Understanding Vegetarian Perception For Vegetarian Promotion
Understanding perceptions about vegans and vegetarians is crucial for knowing how to reach people and potentially change their diets. To try to better understand how vegans and vegetarians are seen, researchers at the University of Guelph recently conducted a scoping review of English-language articles to assess peoples’ perceptions. Multiple screenings of search results yielded a total of 24 articles, all of which were published between January 2000 and June 2015. The majority of articles came from English-speaking countries like the US, Australia, Canada and the UK. Other countries represented were Belgium, Slovenia, Finland and Portugal.
Results from each of the studies differed slightly, but generally found that vegetarians tended to be perceived in a positive light whereas vegans were viewed more negatively. Perceptions were largely dependent on factors such as gender, age, and socioeconomic class. Vegetarian diets were generally perceived as not masculine, although two small studies found that people had neutral to favorable attitudes of vegetarian men. Vegetarian women in one of the same studies reported that they had experienced hostility or disappointment from their male omnivore family members as a result of their diet. Factors such as being older than 30, living in a poor or rural area, being male, and being minimally educated were correlated with viewing vegetarianism negatively. Perceptions also differed from culture to culture – for example, the general public of Slovenia had a very negative view of vegetarianism for children, yet the American Dietetic Association supported such a diet.
The good news is that interest in vegetarianism is growing. Two Australian studies indicated that the majority of individuals would like to learn more about vegetarian diets. Another study found that 83.7% of people knew at least one vegetarian. The bad news is that veganism is nowhere near as popular as vegetarianism. The researchers classified 74% of all UK articles containing the word “vegan” as portraying them in a negative light. In addition to words like “restrictive,” “faddist,” and “hippie”, vegans are stereotyped by omnivores as being “hostile” or “confrontational.” 100% of non-vegan participants in one American study reported conflict with vegans regardless of whether or not their overall interactions with them had been positive. The commonly-perceived “judgmental” nature of vegans held true in one study, in which 69% of vegans called vegetarians “hypocritical.”
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) holds the position that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” They also believe that vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for all life stages, including pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. Plant-based diets are also recommended by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Association, and Health Canada. Most individuals agreed with health professionals in regards to the healthfulness of vegetarian diets. Unsurprisingly, believing that meat was unhealthy or unnecessary was positively correlated with believing in other benefits of vegetarianism, such as sustainability, peace, and animal welfare.
The highest-ranked benefits of vegetarian diets were health and overall wellness or contentment. Environmental sustainability and animal welfare were the least agreed-upon benefits of vegetarianism; consequently, they also ranked the lowest. This may have been due to the fact that people are generally not aware of the full environmental impacts of meat production. Since the health benefits of vegetarianism were well-recognized, health and convenience issues were only the second most common perceived barrier to adopting a vegetarian diet. The most common barrier was simply enjoying the taste of meat. Another barrier was the belief that humans are “meant to eat meat.” When health issues were the concern, people were most worried about not getting enough protein or iron, or becoming nutritionally imbalanced. Other issues were not knowing how to properly prepare vegetarian meals, not having enough options in restaurants, having a family member who was unwilling to give up meat, and feeling that vegetarian food was bland and/or expensive.
Studies have shown that people tend to have positive perceptions about their own diets and negative perceptions of others. In this review, people were also more willing to adopt a new diet that was similar to their own. A study from Portugal found that out of 60% of participants who were planning to change their diet, only 12% planned to eliminate meat entirely; however, 48% were willing to reduce their meat consumption. Across multiple studies, people were overall more open to reducing their amount of meat (and eating organically-farmed meat or meat alternatives) than they were to eliminating meat altogether. This prompted the researchers to suggest that initiatives aimed at helping people reduce their meat intake may be more effective than initiatives aimed at becoming completely vegetarian. Furthermore, for demographic populations who perceive barriers to vegetarianism, “it would be more beneficial to focus on eliminating or decreasing the barriers to consuming a vegetarian diet as opposed to highlighting the benefits.”