Psychology Today recently published the results of a web-based survey on why vegetarians return to meat-eating. The number one reason given was failed health, and this was followed by the “hassle and stigma” of being vegetarian.
Their study had just 77 participants (I don’t know how many were vegan) and, to my knowledge, hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so it’s not much more than food for thought. What impressed me the most about the article was the author’s reference to a 2005 CBS News survey which found that there are three times as many “ex-vegetarians” as there are vegetarians.
Whether or not the numbers are quite that dramatic, it’s fair to say that a lot of people fail to stick with vegetarianism for one reason or another. And these weren’t necessarily people who were just dabbling with a trendy diet; on average, they had been vegetarian for nine years before returning to meat-eating.
Activists put a lot of energy into convincing people to go vegan. But it looks like the harder task by far is getting them to stay vegetarian. Some of this is out of our hands, and some of it will probably just fix itself as the world becomes more accommodating to vegans and vegetarians. But there is definitely work to be done that can probably make a difference.
A month or so ago, I heard from a vegan advocate who had seen an advance copy of Vegan for Life, the book on nutrition that Jack and I wrote. This person suggested that some of our recommendations might make it seem “too hard” to be vegan—wanting to know, for example, if it was really necessary to recommend supplemental iodine for vegans.
Interestingly, a study published just weeks after that conversation found that U.S. vegans may be at risk for suboptimal iodine status. Some omnivores get iodine from fish, but most Americans get it from iodized salt and from dairy foods. Dairy isn’t naturally rich in iodine, but it’s contaminated from iodine-containing solutions used to clean cows and milking machines. Since vegan foods aren’t contaminated with industrial cleaning solutions (I’d call that a plus, wouldn’t you?) we need to depend on either iodized salt or supplements. (Sea vegetables are an option, too, but a less reliable one.) That’s no big deal, though, and it is so easy to meet needs for this nutrient that there is never a reason to fall short. So, when vegans don’t get enough iodine, it suggests that they aren’t receiving adequate information about this nutrient.
Jack and I wrote Vegan for Life because we want to make sure that no one fails on a vegan diet and that new—as well as more experienced—vegans can feel confident that they are meeting nutrient needs. Our book joins the current handful of scientifically-based resources on veganism that include the books Becoming Vegan and Simply Vegan and the websites veganhealth.org and vrg.org.
Because Vegan for Life, like these other resources, doesn’t advocate very-low-fat diets or all kinds of unnecessary restrictions regarding processed foods, you could make the argument that we make vegan diets more accessible, not less. After all, the second most common reason given for abandoning vegetarianism was that it’s too much of a “hassle.” I don’t think those former vegetarians were referring to the arduous task of sprinkling iodized salt on their food. According to the Psychology Today article, it was more about the time needed to prepare meatless meals. In Vegan for Life, we encourage convenience where it doesn’t compromise health, and I think that can be very reassuring to new vegans in particular.
Our book is actually very positive about the safety and benefits of veganism. But yes, we’re also emphatic about the importance of paying attention to certain nutrients. It’s not the least bit difficult to plan a healthy vegan diet, but it’s not intuitive, either.
I’m proud to be picky about vegan nutrition. It doesn’t sit well with everyone, but that’s okay. Brushing off legitimate questions about vegan nutrition may make it look easier to go vegan, but in the long run, it compromises our credibility. And if it increases the chance that vegans will develop health problems and return to eating meat and cheese—then it fails vegans and it fails animals. All of us who advocate for animals have an obligation to help vegans stay healthy.