I’m always curious about what causes a person to go vegan and I always ask. As an educator and an activist, I’m interested in knowing exactly what message grabbed someone’s attention and put them on the road to veganism. My own background is in public health nutrition which means that I studied both nutrition and education. I’ve also taught Nutrition Education courses to dietetics students, and spent a lot of time looking at the literature on how we craft messages to convince people to change their behavior.
But the answers remain elusive for public health experts, and are much more so for vegan advocates—given the type of lifestyle and belief change we are seeking. We don’t have any real data on what works. So I continue with my informal surveying, asking individuals what they were reading or looking at or to whom they were talking at the moment that they began thinking about veganism.
The names that come up most often are, not surprisingly, PETA and Vegan Outreach (or an individual working on behalf of those organizations). Without a doubt, the books most commonly mentioned are Diet for a New America by John Robbins and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer—especially among those who have been vegan for 20 years or so. (Despite the fact that I have many criticisms of DFANA, I have to admit that it is the book that caused me to go vegan.) People will also often say that a friend got them to look at a video from an animal rights group, and this had a big impact on them. And very recently, I’ve been promoting the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer to friends and colleagues and have been pretty gratified by the feedback. None of that surprises me since these groups and books have powerful messages. But other responses have been unexpected.
I’ve recently been chatting with a new online friend who is on the fast track to veganism. She started out being inspired by the Meatless Monday campaign to decrease her meat intake for health reasons. Here is what she wrote to me a couple of weeks ago:
“From Meatless Mondays to veganism! …What started out as an investigation into diet for health reasons has morphed into something completely different. I feel like my sensitivity sensors have been awakened from a long sleep with regards to animals. I tried to watch Meet Your Meat last night and only made it 5 minutes in before I had to stop. I am really starting to question the way human beings not only do what we want with animals because we can, but our right to use them at all for anything.”
I’ve always been critical of promoting a reduction of animal foods for health reasons, but I’m being forced to re-evaluate my position a little bit. This is not the first time that someone has told me that they started out reducing meat for health reasons and ended up as an ethical vegan. It shouldn’t really be a surprise I guess. Clearly, people are more likely to feel ready to hear an ethical vegan message when they are comfortable with vegan food or even with eating less animal food in general.
Anyone who is involved in public education knows that different types of messages reach different groups of people. In her excellent book Strategic Action for Animals (a must-read for all serious activists), psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy gives sound advice about crafting messages. But she also admits that the animal liberation movement doesn’t have the answers to some important questions about the use of different types of materials for different groups. She points to the important work being done in this area by the Humane Research Council and suggests that market research must be a priority for this movement.
Until we have that research, we have to be humble enough to know that we’re all stumbling around to some extent. We shouldn’t be dismissive of any (non-offensive) campaign or message or book just because we don’t like the way the message is presented. Nobody knows the one and only true way to promote veganism and animal liberation. And we are likely to end up being surprised by some of the things that work.
Yes Ginny, and part of it was also knowing that I COULD do it. That I was capable of making what seemed like such a huge lifestyle and diet change. I thought at the beginning that somehow will power would be involved but that has not been the case and no one is more surprised than I. Opening myself up and allowing myself to see and care about the fate of other animals instead of just being concerned with my own well being has in some ways made it harder to live in our world. I understand how it is much less painful for people to live in denial of all the cruelty and horror that goes with factory farming etc. I would agree that it is not simple or that there is only one way to reach people. We all start from a slightly different place so how can only one type of message work for everyone. I think beginning from the health perspective, fearing for my own life was a powerful motivator at first but what kept me working towards veganism was actually the growing awareness of what eating animals meant in terms of suffering.
Outstanding stuff, Ginny. I just blogged about what you wrote at Vegan.com.
Very well put. I've found different things work for different people, and I doubt there'll ever be a 'one and only true way to promote veganism and animal liberation'.
Now I'm curious – are you keeping a tally of the different things that inspired people to give up meat?
Thanks for these comments. No, I have not been keeping track, but I think I need to start doing so! Someone on facebook mentioned that she had gone vegan after reading Howard Lyman's book–and it made me remember that I've heard others say that, too.
And Lee–yes, it is harder to live in this world when we start becoming so aware of all the animal suffering. So I understand that denial, too.
Interesting post, Ginny, but I fear that we vegans don't recognize the self-selecting bias of our interactions. We hear from people who have gone veg and who started for health reasons, but we don't hear from the people who stop eating red meat and eat a lot more chickens and fish for health reasons. But there are many, many more of the latter, which is why the number of animals killed for food in the US has basically doubled in the past two decades.
We have to consider the entire impact of our advocacy choices, not just those that we see.
Matthew, I agree completely with your points. And while I'm willing to re-evaluate the efforts that others make to promote veganism for health reasons, I'm not about to make that part of my own advocacy. I just wanted to make the point that we need to be open to all types of advocacy–as opposed to embracing a view that there is one and only one way to advocate for animals and veganism, or that there is only one message that we should be sharing.
I used the specific real-life example in my post mostly because I hear so many people being dismissive of Meatless Monday because it isn't a "vegan campaign," when, in fact, all of these efforts–the big and small ones–can come together to give the culture a big shove in the right direction. And I want to make sure I'm always challenging myself in this regard as well– willing to constantly re-evaluate what I believe about advocacy and messages.
As for the reduction in beef consumption leading to more chicken consumption–you are absolutely right, and it's one reason I never get excited when there is bad news about beef. Ever since we first started talking about cholesterol and saturated fat in red meat, things have gotten worse for chickens and fish.
Not surprisingly, the things you mentioned that "made people go vegan" happened to be the things that are most visible and popular. Obviously the organizations, books, and campaigns with the most publicity are going to have the biggest effect.
I don't know that this is really evidence that this sort of information is really the "most effective" way to influence one to go vegan. It's just sheer numbers we're talking about. There may be groups with a more "radical" message that are changing people on a much smaller scale with a much higher rate of effect.
For example, PETA might solicit their information to 10 million people and 1 million might go vegan, meaning the have a 10% rate of effectiveness. On the other hand, there might be a small group with a more precise vegan agenda that only reaches 10,000 people, but 3,000 of them go vegan giving them a 30% rate of effectiveness.
Like you state, there's really no documented evidence to show what sorts of outreach are the most effective. Until then, I guess it's up for debate and what we're ethically comfortable advocating.
Getting to know a number of vegans and vegetarians has been invaluable! It's made me a better advocate to simply know and talk to a variety of people who have successfully transitioned from omni to veggie.
Thanks so much, Elaine, for your comment. And yes, I agree that just talking to other vegans and vegetarians makes me a far better advocate; it’s a constant education!
And Ed—great points. I’m certainly not convinced that PETA’s tactics are the best approach to promoting veganism—and agree that their visibility may skew things a lot in terms of their statistical success. Vegan Outreach, on the other hand, is a long way from PETA in terms of visibility and they are, I think, pretty low-budget overall. Yet they come up a lot when I talk to people about what/who made them go vegan. The same with Diet For a New America, which was not exactly a New York Times bestseller.
But again, yes, this is casual observation and not in the least bit scientific. All we really know right now from other kinds of research—especially marketing and education research—is that different groups of people are reached by different types of approaches. We just have to be open to the fact that there is probably more than one way to advocate for animals and that we don’t necessarily understand—yet—what the best ways are. So like you, I’m going to continue with the kind of education that makes the most sense based on what I know, and am always open to hearing what’s been successful for others. I’m hoping to gain some more insight about all of this from Melanie Joy’s new book, too, which I’m just starting to read.
I was not quite anti-vegan for years… I simply didn't give them any thought because the majority of vegans I had heard were annoyingly anti-animal cruelty. Now, I'm not for animal cruelty…far from it, but that was the only selling point I ever heard.
BUT, after listening to the audio version of "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell, I switched to vegan (literally) over-night simply for the health benefits. I have totally come off of all my heart meds and my cholesterol meds, having dropped my cholesterol by 70 point in 4 weeks strictly through diet.
I say all of that to say this… emphasize the health benefits more and surely more people will at least look into veganism. I'm now vegan…happy about it and proud of it. While I sympathize with PETA, they are certainly not a driving force. Only my diet is strictly vegan, but had I not heard a convincing case for the health aspects, I never would have given veganism another glance…
I love your blog. I'm a vegan cardiologist in practice in the Los Angeles area.
I find it interesting that you freely discuss both animal rights and health. As a cardiologist, I advocate a vegan diet, and when I am discussing diet changes with my patients, I do not mention animal cruelty, even though that is an important part of why I am a vegan. I feel that as a cardiologist that my expertise is in the health aspects of a vegan diet and that from the standpoint of health alone that I have a powerful argument for veganism.
How do you strike the balance as a health care provider and animal rights activist in your encounters with patients?
Heather Shenkman M.D.
Thanks Heather, for your comment. I don't have a practice any longer and don't see individual clients. When I did, I always tried to find a way to casually let patients know that I was vegan and, if they asked why, I would tell them. But I was always in a clinical or public health setting and never felt it appropriate to counsel people about ethical choices, unless they brought it up.
Now my interests fall mainly into 3 categories. First, promoting the ethics of vegan diet/lifestyle, mostly through writing. Second, exploring the best ways–from the standpoint of education and behavior change–to promote veganism. And third, to provide information about how to eat healthfully as a vegan, which I do through writing and also through work as a technical advisor to various organizations. All of those things really come together in a way that lets me use my nutrition background and education background as part of my activism.
So I don't actually promote veganism for health reasons, but rather share information about being a healthy vegan for animal rights reasons. Hope that makes sense!
Can you expand on the reasons you take issue with the book Diet For A New America? I'd be interested to know. Thank you!
Peaceable Kingdom is what did it for me.
I just recently found your blog, and it is probably one of the best vegan blogs that I came across so far. You are very frank and honest in your discussions, and I really like that. I became vegan two years ago after watching DVD "Eating". Both my husband and I did it overnight. I am not sure if you have ever seen that video, but the editor spends 60% of the time talking about health reasons, 20% environment, and 20% animal treatments. In his third edition, editor of this video completely cut out the last section and added more information to the section on health. When we were watching it, I was convinced after the first two segments. And frankly, I couldn't watch even a minute of the part that showed animal cruelty. Since then, I educated myself about health implications of SAD and ways in which vegan diet could be used to reverse many of the chronic diseases. I don't feel comfortable talking about animal treatment unless another person brings it up. Typically, I just focus on health argument whenever I talk to someone who might be interested in improving their health. And I found that it works really well. I had a co-worker who (along with other 4 members of his family) became vegan after reading Rip Essestyn's "Engine 2 Diet". And that book doesn't say a word about animal treatment. Judging by Amazon reviews of China Diet and books written by C. Esselstyn, R. Esselstyn, Neal Barnard and Dr. Ornish, health reasoning can be a very strong argument that on its own will convince people to become vegan.
I am going back to school and will be starting a nutrition program this fall. And once I receive my RD certification, I hope to practice in a clinical setting. And I have to agree with Heather Shenkman that it might not be a good idea to bring up ethics when trying to show a client that a more plant based diet can help with their condition. I feel that including any information about animal treatment may jeopardize the message of health and affect client's perception of this way of eating.
Although I wholeheartedly support Vegan Outreach and even occasionally donate money to their organization, their booklets did not work for me. I was given their literature twice while I was in college. And I barely paid any attention. I did not take time to sit down to carefully review their information and give it some thought.
I guess many people care about themselves more than they care about anything else. And when they are faced with a possibly of having a degenerative disease that can be prevented by vegan diet, they will make the change.
Although vegan diet can help in treatment of certain diseases, it is no way healthier than well balanced omnivore diets, especially those which include fish or bird flesh instead of mammals’. Moreover, you can’t eat vegan without supplements. We evolved as flesh eaters, there’s no surprise we go well eating it. All the diet related diseases of omnivores are caused by poor balance, eating processed foods, ways of cooking food and (perhaps) mammals’ fat.
So promoting vegan diet as a healthier way of eating is simply equivocation. Imagine people would buy into it and go vegan, but they won’t stop buying leather and/or hunting for instance. Eating vegan is not the answer to all the animal rights issues. Even going vegan for better environment is a weak argument for changing diet.
We can and we certainly should tell people they can live on vegan diet especially on vegetarian, but this claim should be the first step in the line which leads to making people aware of what we do to animals and how we can change the situation.
A vegan diet is a healthier way of eating if you were eating an unhealthy diet to begin with. Rather obvious. A healthy non-vegetarian diet is also a healthier way of eating if you were eating an unhealthy diet. I’ve always thought the main reason for going vegan was a statement against animal cruelty rather than for health. If one looks at the healthiest, longest lived populations in the world one realises that none of them are vegan nor vegetarian. I’ll give three examples: Okinawans, Sardinians and Hunzas.
All follow a plant-based diet with some animal foods. You will also notice, if you look at the healthiest, longest lived populations in the world that none of them follow a heavily meat-centered diet. You may find isolated communities (not populations) that do well on a vegetarian diet such as the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda California but they have the resources unavailable to vegetarian populations around the world so they are hardly representative. My thoughts are if you can’t make a vegetarian diet work living in the USA with literally everything at your disposal, you aren’t going to successful anywhere else in the world.
Damn! I wish this message board had an edit feature. :o(
What do you need to change, Robert? I can fix it for you. 🙂
LOL. Its ok! ;o)