Why Do Some People Fail at Being Vegan?

Photo courtesy of Humane Research Council

Photo courtesy of Humane Research Council

It’s no secret that many people give veganism a try only to quickly abandon it. But the findings from last month’s Humane Research Council survey were especially sobering.

According to their study, a cross-sectional survey of 11,400 U.S. adults, nearly three-quarters—70% to be exact—of those who have tried a vegan diet end up abandoning it. The numbers are even higher for vegetarians. Alarmingly, the survey found that there were five times more ex-vegetarians/vegans than current vegetarians/vegans.

Now this is a single study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. As such, it’s not the final word on ex-vegetarianism. Also–and I think this is important–the survey did not ask people if they had gone vegan or vegetarian for weight control. Those in pursuit of weight loss often hop from one diet to another. If we could weed out those chronic dieters, the numbers might look a little different.

But this was certainly a good study that asked a lot of crucial questions. It provides important perspective on why people abandon meatless and vegan diets.

HRC found that people who adopted their plant-based diet exclusively for health reasons and those who transitioned very quickly to vegetarianism were more likely to return to eating meat. As Jack noted in this Vegan Outreach blog post, this isn’t surprising. Those who make dietary changes for their health often “start strong, and quickly fade.” In fact, more than a third of ex-vegetarians gave up pretty quickly, having tried their diet for less than 3 months.

Twenty-five percent said they weren’t sure they were getting the best nutrition and an even greater number said that their health suffered on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many felt that their health improved after they added animal foods back to their diet. More than one-third of ex-vegetarians craved animal foods and were bored with their food choices.

Finally, people were more likely to give up on a vegetarian or vegan diet when they didn’t perceive it as part of their identity.

In short, people gave up on vegetarianism or veganism for all the reasons you would guess—inconvenience, food cravings, not feeling well, concerns about nutrition and a lack of conviction.

Fortunately, we have the tools to address a lot of these issues.

It goes without saying—and is largely what this blog is about—that we need to promote sound, evidence-based information to help people feel confident that they are meeting nutrient needs. Downplaying the need for appropriate supplements and for focused food choices doesn’t do any good for vegans or for farmed animals.

We need to help new vegans discover the foods that make meals easy, pleasurable and varied. This means that we want them to know that they can choose from a wide range of foods which includes soyfoods, veggie meats, some convenience products, vegetable oils, and a few treats now and then.

Cravings for animal foods appeared to be a problem for many ex-vegetarians and vegans. This is something that I believe is almost always about texture, flavor and familiarity rather than nutrient shortfalls. I’ve written before about the importance of adding umami to vegan menus, and I also think that veggie meats can help a lot for those who like them.

Helping people make a realistically-paced transition is key as well. (Although more than half of current vegetarians/vegans had transitioned quickly, so clearly this works just fine for many people.)

More than anything, activists need to provide sympathetic support. New vegetarians and especially vegans are bound to falter now and then as they work to bring their choices in line with their beliefs. A lot of ex-vegetarians and vegans said that they found it difficult to stay “pure.” But, lapses and mistakes don’t mean that someone has “failed” at being vegan. Most of us acknowledge that being vegan is not always a breeze and that the transition is rockier for some than others.

Some obstacles are more challenging, though. Ex-vegetarians/vegans were more likely to say that their diet made them feel conspicuous. And even 41% of current vegetarians and vegans said that they disliked that their diet makes them “stick out from the crowd.”

I think this is a big issue and not an easy one to solve. But it does tell us that vegans need to support each other and help each other and mentor each other. And, along with great food and foolproof nutrition guidelines and a realistic plan for adopting a vegan diet, maybe we can help more people stick with veganism for the long-term.

For the sake of the animals, we have to do better not just in convincing people to try veganism, but also in helping them stay vegan. I’d love to know your ideas for how we can help more people make successful and permanent transitions to a vegan diet.

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22 Responses to Why Do Some People Fail at Being Vegan?

  1. Charlotte January 7, 2015 at 6:26 am #

    A thousand times yes to sympathetic support!

    Woe betide anyone who goes to many of the vegan groups on facebook and says they tried going vegan but failed, or even just that they are struggling making the change. They are often met with a storm of people telling them that they are selfish, that going vegan is easy (“just stop using animal products”), and that if they have health problems they are either doing it wrong, or they are ‘looking for excuses’ to eat animal products and were ‘never really vegan in the first place’.

    I think what we all need to keep in mind that

    – bullying people doesn’t help them or the animals

    – even if it was easy for you to go vegan, that doesn’t mean it is easy for everyone

    – Many people are not used to cooking their own food, and anyone making the change might discouraged sometimes by cooking failures

    – health problems are unpleasant and scary, and the medical establishment is not always supportive or knowledgeable about veganism. Don’t be mean to people for fearing for their health while vegan, you’re not helping anyone.

    – Most of us are not health or nutrition experts, and veganism is not a panacea: if people have health problems, tell them to see a doctor, not to drink more smoothies. You are most likely not qualified to diagnose them: by all means point them to solid scientific *general* vegan nutrition resources, but send them to a professional for any specific problems they are having

    – A hostile social environment will stimulate a few, but will wear most people down. Don’t add to it by being horrible to people who eat something non-vegan at a family gathering just to keep the peace. Encourage them to keep trying, share tips from your own experiences for dealing with people around you (and “just cut them out of your life” is *really* not helpful to most people), and any great recipes you have for them that are likely to be a hit with omnis to bring to social events.

    If I encounter people online or IRL considering (or struggling with) veganism, I tend to point them to Jack Norris’ ‘Tips for new vegans’ for the most important basic nutrition advice, and ‘Vegan for her’ or ‘Vegan for life’ (depending on their sex) for further reading. If they have health problems I advise them to see a doctor, and share Bonzai Aphrodite’s wonderful blog post on facing failing health as a vegan as inspiration for taking your health seriously while also trying to find vegan ways to do so.

    I wax enthusiastic about vegan food, and share some of my favourite recipe websites and cookbooks, as well as ideas for easy substitutions and quick and freezable meals. I congratulate them on small steps in the vegan direction, and I always remember that I was an omnivore and a vegetarian once and in no position to judge.

    • Jill January 7, 2015 at 11:51 am #

      This post was excellent. Charlotte, your points are so valuable and appreciated.I share your sentiments on interacting with new vegans. We were all “new” once, regardless of how difficult or easy we found the journey. If someone is struggling on this path, we should be extending a helpful hand, inclusive community and the tools to succeed rather than judging and shaming the learning curve. If we want to build a supportive, strong movement and pave the way for people to not only go vegan but stay vegan, compassion and understanding is the only way. Now THAT is ethical veganism at its finest!

  2. Grey January 7, 2015 at 6:43 pm #

    To be honest, I went vegan for environmental/ethical reasons about 15 years ago. However, once I moved out of a college town with easy access to vegan food and to a rural area where it was difficult to find soymilk, lived with a spouse who was unsupportive and constantly critical of my choices, and found myself struggling to have time to work and cook and afford buying two different types of food for the household. Not having any support wore me down and I slowly returned to eating animal foods because it was (sadly) easier and more convienent. Years later when my circumstances improved (and I dropped the unsupportive people in my life), I found my way to veganism again. Since then it’s become an integral part of my identity and I can’t imagine giving it up – but I’m in a completely different place in life now. I remarried and have a supportive partner who respects my choices (although he’s still omni, he eats my vegan suppers without complaint). I have the ability to drive to a HFS and purchase the vegan butter and nutritional yeast and beans/nuts in bulk. I have more income and can afford to try new and exciting foods and recipes without worry about what I’ll eat later in the week. I have time in the evenings to cook dinner since I no longer need to work overtime to try to make ends meet.

    All of that is to say – even for people who go into being vegan for ethical reasons, it can be difficult. It can be extremely challenging, especially if you’re in a bad economic situation, live in a food desert or rural area without good access to vegan foods or fresh produce, or you just don’t have the familial/community support. I think support is the key, but we also have to consider that there are factors that play into the availability and affordability of food as well. (I don’t know if those items were covered in the study, I haven’t heard it mentioned in any of the reviews).

  3. Lou January 8, 2015 at 4:57 am #

    I recall reading that our psychology, like our biology, is the product of our genes. We come pre-programmed. As members of a social species, “social proof” influences much of our behaviour – especially our food choices. Historically, if a human ate, for example, berries that nobody else in the tribe would eat, their genes would likely be removed from the gene pool! Genes are selected by their own success. Humans that copied their tribe members, on average, left behind more descendants – WE are those descendants and we’ve inherited the adaptive psychological (survival) mechanism, “eat what the majority eats”. This is a powerful (subconscious) driving force behind our food choices and why we need to normalise veganism as much as possible.
    As Soren Kierkegaard said, “For man is a social animal – only in the herd is he happy – it is all one to him whether it is the profoundest nonsense or the greatest villainy – he feels completely at ease with it, so long as it is the view of the herd, or the action of the herd, and he is able to join the herd.”

  4. Melanie Nettle January 8, 2015 at 6:51 am #

    Agree with the original post and the commenters wholeheartedly.

    I think the vegan community needs to step away from the notion of the “perfect vegan”. We need to support people wherever they are in their journey. For people who have chosen a plant based diet for health reasons, encourage them to educate themselves on the other aspects of veganism; ethical and environmental, and how their choices affect others beings. Knowledge is power and that power includes the power to change; the person embraced a plant-based diet for health reasons may only need to have their eyes opened to the realities in order to Change their thinking from a plant based diet to and ethical vegan but it is up to the vegan community to nurture those folks not chastise them.

  5. Zannah January 8, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    So, as a very new vegan, I am particularly interested in this. I was vegetarian for three or four years, but fell away, partly because all I was eating was dairy products, for the most part, and partly because I knew milk and eggs were nearly as bad as meat!

    I’m an ethical vegan now, roughly as of the 1st. It wasn’t a resolution- ironically, I see resolutions as “I will try to”, but the veganism for me is more a being drawn toward plant foods as well as repulsed by animal foods. I can’t see animal foods the way I used to.

    For me, I’m a skilled cook and fairly knowledgeable about both vegetarianism and veganism, as well as nutrition. This made it much easier, but my body is also reacting well, for the most part; I’m feeling really good!

    The hardest thing for me is the unnecessary parts of becoming vegan, and the lack of a reputable resource for information. There are a ton of vegan resources, but a lot of them are misinformed, or reaching for multiple goals instead of just one- not to mention, of course, the fact that it is apparently infinitely difficult to be a “true vegan”, which I’m sure makes many people give up in discouragement and disgust.

    By “unnecessary parts” I mean the fact that veganism is so strongly associated with being a health nut, with being an environmentalist, with wanting to lose weight, with avoiding GMOs, so on and so forth. Many vegan forums are not very focused on the nuts and bolts of normal veganism, such as social problems, and both the recipes they share and most of the recipes I find in cookbooks tend to be either ridiculously focused on “replacement” items, or unnecessarily restricted nutritionally(gluten free, sugar free, nightshade free, grain free, all fruit…) or both! Not to mention the enormously high proportion of dishes from other cultures, or heavily spicy or hot. I think what the vast majority of new vegans who are dipping their toes in want to see is food that is familiar, comforting, comes in a range of calorie values, and looks a lot like what they’re used to eating, without having to resort to soy milk and pod person tofurky on their first day.

    To be honest, I love soy milk. But when I drank it thinking it would be like milk, it was gross. Now it’s mentally classified in with the peanut butter, and it’s delicious. I love Mideastern, Mexican, Indian, and Chinese, too. Turkish and Japanese. But starting something new, even when you feel strongly about it, is an inherently unstable platform; and it feels to me like vegans like to rock it back and forth, hard. Classic American foods, or ones we’ve absorbed pretty thoroughly, should be a go to for any new vegan resource list.

    Lol, I’m a bit passionate, can you tell? It’s just that I’m writing my own recipes at this point. :/

  6. Toad January 10, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    My problem with these studies is that they are very black and white, that is, the minute someone adds even a small amount of animal food to their diet they are “non-vegan”. But someone that eats a vegan diet with the exception of some insect derived products (e.g., honey, etc) and some occasional seafood (shrimp, oysters, etc) is much different than someone that returns to the typical western diet.

    While I am “veganish”, I’m not vegan, and I certainly don’t want vegans trying to help me be vegan because I don’t think veganism, strictly speaking, makes much sense. That is, not everyone that is sympathetic to animal welfare issues has a desire to be vegan.

    • unethical_vegan January 10, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

      Hi Toad, I believe the veganish stance is far more compatible with promotion of animal right/welfare than deontic veganism. Veganism is in need of serious reform.

      • donald May 19, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

        Veganism needs to quit catering to people who don’t have the will or compassion to stand for what is right. How exactly does eating a 90% vegan diet help.

  7. Kathryn January 11, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    To me, saying that, “people were more likely to give up on a vegetarian or vegan diet when they didn’t perceive it as part of their identity” contradicts the later statement that, “Ex-vegetarians/vegans were more likely to say that their diet made them feel conspicuous. And even 41% of current vegetarians and vegans said that they disliked that their diet makes them “stick out from the crowd.” It seems to me that either one is comfortable with labeling oneself “vegan” or one is not.

    Also, to say that those who transitioned very quickly to vegetarianism were more likely to return to eating meat, again seems to contradict the statement that, “more than half of current vegetarians/vegans had transitioned quickly, so clearly this works just fine for many people.

  8. JoAnne January 14, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    I have been thinking about how to help people stay vegan. As much as eating your own home-cooked food helps, the nature of our social and physical environment leads us to a restaurant at least once or twice a week. It’s a fact of life right now in the U.S.

    I think the most powerful leverage for helping people become and stay vegan would be to create more vegan restaurants, starting with more vegan options at the restaurants which are already here.

    That’s my two cents.

  9. Steph January 20, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    This new vegan wants to thank you! I decided to work towards veganism after watching Cowspiracy. Your books Never Too Late and Vegan for Life, which I tore through this past weekend, were compassionate, clear, and so helpful. I feel confident that I can plan a healthy vegan diet that I will stick with.

    I look forward to reading all the posts here, and at your husband’s blog.

    :)

  10. Lana January 29, 2015 at 6:12 am #

    Watch the Gary Yourofsky speach on YouTube. Going vegan is easier to stuck with if you know the truth about eating animals.

    • Jen February 26, 2015 at 10:34 am #

      Isn’t he the guy who said that non-vegans deserved to be raped?

  11. Glenn March 4, 2015 at 9:27 am #

    Taking a positive rather than hostile approach to my veganism,I have been promoting plant-based eating by reviewing vegan and vegetarian cookbooks for my local daily paper and offering tastings of my creations to my co-workers. To my professional network, I describe myself as a food writer with a day job.

  12. Lucy September 25, 2015 at 2:04 am #

    Great to have found this resource! I’m a newbie vegan…well technically still transitioning. I do well with eating vegan when at home, but still succumb to small amounts of dairy when Eating/drinking in coffee shops or cafes. I live in a rural area so there’s not often a decent vegan option, and even though soy milk is often on offer, it gives me a stomach ache. I’m hoping I will gradually find solutions to the eating out problem, as I do not wish to be a ‘Cheagan’! I think I am very unlikely to completely fail at being a vegan however. Once you look into factory farming you cannot ‘unknow’ this. I’m also rediscovering cooking, feeling healthier and brighter, and more motivated and happy since going mostly vegan. It has improved my chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Even my skin looks better, apparently. I think people that go vegan for the animals are far more likely to stay vegan, as it’s rooted in compassion. People that go vegan for themselves will find it harder to stick to it, as they can cleats give themselves permission to give up. Looking forward to exploring this website… :)

  13. donald May 19, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    I’ve come to see mock products as plant based and not vegan spiritually and psychologically. Great for transitioning to veganism but also because the mind hasn’t evolved past the concept of eating meats it makes it easier along the same psychological path to transition back to carnism.
    It should be used as a transitional product as plant based then evolve from that to veganism. That would not include any mock products.

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