Just How Hard Is It To Become Veg*n?
It might be easier to answer how long is a piece of string?, but I’ll take a stab at addressing the title question nevertheless. As a starting point, let’s consider some of the findings from Faunalytics’ own 2014 Study of Current and Former Vegetarians and Vegans.
This survey asked a mostly-representative U.S. sample of people age 16+ to report on their current and former eating habits and their attitudes toward meat and dairy consumption. Of the nearly 11,400 people who participated, approximately 12% were either former or current vegetarians or vegans. For the purposes of this blog, some of the study’s key findings were:
- The current failure rate of remaining a lifelong vegetarian/vegan (veg*n) in the United States is 84%. In other words, 84% of participants who had previously attempted a veg*n diet reported eventually giving it up.
- Approximately one-third of those who attempted to become veg*n lapsed within 3 months, and over half (53%) gave up within 1 year. And there were some (12%) who gave up even after having been veg*n for 6 or more years!
- Approximately 30% of “failed” veg*ns had also experienced previous failures. That is, nearly one-third had failed more than once to become veg*n. Nevertheless, 37% said that they want to try veg*ism again.
Given these results, I think an initial answer to the question “how hard is it to become veg*n?” can’t be anything other than: Difficult. But then again, so is any big change in habitual behavior. For example, let’s look at how hard it is to change other health-saving behaviors.
Table: Observed ‘Failure’ Rates: Weight Loss, Smoking Cessation, Alcohol Cessation, and Substance Addiction
Observed Failure Rate
|77%||Failure to maintain at least 10% weight loss after 1 year||McGuire, M. T., Wing, R. R., & Hill, J. O. (1999). The prevalence of weight loss maintenance among American adults. International Journal of Obesity, 23, 1314-1319.|
|88.5%||Failure to maintain at least 10% weight loss after 5 years|
|82%||Failure to maintain cessation after 90 days among intermittent smokers||Tindle, H. A., & Shiffman, S. (2011). Smoking cessation behavior among intermittent smokers versus daily smokers. American Journal of Public Health, 101, e1-e3.|
|87%||Failure to maintain cessation after 90 days among daily smokers|
|95%||Failure to maintain cessation across 3 years among all smokers|
|76%||Continued abstinence from drink for 12+months following treatment||Miller, W. R., Walters, S. T., Bennett, M. E. (2001). How effective is alcoholism treatment in the United States? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 62, 211-220.|
Substance Addiction Cessation (in general)
|21-43%||Failure to complete treatment: detoxification drop-out rate||Brorson et al. (2013). Drop-out from addiction treatment: A systematic review of risk factors. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1010-1024.|
|23-50%||Failure to complete treatment: outpatient drop-out rate|
|17-57%||Failure to complete treatment: inpatient drop-out rate|
|32-60%||Failure to complete treatment: substitution treatment drop-out rate|
|43-90%||Failure to achieve total abstinence of use following treatment|
As many of us know from personal experience, losing weight – and keeping it off – is hard. In fact, as the table shows, most people (77%) fail within 1 year, though some say it is closer to 95%. Indeed, statistics demonstrate that, despite our ever-pressing obsession with weight and thinness, over one-third of American adults are now considered obese. Thus, we try and we fail time and again to lose the same weight.
Compared to trying to lose weight, becoming veg*n appears to be somewhat easier over the course of a year: 47% are successful at staying veg*n over the course of a year whereas only 23% are successful at maintaining weight loss over that same period. Notably, most studies indicate that a veg*n diet is associated with weight loss. Thus, becoming veg*n is a four-for-one-deal: At the same time one is likely to lose weight by becoming veg*n, one is also reducing animal suffering/deaths, improving one’s physical health, and benefitting the environment.
Dieting to achieve weight loss is probably the most useful point of comparison here, as it requires a change in daily eating habits just as becoming veg*n does. Other behaviours that people desperately want to change – including smoking, alcohol intake, and drugs – are also incredibly difficult to maintain over the long run. Only 13% of daily smokers manage to refrain from smoking for longer than 90 days, whereas 66% of people attempting to become veg*n manage it for this same length of time.
Similarly, it seems easier to maintain a veg*n diet for one year (47%) than it is to give up booze (24%). To put an end to drug addiction, not only does a person have to make it through the treatment program in the first place (approximately 40-79% manage this, depending on the study/intervention), but then s/he has to stay drug-free thereafter: Thus, somewhere between 4 and 45% of those who enter a drug treatment program will still be drug-free after one year. This means that for stopping drug use, the 1-year total failure rate may be as high as 96%.
How To Change Behavior
As stated above, maintaining a veg*n diet is difficult, but it is certainly no more difficult – and indeed, potentially easier – than many other significant health-behavior changes that people try to undertake on a daily basis. In any case, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing. So what makes the difference: Why are some people successful at changing their behavior and others less so?
Many books have been written on this subject, and thus the blog format simply can’t do it justice. As a starting point for those unfamiliar with this literature, however, Faunalytics has put together an Outline Summary (PDF) describing current theories and research on changing behavior, be it your own or that of others. In brief, to change behavior, one must consider the person’s:
- Beliefs about and attitude toward the old behavior
- Beliefs about and attitude toward the new behavior
- Ability to formulate a goal and make detailed plans regarding how to achieve it
- Unconscious goals, biases, and habits (i.e., those they are not aware of having)
- Social and physical environment
- And, perhaps, at least a little luck.
Even with everything in place, there will be setbacks: It takes time for a new habit to dominate the old one. The fact that so many former veg*ns ‘failed’ but tried again and want to try yet again is actually part of the process of becoming veg*n. Indeed, the 2014 Faunalytics Study found that the ‘failed’ veg*ns were more likely to indicate that they transitioned to their new diet over a matter of days/weeks, whereas for the ‘successful’ veg*ns, it was reported to be a lengthier process.
The findings also hint that any attempt at becoming veg*n may be successful to some extent: Those who ‘failed’ the strict test of maintaining veg*nism still reported eating less beef and pork thereafter than those who never tried to be veg*n (though we note that these data are correlational and, thus, causal conclusions are tenuous).
Overall, we suggest that taking a longer view of the process of becoming veg*n is both a theoretically and empirically valid one: For most people, becoming veg*n isn’t like a light switch that is flicked on at full brightness and never again flicked off. The process of becoming veg*n is more like a dimmer switch: Change is incremental and can sometimes move backward. Perhaps, however, once the dimmer is ‘on’ at all, there is at least a glimmer of light.
With that in mind, Faunalytics recommends that – at this stage – animal organizations focus on persuading people to reduce their meat intake. This is because goals that are perceived to be feasible are more likely to be set in the first place than are goals deemed too daunting. Animal organizations should also give people explicit advice as to how to reduce their meat intake (e.g., simple rules-of-thumb such as “choose tofu over chicken” or “be veg*n for lunch”), as research indicates that those with concrete if-then plans – especially plans that include strategies for managing potential obstacles – are more likely to achieve their goals.
At the same time, advocates should continue to advance the general message that these actions are steps that lead somewhere: to the reduction of animal suffering and death, to improved personal health, and to the welfare of our planet. To the extent that we can make the process of becoming veg*n seem more manageable to people, and get people to understand that it is indeed a process that includes setbacks, then we expect that more people will set upon and, ultimately, stay on the path toward veg*nism.