The Complexity Of Going Veg
In late 2014, a group by the name of the Humane Research Council found itself at the heart of a controversy in the animal advocacy community. The cause?: A research study looking at current and former vegetarians and vegans (veg*ns), which found that a staggering 84% of veg*n folks do not maintain their diet past the first year of transitioning. The study was a wake-up call for the animal advocacy movement — but it also generated a fair amount of negative press, and proved that the media loves to have chances to criticize veg*n people when they can.
In 2015, Humane Research Council was rebranded as Faunalytics [Ed. Note: the rebranding process was begun long before the veg study was released, in an effort to clarify the purpose of the organization, and to correct the perception that the Humane Research Council was involved with “humane” scientific research on animals.], and the veg*n study helped to establish the newly christened group as an important contributor of data and analysis to the animal advocacy movement. In some ways, it was a blessing: we were seen as passionate about animals but dispassionate about data, reliable and unbiased about digging into issues that the movement may find uncomfortable, all with the purpose of making advocacy more effective. In other ways, it was a curse: we were criticized for somehow selling out the movement, being collaborators with the meat industry, and worst of all, harming animals by releasing our study.
Fast forward to 2021, and Faunalytics has not given up in the face of that past criticism. Indeed, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds, and further established ourselves as leaders in research for animal advocacy. And just last month, we released the first part of a long-awaited follow-up to our previous veg*n study, with the goal of improving our understanding and support of new vegans and vegetarians. Going Veg: Many Paths To One Goal is available to read now.
While our latest study is, in some ways, meant to be a follow-up to the study from 2014, it’s important to tease out the similarities and differences between the two. We’ve received a number of questions about how to interpret the results of the new study compared to the old, and this blog post is meant to help you understand and interpret the similarities and differences.
Similarity #1: Participants
Both studies used a sample of participants from the general population. Compare that against some other studies about veg*nism or meat reduction that focus on people who are participating in advocacy campaigns or otherwise responding to specific efforts by animal advocates: studies like our experiments comparing “Reduce” Vs. “Go Veg” messaging (2020) or the effectiveness of Animal Equality’s video outreach (2018), or even Grassian’s longitudinal study of vegan and reduction campaigns (2019). These three examples all had strong designs, but the way the participants behave in those studies is completely tied to their interactions with animal advocates. We aren’t meant to draw any conclusions about how people outside of advocacy campaigns would behave. With Faunalytics’ 2014 and 2021 studies, the goal is to be able to draw those conclusions.
As an additional point of similarity between the two studies, the participants shared many demographic characteristics (as described in the 2021 report, on the Supplemental Materials tab), so when we compare the results we know that in either case we are talking about similar groups of people — just seven years apart — and that they are reasonably (though not perfectly!) representative of the part of the U.S. population who goes veg*n.
What this means: Different methods and samples have different strengths and weaknesses. The useful thing about Faunalytics’ 2014 and 2021 studies both using general population samples is that the results of both are generalizable to how we can expect people to act “in the wild” — when they are outside of advocates’ spheres of influence.
Difference #1: Study Type
The 2014 study was cross-sectional, while the 2021 study is longitudinal. That is to say, the two studies were very different types. So this is where we start to see some pretty substantial differences.
Cross-sectional research is like a snapshot. You can look at two groups — like current and former veg*ns — at a single point in time and get a good sense of how many people are in each group. That’s where the 84% veg*n abandonment statistic came from: the number of people in 2014 who were currently versus formerly veg*n. However, cross-sectional research is not ideal for understanding why or how something like dietary abandonment comes about, because you’re asking people to reflect back on choices they made in the past — in many cases, a very long time ago. Our 2014 study provided some very useful information about the differences between current and former veg*ns, but it wasn’t designed to dig into the nuances of exactly when and why some people abandoned their diets or what we can do to address that high rate of abandonment.
Longitudinal research, on the other hand, tracks one group of participants over a period of time: 222 participants over six months, in our 2021 study. This is ideal for why and how questions because you’re tracking things as they happen, with no feats of memory required. However, this methodology is generally not ideal for getting at exact rates (e.g., the number of people who abandon the diet) because the sample is generally much smaller and we know less about how representative it is. This is due to the difficulty of recruiting people who are just starting a veg*n diet and convincing them to participate in six-month long research! For comparison, there were over 1,100 participants in our 2014 study, which only required a single survey.
What this means: In a nutshell, you will get better (not just more updated but also more reliable) information about why and how people maintain or abandon veg*n diets from our new, 2021 research. But you should put more stock in the abandonment rate we identified in 2014 than the 2021 statistics about how many people told us they had abandoned their dietary goal.
Similarity #2: Questions Asked
Both studies were designed to help advocates understand why people go veg*n and provide them with information about how to help them maintain those goals. As such, both the 2021 and 2014 studies included many questions about motivations and obstacles that participants encountered along the way.
The 2014 study was the first large-scale research to examine this crucial question. It provided a lot of the initial information that animal protection groups have used to shape their decisions and campaigns in the subsequent years: information like the fact that social support is extremely important to maintaining a diet change, and that focusing on the how of going veg*n is often more important than the why. The information it provided has also provided the foundation for a lot of other research (e.g., Asher, 2017; Grassian, 2019; Hodson & Earle, 2017)—up to and including the 2021 study.
The 2021 study included questions on the same key topics of social support, cost, accessibility of food options, and more, but also expanded on it. The 2014 study was an initial look at a wide range of possibilities — we didn’t know yet what was important and what wasn’t. So we asked a little bit about a lot of things. In the 2021 study, we were able to dig deeper on barriers and supports that we already knew were important (about the nuances of social support, for instance) and follow up with key questions about what people did to get around those barriers.
What this means: If your primary interest is in barriers to maintaining a veg*n diet and how to help people overcome them, you should stay tuned for two upcoming reports based on the 2021 study, where we will dig into that topic with much more detail and rigor than was possible with the 2014 data. This is more than just a plug for research I’m personally excited about, it is the most detailed and specific information that has been collected to date about this topic.
Difference #2: Defining Vegan And Vegetarian
In 2014, we were strict. In 2021, we are flexible. In 2014, we had very strict definitions of vegan and vegetarian, and there was a multi-step verification process to identify current and former vegetarians/vegans to ensure accurate classification. If, for instance, someone described themselves as vegan but said they had consumed dairy, they were considered non-vegan. This seemed reasonable (and still does, in many contexts), but for our 2021 study, defining success and failure so strictly for brand-new dietary goals seemed counterproductive.
Therefore, in 2021, rather than treating success or failure on a veg*n diet as a black and white concept, our measures of success focus on the amount of success and whether participants were still actively working toward their goals. Instead of a group of veg*ns and a group of non-veg*ns, we have a single group of people with varying levels of success at each point along their journey. (It is worth noting that this wouldn’t have been very doable in 2014 because the two-group design of the study required a pretty sharp distinction between being currently veg*n and not.)
In addition, our 2021 study allowed for a small amount of flexibility in how people define their goal diets. Like in 2014, we asked them what they call their diet (vegan, vegetarian, or something else) and what they will eat once they achieve that goal. However, if there was a discrepancy between their self-described diet and their planned consumption (e.g., a vegetarian saying they plan to eat fish), they were asked to correct it if they made a mistake or explain it. As a result, a few people with small “exceptions” to their diet goals were included, like a vegan who eats eggs from his rescue chickens. Some people would say he’s not really vegan, but we’re not here to choose a side in a linguistic debate. We are here to say that he’s worth understanding and supporting, as someone who shares at least 99.9% of the same goals as we all do.
What this means: If you’re looking for an exact number of people who “fail” at a veg*n diet, our 2021 study isn’t the one for you, because you will never see the results considered in those terms. If you’re looking — as we hope — for a more nuanced understanding of the journeys people take to reduce the animal suffering they cause, we hope that you will find that and more in it.
Still Have Questions?
This blog doesn’t cover all the similarities and differences between our 2021 and 2014 studies, just some of the bigger ones that have come up in questions we’ve received so far. In the future, once the second and third reports on the study results are available, I will write another one comparing and interpreting key results from 2021 and 2014.
If you have any questions that arise in the meantime about how the method or results of our 2021 study compare to what you know from 2014, please feel free to submit them for inclusion next time. You can get in touch with me by email at [email protected] and let me know whether you’re looking for an immediate response or would just like to be included in the next comparison blog.
Thank you for your interest in this important topic. And thank you for everything you do to help others help animals.