Helping people go vegan is great. But it’s meaningless if we can’t help them stay vegan. Last week, I wrote about how overhyping the benefits of a vegan diet can result in ex-vegans. One of the reasons people abandon vegan diets is that they lose faith in its benefits. That’s more likely to happen if the claims are far-fetched.
We also run the risk of losing vegans (and vegetarians) when we skip over discussions about ethics. While health may motivate many people to go vegan or vegetarian, ethics seems to be more “sticky.”
As I’ve been delving into this issue of preventing recidivism, I’ve looked at quite a bit of data including:
- Surveys of ex-vegetarians (from Faunalytics, the Toronto Vegetarian Association, and psychologists Childers and Herzog)
- Research on successful dietary behavior change in general
- Research on dietary behavior of current and former vegans and vegetarians
The findings are relatively consistent regarding the power of ethics in helping people stay vegan or vegetarian.
For example, the Faunalytics Survey found that health was the only motivation for going vegetarian cited by a majority of ex-vegetarians. A study from Winthrop University in South Carolina also found that vegetarians who are motivated by ethics “demonstrated stronger feelings of conviction.” They ate fewer animal products, and were less likely to lapse (1).
Interestingly, a study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey in the UK found that ethics was a stronger motivator than health for long term successful dietary change in general (2). The researchers said “…if an intervention could encourage individuals to be motivated by factors other than health (such as ethics)… such an approach would be more predictive of positive outcomes.”
So why is it that people who go vegan or vegetarian for the animals are more likely to stick with it? I can think of three possible reasons.
- A vegan ethic is unique
The Toronto Vegetarian Society survey found that many ex-vegetarians believed that they could achieve the same benefits from a diet that included meat. And they are probably right
We can (and should) tell people that a vegan diet is a good choice for healthful eating; we just can’t tell them that it’s the only choice. Plant-based diets that include small amounts of animal foods are likely to be as good.
But the ethics of veganism? Once you embrace them, there is no alternative way of living and eating. This seems to be especially true for those who embrace an animal rights ethic (3). If you agree that animals are not here for us to use under any circumstances, veganism is really your only option.
- Health motivated vegans may consume more restrictive/less optimal diets
Ethically-motivated vegans might enjoy a more relaxed approach to food choices that makes a vegan diet easier and makes it easier to meet nutrient needs. (4,5). Health-motivated vegans may also be less likely to take appropriate supplements (5). One group of researchers said that “It is possible that health vegans, in pursuit of better health from food sources may have eschewed supplement intake, believing that plant foods were a better source of essential nutrients.” If that’s true, it places health-motivated vegans at higher risk for nutrient deficiencies.
3. Ethics is a part of who we are
In a study titled “Moralization and Becoming a Vegetarian,” researchers noted that “Moral values are often referred to as internalized, that is, as a part of the self (6).”
That’s important because many ex-vegetarians say that they didn’t feel like their diet was a part of their “identity.” Maybe if they made the moral connection—the connection to their “internalized values” –more people would see that veganism is much more a part of their identity than they realize.
One theory is that those who go vegan for health will eventually embrace the ethical considerations, hopefully moving on to adopting other lifestyle changes that reflect a vegan ethic. Maybe. But—possibly because ethical reasons for vegetarianism become so deeply internalized—it seems that ethical vegetarians are the ones more likely to find new reasons to stay vegetarian (6).
Vegan Advocacy: Put Ethics First
The problem of ex-vegans and ex-vegetarians is a serious one. When people say “I used to be vegan, but…” it perpetuates the idea that vegan diets are difficult or unhealthy. Also, it’s possible that ex-vegetarians consume more chickens than people who were never vegetarian—which isn’t surprising if ex-vegetarians were motivated by health (7). This is something that can clearly cause more animal suffering.
I promote vegan diets for ethical reasons only because I have no choice. It’s not possible to make the case that all animal foods are dangerous without resorting to cherry-picked data. And I can’t do that and then promote myself as “evidence-based.” Fortunately, it appears that ethics is a more powerful long-term motivator for vegan and vegetarian diets, anyway.
With limited resources, it seems better to focus on efforts that are more likely to create vegans who actually stay vegan. And so however you approach your own activism, consider including the ethics of animal use as at least part of your message.
Hoffman SR, Stallings SF, Bessinger RC, Brooks GT. Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. Strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence. Appetite 2013;65:139-44.
Ogden J, Karim L, Choudry A, Brown K. Understanding successful behaviour change: the role of intentions, attitudes to the target and motivations and the example of diet. Health Educ Res 2007;22:397-405.
Menzies K, Sheeshka J. The process of exiting vegetarianism: an exploratory study. Can J Diet Pract Res 2012;73:163-8.
Dyett PA, Sabate J, Haddad E, Rajaram S, Shavlik D. Vegan lifestyle behaviors: an exploration of congruence with health-related beliefs and assessed health indices. Appetite 2013;67:119-24.
Radnitz C, Beezhold B, DiMatteo J. Investigation of lifestyle choices of individuals following a vegan diet for health and ethical reasons. Appetite 2015;90:31-6.
Rozin P MM, Stoess C. . Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science 1997;8:67-73.
Barr SI, Chapman GE. Perceptions and practices of self-defined current vegetarian, former vegetarian, and nonvegetarian women. J Am Diet Assoc 2002;102:354-60.
Well put. One of my vegan fb pages recently had someone asking, “How long before I can expect [health benefit] to kick in? I’ve been vegan for a month now and haven’t noticed any change.”
It made me sad to see all the people chiming in with their personal anecdotes, “I have so much energy! I sleep so much better! I poop 5x/day! My skin is clearer!” as if hearing these things helps a person who is not experiencing miraculous health benefits (as I expect most of us didn’t.)
You is just beginning, going vegan is a lifestyle change. It might take a year for you to get the full affect from your new lifestyle but believe me it is going to be worth every minute of it.
I experienced a lot of those benefits, actually. I’m no longer fatigued every day , sleep like a log (used to have trouble falling asleep. now I can run great on 6-8 hours a day, and wake up with the sunrise), never constipate, have much smoother skin than I used to, among other things. I even lost 10 pounds in the first month, and 40 by my 5th month, and counting. It’s been a journey for me. Vegan junk food has helped me in the transition process, and the longer I’m vegan (learning how to eat the right amounts of foods containing the right nutrients) the less I crave it.
Roughly 6 months into my vegan experience, I had blood work done and had the best numbers I’ve ever had as an adult. Granted, I’m in my early 20s, but I was formerly prediabetic (ever since I was 14), and my doctor threatened me with medication if I didn’t lose weight. She didn’t tell me how, though, I’m just thankful I found out about veganism before other craziness, like the Paleo or Atkins diets. This is the least I’ve ever weighed since becoming a teenager, despite doing far less physical activity. I need to improve that though, as health is also about exercise, water, sleep, etc. too.
Benefits are also long-term, too. I know I’m cutting my risks for many diseases and what not, so I don’t understand why someone would just give up. The only way someone wouldn’t experience drastic benefits is if they were already close to eating vegan, before, but then it should be easier for them to be vegan than me, who was a huge meat and dairy meater prior, and now no longer even considers them adequate food for human consumption.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the ethics and environmental sides of veganism, but they’re fueled through the health benefits. If it were unhealthy to be vegan, and humans truly needed animal products, then I would continue to consume them, as I did prior. I’ve known about factory farms for years, but didn’t know what I could do about it. I thought I needed animal products because that’s what the food pyramid said. That’s what everyone said. I feel empowered to do my best to avoid animal products on my plate because I know how bad they are for my health, I know it’s part of an animal and not food, and I know it’s environmentally unsustainable.
With all the big health problems in the world, I think it’s dumb to only focus on the ethical argument. Humans are animals, too, so we should still try to treat our bodies with care. Someone with heart disease may not care about a cow or chicken at first, but when you show them how a change in diet could change so much for them, they may have renewed appreciation for the animals. Use the fact that rational people act in their self-interest to your advantage, vegans. People don’t immediately care about climate change? Tell them how eliminating cow’s milk could end their chronic constipation. It’s not about shaming people. Let people evolve in beliefs once they realize the true way they should be living. And even when you become vegan, it’s still a journey to learn to cook, manage social situations, eliminate certain cravings, etc.
Just my $0.02.
Excellent post. I also think that helping people who have made a decision not to go vegan to at least consider ways that minimize animal suffering. I remember Jack Norris commenting on the ostrovegan movement (near vegans who eat oysters and mussels) that though it wasn’t his choice or preference he would rather see people eat bivalves than higher order animals such as chickens and other factory farmed animals. In other words other things being equal helping people to keep in mind animal suffering in general even if they decide not to go vegan
“Ethically-motivated vegans might enjoy a more relaxed approach to food”. This is me. I have been a vegetarian for 7 years but constantly struggle with veganism. I inherently know and abhor the violence perpetuated on cows and chickens, yet find myself back eating cakes, sweets, cookies, etc. because out of a sense of wanting to eat “perfectly healthy vegan” and not allowing myself to eat the vegan alternatives to these goodies, I stumble. I am beginning to see the folly of my ways and am changing. I am relaxing around food and subsequently, I no longer have the added burden of shame and regret from not following my ethics. I find your essays remarkably helpful and insightful. Thank you.
Elizabeth, if your reason for not managing to stay vegan rather than vegetarian is down to cookies, cakes, sweets etc, can I just remind you that there are million recipes out there for those things – get cooking! I have converted loads of my baking recipes to vegan by using egg replacers (did you know that 1tbsp of ground flax seed and 3 tbsps of water = 1 egg in cake baking?) But if you don’t cook, there is vegan chocolate and cake out there…maybe not as easy to find in your average supermarket, but certainly findable. Try online?
There are a ton, a ton, of vegan desserts that one can easily create and that are easily as tasty–if not moreso–than desserts containing animal products. There’s also this:
I am currently struggling with continuing veganism because of mental health concerns. I have had mild depression for my lifetime. But, with lots of therapy and exercise, I functioned just fine, even well. Then, after about a year on veganism (happening now), I’ve found myself very depressed, and having unusual anger outbursts, not to mention unusual (for me, at age 45 so I know my body) acne. For those reasons, I am considering stopping veganism. I am struggling with the morality issue as I love animals. But not enough to struggle so much with my mental health.
I just started today reading about how to get enough zinc. But messages about how to get enough make the diet confusing, and difficult to track on a practical level. Ditto with iron, calcium, and, possibly, creatine (which matters to me, as a serious distance runner).
I’m reading this website hoping for answers, and haven’t given up *yet*. OTOH, we may choose to adopt a low animal protein diet, and try to focus on the least animal suffering possible.
That all being said, my husband and I are *huge* dessert fans. We love cakes and cookies, and always have. We enjoy a small serving each, every night. I have a healthier CC recipe that tastes *delicious* (from Superfoods RX website). When we went vegan, we switched to applesauce for butter, and flax for eggs (see recipes for substitutes). The desserts are still delicious. I didn’t think I’d like them, but we love them. Desserts aren’t a reason to stop veganism, IMHO. Not at all. You can make them delicious, no problem at all.
The questions you’re exploring about why people try to be vegan or vegetarian, how they experience the dietary change, and why they stick with or abandon being vegan or vegetarian are so important to all life on earth right now. Several thoughts occur to me in response to your article.
Specifically, regarding point number 3, “Ethics is a part of who we are,” I’m reminded of the concept of internal and external locus of control. Each person has an orientation to life that is more one or the other. I wonder if people with a more internal locus of control are more likely to succeed as vegans/vegetarians? One does have to go against the norm to a large extent to eat differently from the rest of society. So the powerful influences of our personal, social and cultural environment encourage eating the standard American diet including animal foods. If one’s locus of control is mostly external, it would seem that these influences would be very strong. So this may be another way of looking at the question of recidivism among vegans/vegetarians.
Kathryn, I was just commenting on my website about this article and exactly what you were saying. For me, being vegan is a deep part of who I am — coming from the animal rights viewpoint. “Vegan” gives a name, something easily identifiable to the outside world. Unfortunately, the moment someone hears that word “vegan” they take it as permission to begin the ridicule.
Someone who is not strong in personality may not be able to hold off these taunts for long if at all. I’m very vocal and can easily push back when someone says something to me about it.
So I’m just here to reinforce your point on this. Thank you!
I fear that people just don’t understand how *incredibly harmful* it is for there to be 4-5 times more people walking around saying “I used to be vegetarian” or “I used to be vegan” than there are people who are actually veg.
As always, thanks Ginny!
This is what I wrote when I shared this post to my vegan Facebook page:
1. Being vegan for ethical reasons does make it easier for me! I was vegetarian because of animals, but once I really dug deep into animal rights, I had no choice but to become vegan to reflect my feelings on the matter. So when someone says “I just couldn’t give up cheese” I realize they are seeing it from a sacrifice point of view (like a Weight Watchers style diet) as opposed to seeing a male calf who died for that cheese.
2. Health motivated vegetarians may again, be approaching the whole thing like a diet. The only end game they see is weight loss, and other possible health benefits, while missing the whole point of lifestyle change vs sacrifice.
3. I strongly feel that being vegan is a part of who I am. It hurts to have people ridicule this part of my person, because they are focusing on one aspect of who I see myself as. Being vegan is inextricable from my identity whether they like it or not.
Health is more than just weight loss. After learning what milk is made of, and how it affects the human body… no thanks. It’s not about dieting, it’s about eating in a way to best benefit the body. Nobody’s perfect, though. I’m gradually eating less and less vegan junk foods. It’s been a journey, for me. I feel very much vegan, even though my primary motivator is health, given I used to be pre-diabetic, and diabetes and heart problems run in my family. Also given a lot of my other health problems that have improved. Humans are also animals. If we want others to become vegan, what better way but to be good role models of the lifestyle, too.
I think this overstates one key point and misses another. FWIW, I am an ex-vegan (ex-vegetarian, in fact) who mostly eats veg and is highly concerned about the ethics of food; but what follows is my professional analysis, not personal testimonial.
“Ethics” is not so bright-line as this post implies. Someone can be ethical and concerned about animals, and act upon that, without drawing the line at the point of veganism. It seems to argue, for example, that importing fresh fruit from across the globe is more ethical than eating local mussels, though the former is vegan and the latter is not. Moreover, an ethical person might decide to draw a line among animal foods somewhere other than at zero. There is clearly a spectrum of how much bad is caused by different foods.
Omitted is the nutcase factor. Identifying as a card-carrying veg*n puts one in a group that is densely populated by anti-vaxxers, anti-modernists, health fanatics, anti-capitalists, and other such extremists. Obviously it is not necessary to adopt the label, let alone publicize it. But even minimizing that, there is still some discomfort created for many people, knowing that this is the 1% minority you are a part of. Some are more comfortable acting according to their ethics but remaining outside that group.
Of course, neither of these explains going from being vegan to eating factory farmed pigs. That seems like it will only occur when someone never actually at all motivated by the ethical concerns. But drifting from being in the 99th percentile to being in the 97th is a different story.
I think what she is actually talking about is not just “ethical vegans” but animal rights-motivated ethical vegans. You can be an ethical vegan for the environment and then go back to eating some animal products because it’s the scale of things you are concerned with, not the individual case. But when you are an animal rights activists and you actually believe animals are individuals that are not on the earth to be used by humans, that humans are not fundamentally worth more than other animals, it’s very hard to justify any sort of non-vegan food in your diet.
You can believe in ethics that oppose harming animals without taking that extreme position. That was part of my point. It is just the same as believing it is best not to harm other humans, but being willing to take actions that harm some people to some degree (which describes basically any substantive action you ever take). We certainly *use* (to take your word) other people all the time, without much hesitation.
This actually illustrates an extension of my second point. It is not just the nutcase factor that makes people uncomfortable being a card-carrying member of the club. Claims of bright line rules tend to discourage some people. If they do not buy into the stated absolutes — as many do not — then they may actually reduce their support for the position, and this can occur even if whatever non-absolute they believe in might lead them to similar practical conclusions.
Carl, I can’t imagine that any thinking, ethical human would agree that it’s okay to use other people in the ways we use animals, so that comparison just doesn’t work for me. We enslave animals in order to use them for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation. An animal rights ethic says that it is not our right to do that. And if you accept that ethic, then you can’t really justify using animals for food–or anything else.
I’m not suggesting that people have to be perfect in their choices. But there is a big difference between someone who is trying to be vegan, but struggles and falls short, and someone who simply doesn’t believe veganism/animal rights matters.
Yes, there are ways to use animals that cause less suffering. And yes, there are good, ethical people who use animal products but choose to do so in ways that cause the least harm. It still requires breeding animals for our own use and eventually killing them when they are no longer useful. Whether or not that is a reasonable ethical stance, it’s not compatible with an animal rights/vegan ethic.
And yes, some vegans have unfortunate views about health and science in general. I’m not really sure how pervasive those kinds of views you mentioned are in the general vegan, animal rights population, though. But, either way, I can’t abandon a vegan ethic just because I don’t want to be associated with everyone else who holds that same ethic! To the contrary, if we want a world that recognizes the rights of animals, we need to populate this movement with as many critical thinkers as possible.
Taking the last bit first, there is good a rule of thumb in epidemiology that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can be predicted by the density of “natural foods” stores in an area. I realize that there is not a perfect correspondence between that market and the market for veg*n products, but there is a lot of overlap.
I am not suggesting many people make a calculated conscious decision along the lines of “I cannot be part of this because of the company it puts me in”, but I have little doubt that it is a motivating factor at a less calculated level. It has been 20 years (damn!) since we first worked together on this stuff, and the nutcase factor seems to have diminished, but not enough that many of us are comfortable with it.
As for the motivating ethics, they do not have to be rights based, and even if they are, they do not have to be so absolute as to preclude “use”. It is a defensible ethical position that a cow is better off getting to live, rather than never living, if she has a decent life and a non-horrifying death. And I was not suggesting that we use people in just the same way we use animals very often (but note that it is sometimes comparable: consider most people who are sent to war). But we all do use people, and to degrees that range up to wanton, mostly depending on their distance from us.
Note that I am not setting out here to defend any particular ethic. I am just pointing out that there are non-absolute ones that are not obviously indefensible. if that is what motivates someone, then they might choose veganism (though there are no bright-lines there either — it is impossible to live without being responsible for the deaths of some animals). But they might also choose almost-veganism. They are more likely to choose the former if the like being part of the club (social support, team spirit, whatever) and less likely if they do not.
I find it interesting that you bring up vaccine-preventable illnesses. Do you realize many of these illnesses are zoonotics, and that there is substantial evidence they originated on factory farms? How many more vaccines should we stick ourselves with in order for you to get your fix?
As a grad student in epidemiology and a vegan for 19 years, I have to take issue with these sentiments. The vaccine-preventable diseases that are currently on the rise, such as measles and pertussis, are not zoonotic. Likewise, foodborne illnesses that you might be able to trace back to factory farms, such as infection caused by E. coli or Salmonella, are not vaccine-preventable.
But speaking of vaccines by using loaded language like “stick ourselves” and “get your fix” certainly lends some credence to the claim that vegans are more likely to adhere to fringe beliefs that aren’t based in science. We can have compassion for animals as well as our fellow humans, and staying up to date on my vaccines is one way I show compassion toward humanity.
Anna, I don’t know about pertussis, but I believe that measles originated in cattle, didn’t it?
And I did not interpret Jennifer’s comments as being anti-vaccine. I thought she was pointing out the historical relationship between some of the diseases for which we need vaccines and meat eating.
Carl, I suspect that the association between natural foods stores and anti-vaccine sentiment might have more to do with affluence and a demographic that obsesses over health. For the record, I can’t think of any animal rights activists I know who have not vaccinated their kids. (I’ll see your ecological correlation and raise you one anecdotal observation. 🙂
Swine Flu has been traced to factory farms, as has avian flu. I wouldn’t expect you to be taught that in our school system. And E.coli and salmonella vaccines have already been created and are in the testing stage.
Ginny, I don’t know what she intended to convey, only what words she used — and she said that many vaccine-preventable diseases were zoonotics that originated on factory farms. To me, that’s different from saying these diseases might have originated in non-human animal species at one point in time. I don’t know if measles originated in cattle, but it’s been with us for centuries so I think it’s safe to say it didn’t emerge from factory farms, which are a product of industrialization.
There are vaccine-preventable diseases that might not affect humans so gravely if it weren’t for factory farming, like influenza, but as for diseases like measles, with no current animal reservoir, we’re not catching them from animals in factory farms — we’re catching them from unvaccinated humans.
I’m not sure I understood Carl’s point about the “nutcase factor.” It’s true that some people stereotype vegans as a bunch of vaccine-shunning, crystal-healing New Agers, but for me that is all the more reason to immerse myself in the sciences and represent vegans who are driven not by faulty narratives but rather by evidence and ethics.
Why are you still on about measles?
From the National Institute of Health:
“Measles, caused by measles virus (MeV), is a member of the genus Morbillivirus and is most closely related to the rinderpest virus (RPV), which is a pathogen of cattle. MeV is thought to have evolved in an environment where cattle and humans lived in close proximity.”
“that comparison just doesn’t work for me. We enslave animals in order to use them for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation”
We do the same to humans. Who do you think produces your coffee, clothing or mobile phone? They are products of modern slavery.
I agree completely. Industrialism can never be good for society. Not only that, but our gadgets enslave us- many of us are having to work more and play less to keep up with payments. I’ve gotten rid of my cell phone and tv and hope to get rid of this G_d forsaken computer on which I waste so much time next.
“…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master?”- The Prophet
Alicia, the difference is that human slavery is not universally condoned. Animal slavery is. And even when people say they care about treating animals well, they still believe it’s okay to breed them for personal use and then decide when they will die. I don’t think too many people think that would be okay to do to other humans. It speaks to the value we place on animal lives.
They might not breed other people in cages, but other than that. I’m not kidding, people die because of your food and clothing. They die because of climate change. They die because we steal their food. They die because we let them work with toxins without protection (and call that recycling). They die because we don’t give them medication. So yes, we decide for other people that they can die, for our pleasure. Just like animals. To be honest, I think they don’t even respect those people more than animals. People literally celebrate asylum seekers drowning near the coast of Italy. They complain that asylum seekers (dead or alive) wash up on their beaches, and are ruining their vacation. So really, you still think people don’t condone killing others? We all do it. Every day.
I vehemently challenge the claim that an animal rights ethic requires vegan self-identification.
I’m not vegan because I care about indirect animal suffering more than I care about direct animal suffering.
I’m not vegan because I believe that killing many non-sentient animals to improve the life of a a single sentient animal is an ethical choice.
I’m not vegan because I might eat honey some day.
I’m not vegan because I believe eating some insects, sessile molluscs, sea squirt can be an ethical choice.
I’m not vegan because I believe eating the eggs of rescued chickens is more ethical than eating almonds.
I’m not vegan because I believe that an omnivore freegan diet is far more ethical than even the strictest vegan diet.
I’m not vegan because I believe consumption of some plant products is less ethical than consumption of some animal products.
I’m not vegan because my ethics cause me to support euthanasia and culling under some circumstances.
“I think what she is actually talking about is not just “ethical vegans” but animal rights-motivated ethical vegans”
except that ethical vegan is vegan jargon for an animal rights vegan.
“believe animals are individuals”
with all due respect I don’t think veganism really does this.
animals that are indirectly killed or injured are typically treated as possible or practicable collateral damage by “ethical vegans”.
the vegan dogma that all animals have an individual self is absurd. there are tens of thousands of animal species that are either non-sentient or minimally sentient. this vegan dogmatism has led to the rejection of countless powerful advocates for animal rights by mainstream veganism. peter singer is a classic example and, more recently, james mcwilliams was tossed out of the vegan club when he advocated for the consumption of insects.
Since when does being anti-capitalist make one a nutcase?
Environmental concerns are equally compelling for me. Health plus compassion plus conservation provide unassailable incentive and reinforcement to remain WFPB.
Great article. While the world seems to be full of individual choices made based on different reasons and reasoning, veganism today appears to me to be easily misinterpreted. When we consider the history of vegans and veganism, the reasons behind advocating it were purely ethical, taking it those crucial steps further from vegetarianism.
Good of you to point out the ethical aspect – not that you leave it out in general 🙂 – and the importance of bringing the ethics of veganism into conversations about it more often. While it feels so natural to me not to eat, drink, wear etc. any animal derivative stuff, I’m not sure if I bring in the fact that it’s a choice of ethics to me enough in talking with others. This is a good reminder to up the ante once again.
Thank you Ginny!
It’s easy to be an un-healthy vegan, but impossible to be an un-ethical one.
I become interested in a vegan diet primarily for health reasons and have definitely felt and seen the benefits. However, knowing that it is hard to stick to something for purely selfish reasons I have researched and immersed myself in the ethical and environmental issues. This has allowed me to develop a deeper understanding and motivation. It also allows me to explain the “why” with a much stronger and broader response. I can also adapt to the audience what I call the “Holy trinity” (health, ethics, environment) as it is important to understand their reasons for their inquiry and weight the argument appropriately.
Part of the problem is language, a “health vegan” might say: “I feel so much better, have lost weight, better skin etc, why would you not want to also feel better?”
an “ethical vegan” might say: “by eating meat you are supporting the cruelty, torture and murder of thousands of sentient beings”
I recently joined (and then quickly left) several vegan groups on Facebook, I my short time there, I noticed that there was a lot of negativity and anger, very little understanding or acceptance of other peoples views or life choices. Arguments would flare-up about peoples like or dislike of various “vegan” celebrities, advocates and You-tubers.
Whilst this didn’t put me of being vegan it did put me off wanting to engage in these groups, which many people come to for support and advice, especially it seems vegetarians that are transitioning.
However it starts it should continue with ethics.
I’m glad you mentioned Hal Herzog. In his book, “Some we love, some we hate, some we eat: Why it’s so hard to think straight about animals,” he debunks many things vegans say. From “if you went to a slaughterhouse, you’d stop eating animals” to “if you had to kill them yourself you wouldn’t do it,” to “if you saw earthlings you’d go vegan” and others (it’s been a while since I read it), he essentially concludes that unless you have a firm, consistent ethical position that is part of your identity, you are likely to not become or stay vegan. As someone who once was the dreaded ex-vegan, I can say identity is key. Until you are vegan from the inside–until you don’t see nonhuman animals as food–you are just one happy meat argument or one health crisis away from eating them.
Veganism is a social justice movement, not a lifestyle, not a diet.
Isn’t being vegan whatever the person wants it to be?
I recently left a vegan Facebook group because the leader chastised me for asking about low fat vegan recipes (for health reasons). She said that my question wasn’t offensive, but she just wanted to clarify that being vegan was about ethics, not health.
So I left the group.
Not a great way to welcome those who are eating plant-based, regardless of their reasons (and animal welfare is part of my motivation–animals are the biggest and best part of my life aside from my husband–and I certainly love them all–and do not want to eat them).
Still, vegans, as a group, are generally very unpleasant. How, exactly, is that helping new converts want to stick around? Not really very helpful if the true mission is to help animals.
i usually agree with you, ginny, but this time i have serious doubts, especially about the sentiment that “Helping people go vegan is meaningless if we can’t help them stay vegan.” It makes a difference whether a vegan slides back to a normal level of meat eating, or rather to maybe a very moderate level. We’re all being taught by our own movement that we shouldn’t call ourselves vegan if we even make one exception every so many months. So many people like that would call themselves ex-vegans in the survey. But it would not be “meaningless” at all, for one thing, because these people still save a lot of animals. For another, because every meat reducer probably makes full time veganism more easy by increasing demand, acceptability, comprehension…
Well said Tobias! I went vegetarian 8 years ago and never looked back. I’ve struggled to go and remain vegan, but I see it as part of the process for me. I do buy and consume vegan items and hope to completely transition to vegan 100%! I like to think positively.
Ginny, I love this article and the one you wrote about not having to be totally oil/fat free to be a healthy vegan. I find using healthy sources of fat and reducing my sugar consumption to be the best balance for me in terms of health.
Sorry, Tobias, for taking so long to respond. You’re right that some people will return to meat-eating but end up eating less meat than they did before trying veganism or vegetarianism. But it seems that those are most likely to be people who were vegetarian for ethical reasons–at least according to some research. So that would strengthen the argument that ethics is a more impactful motivator–but also supports your suggestion that it’s not meaningless to help people go vegan, even if it doesn’t stick.
But if people who are concerned only about their health end up abandoning veganism, I worry that they will end up eating more chicken–which is what health-conscious people do when they aren’t concerned about animals. So, even if they are eating less animal flesh, they may contribute to more animal suffering. And on top of that, they have contributed to the idea that a vegan diet is too difficult–which to me, is the real downside of ex-veganism.
[…] This article was re-published under permission of the Vegan RD. […]
COMMUNITY CULTURE as a 3rd Motivation for becoming & staying Vegan/Vegetarian. There is a community & cultural foundation for ethics which flows from our relationships where words flow from action & love. I became vegetarian 43 years ago while living among about 50,000 vegetarian Dukobour & pacifists (eg. vietnam war resisters) in communities of the West Kootenay of British Columbia from 1971 – 80. These folks not only welcomed me but as well cultured livelihood & intentional community in ways not practiced in Quebec, my home province nor elsewhere where I have travelled. I learned through helping out in the garden & kitchen as well as observing people for their energy simultaneously with what they had to say. An old Dukobour friend however reminded me that: pacifism started across Europe in cities & this is where the most pressing pacifist & ecological culture needs to be restored, so I returned to my Montreal extended family roots in 1980. Both community & culture are undefined in our colonial society so most attempts lead to failure, hence their absence in our understanding. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/relational-economy/extending-our-welcome-participatory-multi-home-cohousing
While in BC, I helped found the west-Kootenay chaptre of the BC Fed-up Natural Food Co-op network. Some could see how co-op ‘one-member/one-vote mostly for Consumer co-ops & buying-groups & sometimes for Worker co-ops was not motivating members & the public to continue to invest in the system. We formed a ‘indigenous’ (Latin ‘self-generating’) ‘economy’ (Greek ‘oikos’ = ‘home’ + ‘namein’ = ‘care-&-nurture’) study group, where some brought their research on humanity’s worldwide pre-colonial time-based indigenous accounting on the worldwide string-shell & progressive-ownership organization in Multihome Dwelling Complexes & labour organization in Production-Society/Guilds. I helped found multi-stakeholder participatory progressive-ownership in a pulp-mill which spread to forest-product industries in its network. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/relational-economy/participatory-accounting
I became vegan 27 years ago back in Montreal in honour of my daughter & helped operate the La Balance Natural Food Co-op Network of Quebec. Most veggies who I am meeting are learning through vegetarian or vegan courses, so as to not have had cultural experiences of community working, living & learning through osmosis. People try & teach through linear courses rather than providing welcoming cultural experiences of inclusive collaboration. Such 2-dimensional linear teaching reflects our colonial society’s hierarchal approaches to life. Among humanity’s worldwide ‘indigenous’ ancestors & 1st Nations welcome & inclusion is facilitated through the 100 person critical-mass Multihome-Dwelling-Complex (Longhouse/apartment, Pueblo/townhouse & Kanata/village) where intergenerational female-male collaboration is made-easy through proximity. I’m about 80% raw since 16 years in honour of my son. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/design/responsable-health
Let’s take vegan/vegetarianism to a warm inviting welcoming indigenous cultural place of belonging for everybody. https://sites.google.com/site/indigenecommunity/design/1-indigenous-welcome-orchard-food-production-efficiencies
[…] some of Ginny Messina’s conclusions from her research on veg recidivism, starting with “The Power of Ethics.” Thanks to Ginny for all her research and permission to […]
[…] Furthermore, individuals who don’t get the weight loss results they expect from going vegan are at risk of becoming ex-vegans. Vegans motivated by ethics, rather than weight-loss, are in it for the long haul. […]
[…] A la usuaria le falta de información objetiva. Yo mismo he conocido a gente que ha pasado de ser taurino a ser vegano y vegetarianos que han vuelto a comer carne. No hay datos que avalen dicha hipótesis; sino la contraria: la mayoría de los vegetarianos suelen desistir antes de convertirse en veganos porque carecen de los motivos éticos imprescindibles y asumen unas dietas demasiados estrictas. […]
[…] ignoring the issue of ethics can be a mistake. It seems like sometimes we are afraid to talk about it—afraid, in fact, to say […]
[…] their veganism could be a real effect. But that is a tenuous approach with a bunch of pitfalls. Evidence points toward going with the ethical argument. It may not always feel like a home run but it’s the most honest and direct […]
I agree with this article.
A “better health” (and ecology) doesn’t matter, we talk about murder and violence against 1 000 000 000 000 animals, each year. “Animal Rights” are the top (and only) reason to become vegan.