Understanding What Motivates Plant-Based Eaters
Researchers from Cornell University, USA, have set out to change how we study the reasoning behind why more and more people opt for plant-based meals. Their ultimate goal is to enhance future investigations of plant-based dietary motivations by reinventing the framework for studying them.
According to a 2013 survey in the UK, 25% of the public had reduced its meat consumption. And 34% indicated a willingness to eat less meat. In the US, 37% of adults order vegetarian meals always or sometimes when eating out. These figures add up to more than 100 million people who are interested in plant-based eating. And this is just in these two countries alone.
The researchers note that, throughout the past two decades, studies have predominantly placed specific motivations to eat a plant-based diet into two categories: either ethical or health-based motivations. This is known as the ethical-health framework. Using this system, previous studies have found that ethically motivated and health-motivated vegetarians vary on many outcome variables. These include diet duration, dietary restrictiveness, and disgust towards meat.
Findings have also indicated that omnivores evaluate vegetarians who are motivated by animal rights more negatively than vegetarians who are motivated by personal health. This explains why some animal-motivated vegetarians have more conflicting interactions with omnivores. And it explains why they may conceal their true self by instead stating they are motivated by health. As such, investigating and evaluating true vegetarian motivations are critical to understanding the complex social implications of food choices.
The authors of this study have recently introduced the Unified Model of Vegetarian Identity (UMVI). It offers a novel framework for understanding plant-based dietary motivations. And it is oriented toward three types of goal: pro-social, personal and moral. The researchers first evaluated three types of reasoning to go plant-based: motivations, aversions and limitations, and defining features. By doing this, the researchers found that motivations are particularly relevant for future research.
The authors highlight that it is important to understand how plant-based dieters see their personal development and their well-being. And to do so, it is crucial to evaluate the nature of their goals. This is because studies have found goal content and purpose orientation to correlate with psychological outcomes. For example, ethically motivated vegetarians tend to maintain a plant-based diet for a longer period of time, follow a more restrictive dietary pattern, and evaluate meat more negatively than health-motivated vegetarians.
The development of the UMVI should improve upon the previously used method. The ethical-health framework, for example, could not distinguish between more specific motivations. Ethical motivation denotes an oversimplified category. It fails to differentiate between motivations driven by concerns for animals or the environment, or religious beliefs. All of these motivations used to fall under the one category: the ethical motivation group. Also, the UMVI includes factors such as disgust toward meat or following a plant-based diet due to financial constraints or social influence. These are aversions or constraints. They should not be conceived as motivations. So, studies have not accurately presented the full spectrum of reasons people report for making plant-based food choices. Finally, the previous framework fails to show how strongly people feel about their motivations. This is an important dimension when multiple motivations are behind the dietary choice.
Despite seeing the UMVI as a better tool for understanding plant-based dieters, the researchers see room for improvement. “Ultimately, we emphasize that future research should conceive plant-based dieting as a highly multidimensional practice that entails much more than food choices alone.” They also express that more research is needed on motivational progressions over time. Motivations often change in the plant-based community. And such data could be very informative, particularly with respect to phenomena such as identity development and intergroup dynamics.
Animal advocates will be pleased to learn that more and more effort is being made to understand the motivations for switching to plant-based diets. This new framework is able to evaluate motivations much more precisely and in more detail. The improvements are bound to result in more useful data for effective advocacy.