somewhat.
On the other hand, I don’t see this survey as suggesting the health argument is necessarily the way to go, either. One of the big differences between former and current vegetarians/vegans is the extent to which they believed their diet was part of their identity and this was presumably because they had more than health reasons to be vegetarian/vegan.
Other research has had a similar finding. In their 2013 paper, Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. Strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence, researchers found that “[E]thical vegetarians could experience stronger feelings of conviction and consume fewer animal products than health vegetarians, and may remain vegetarian longer.”
HRC suggests that we view vegetarian/vegan advocacy as a long-term relationship, not just a single point of outreach. With the recent addition of our vegan mentorship program and blogging about vegan food and products, Vegan Outreach has been focusing more on supporting people in their transition. We plan to create another program to support people in the coming months.
One thing to keep in mind is that this is a cross-sectional study and, therefore, cannot show causality. I think it’s a great start at finding out some valuable information, but we shouldn’t assume it’s the last word and I’d caution against drastically changing tactics based on these results alone.