How Many Former Vegetarians and Vegans Are There?
Based on an independent study completed by Faunalytics, animal advocates have an accurate estimate of the number of former and current vegetarians/vegans in the United States. In this first release of the data, the research shows that 10% of adults (ages 17 and older) in the U.S. are former vegetarians/vegans and 2% are currently vegetarian or vegan. More than a third of former vegetarians/vegans are interested in resuming the diet, with health as the primary motivation.
At Faunalytics, we’ve been asked this question for many years. But with limited research data, advocates haven’t had a clear answer… until now. Three years ago Faunalytics formed a coalition to provide an accurate estimate of the number of former and current vegans and vegetarians in the United States, and here are the results.
Of U.S. adults age 17 and over:
- 2% are current vegetarians/vegans
- 10% are former vegetarians/vegans
- 88% have never been vegetarian or vegan
Faunalytics’ study of former and current vegetarians and vegans is the most comprehensive research ever conducted on this topic. Our results are drawn from a representative sample of more than 11,000 adults in the U.S.
See below for the highlights, or check out the new infographic!
If you’d like more details, you can access the complete report and related companion document with our methodology and tables of results.
So, what else did we learn?
Profile: Former Vegetarians/Vegans
Former vegetarians/vegans in the U.S. have an average age of 48 and first adopted a veg diet at around age 34. Nearly half of former vegetarians/vegans (44%) are over the age of 50. More than two-thirds (69%) of former vegetarians/vegans are women. A large majority of former vegetarians/vegans (65%) say they transitioned to a veg diet quickly, in a matter of days or weeks. More than half of former vegetarians/vegans (58%) cite health as a motivation, making it easily the most common reason that former vegetarians/vegans tried the diet. A slight majority of former vegetarians/vegans maintained the diet for less than a year.
Profile: Current Vegetarians/Vegans
Current vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. have an average age of 42, notably younger than former vegetarians/vegans. Six in ten current vegetarians/vegans are between the ages of 30 and 49. Those who currently eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are even more likely than former vegetarians/vegans to be women (74% vs. 69%). Existing vegetarians/vegans also lean toward liberal politics (52% identify as liberal, versus only 14% who say they are conservative). Current vegetarians/vegans are also less likely to say they actively practice a religion.
The Transition Happens Quickly
As mentioned, two-thirds (65%) of former vegetarians/vegans transitioned to a veg diet in a matter of days or weeks. This is significantly more than the proportion of current vegetarians/vegans who transitioned over the course of days/weeks (53%). These findings suggest that most vegetarians/vegans transition quickly, but people who transition quickly to a vegetarian/vegan diet are less likely to adhere to it.
In addition, the window of opportunity is limited for vegan and vegetarian advocates to help people maintain their dietary changes. More than half of former vegetarians/vegans abandoned the diet within the first year, and a third of them abandoned it in three months or less.
For a long time we have had strong anecdotal evidence that relationships and families place stress on one’s ability to maintain a vegetarian/vegan diet. Indeed, in our study half of former vegetarians/vegans (49%) said they were living with a significant other when their diet lapsed. Most of those (a third of all former vegetarians/vegans) were specifically living with a non-vegetarian or non-vegan partner when they resumed eating meat.
Almost a decade ago, Faunalytics conducted a comprehensive study of meat reduction, vegetarianism, and veganism. In that report we used the term “incrementalism” to describe the approach of encouraging people to take small steps with the end goal being a diet (and lifestyle) free of animal products. As we wrote, “getting people started on the path toward a desired change is itself a major breakthrough,” and the current study of former vegetarians/vegans underscores this fact.
The latest findings show that a message focused on reduction of animal products may be effective to create an overall decline in animal product consumption. Given that 43% of lapsed vegetarians/vegans say they found it too difficult to maintain a “pure” diet, advocates may want to develop appropriate strategies in response. Although beyond the scope of our study, we believe advocates should also start to concentrate on messages to reduce consumption of chicken and fish, in particular, given the very large number animals consumed.
Using Health as a Motivator
The value of the “health argument” as a means to encourage plant-based diets is a subject of much debate among vegetarian/vegan advocates. While health-driven behavior change may lead to a reduction in the number of animals slaughtered, it does not necessarily lead to more positive attitudes toward farmed animals. However, most long-time advocates think the health argument is effective as a “foot in the door” approach.
Our study provides solid evidence to support these notions. Most former vegetarians/vegans stated that health was the number one motivator for eating the diet (58%). Perhaps more importantly, health was also the key motivation for current vegetarians/vegans (along with animal welfare). In the case of former vegetarians/vegans, health and other common motivators (such as taste preferences, animal welfare, and being disgusted by meat) were not enough for them to sustain a veg diet.
While health was the main motivator for former vegetarians/vegans to alter their diet, it is interesting to note that 27% of them also say they were motivated by animal welfare (yet they still later reverted to eating animals). Current vegetarians/vegans are much more likely to cite multiple reasons for choosing the diet.
In relation to current vegetarians/vegans, it is unclear whether all of these reasons were actually part of their initial decision to become veg, or if some of the motivations arose later. But it appears that having multiple reasons for being vegetarian or vegan is associated with being able to maintain the diet for the long-term.
Advocates Need to Focus on Retention
This groundbreaking study provides a clarion call for advocates to think more about retention and supporting and retaining new vegetarians/vegans as they face any of a number of challenges. In fact, targeted outreach focused on lapsed vegetarians/vegans may itself prove to be fruitful. More than a third (37%) of former vegetarians/vegans say they are interested in re-adopting the diet. That equates to almost 4% of the adult population in the U.S. and, if converted, this would triple the number of actual vegetarians/vegans in the country.
Advocates should acknowledge and address the difficulties faced by former (and current) vegetarians/vegans. For instance, a large majority of former vegetarians/vegans (63%) said that they disliked that their diet made them stick out from the crowd; 41% of current vegetarians/vegans also agree with this statement. Similarly, a majority of former vegetarians/vegans (58%) did not see the diet as part of their identity.
How do we connect with and support former vegetarians/vegans and other receptive audiences? Once again, many of them say they are most likely to be motivated by health. We need to help them make positive, healthful decisions including giving specific advice, such as taking vitamin B12 supplements. We need to teach them how to live with non-vegetarians. And we need to encourage people to consider the other reasons for being vegetarian/vegan to help motivate them to sustain the positive dietary choice.
Other Evidence-Based Suggestions
In a nutshell, the findings from this new study show a need for advocates to: Improve vegetarian/vegan retention; Target outreach activities toward those who are most likely to adhere to the diet; Increase focus on the “how” of vegetarianism/veganism; Diversify messaging for the “why” of vegetarianism/veganism; Focus on bringing back lapsed vegetarians/vegans; and Emphasize reductions of animal products. Additionally…
- We should focus on advocating for chickens. Chickens (and fish) clearly represent the majority of animals eaten as food. Unfortunately, chicken is also the most common type of meat consumed by former vegetarians/vegans. Reducing and eliminating chicken consumption (for all meat-consuming audiences) will have the greatest impact on the number of farmed animals’ lives saved.
- The fact that 84% of vegetarians and vegans resume eating meat suggests that advocates need to focus more on “how” instead of simply “why” to be vegetarian/vegan. This includes sharing information about how to find tasty veg options, how to avoid standing out from the crowd, and generally how to live in a mostly non-veg world.
- Think of vegetarian/vegan advocacy as sustaining a long-term relationship, not just a single point of outreach. Part of the goal for advocates should be to engage their target audience with a sense of community and to actively support them through mentorship and other programs. We suggest providing clear, easy opportunities for new vegetarians/vegans to learn more and become involved in the positive impact of their choices.
- Part of being in a successful long-term relationship is having patience. It is human nature to resist abrupt or substantial changes. Vegetarian/vegan advocacy should explore slower, incremental changes and reductions in animal product consumption. Advocates need to find ways to help those who transition quickly to stay with the diet for the long term.
In Faunalytics’ full report on this study, we suggest that more research would be useful to understand the impact on farmed animals of delivering a pro-vegetarian/vegan message (both with and without allowances for interim steps), compared with solely advocating specific combinations of reductions/eliminations of animal products. In addition, there are other opportunities for further research, including studies to track various levels of animal product avoidance and conducting in-depth qualitative research with former vegetarians/vegans to understand what might motivate them to return to a plant-based diet.
If You Find This Useful…
Collaborating closely with other groups, Faunalytics spent more than three years designing, carrying out, and analyzing the results from this new study. This included hundreds of hours of staff time as well as many more hours generously contributed by volunteers. It was a major effort and we hope it helps you be as effective as possible for farmed animals.
Faunalytics is already starting to think about possible follow-up studies to find out what works best for sustained vegan/vegetarian advocacy.
If you value this kind of groundbreaking, independent research for animal advocates, please donate to support Faunalytics’ work. Your donation is tax-deductible (in the U.S.).
Thank you for your support of research for effective animal advocacy!
December 2, 2014 - by Faunalytics