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Now this is a single study that has not yet been peer-reviewed.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.