Bringing Back Former Vegans And Vegetarians: An Obstacle Analysis
People have a variety of motivations for switching to plant-based diets, yet not all people who begin the transition to a vegan or vegetarian (collectively called veg*n) diet maintain it long-term. In fact, Faunalytics’ study of current and former veg*ns (2014) found that the number of lapsed (former) vegans and vegetarians in the United States far surpasses the number of current veg*ns, and most who lapse do so within a year. Are these people the low-hanging fruit for diet advocates? They could be—there are many of them and they’re clearly at least somewhat willing to go veg*n, so maybe more attention should be paid to the lapsers.
That’s one possibility. The other, more pessimistic possibility, is that when we as advocates think our diet campaigns are successful, these are the people we think we’re convincing. That is, we see the part where they go veg*n, but not the part where they later lapse back. This interpretation is one that a lot of people made when our study of current and former veg*ns released, but we don’t have strong evidence either way.
This analysis, in which we looked at the obstacles faced by people who once pursued a veg*n diet and what they would need to resume being veg*n, aims to shed a bit more light on these questions. Although causes for lapsing have been analyzed to an extent, a deeper analysis that considers people’s reasons in their own words is necessary to not only understand why people give up their veg*n goals, but to find the best ways to help people stick with their commitment to veg*nism and even lure back some of the lapsers.
- Helping lapsed veg*ns resume their diets means making the diets as accessible as possible, providing them with motivational boosts, and providing practical support. Lapsed veg*ns emphasized needing access to a wider plant-based food selection, motivation, support from loved ones, and easier recipes, among other things. More often than not, individual requirements to re-adopt a veg*n diet are complex and include a combination of different needs that must be met.
- Dissatisfaction with veg*n food is the most common struggle. Nearly half of lapsed veg*ns experienced cravings, boredom with their veg*n diet, feeling hungry on the diet, and other issues related to food dissatisfaction. Despite how common these obstacles were, solutions to them were less frequently mentioned as important to resuming veg*n diets. This suggests that there may be bigger obstacles to re-adoption, such as those discussed above. Additionally, we expect dissatisfaction with veg*n food to be less of an issue now given the rise in plant-based food alternatives in the market and that this appeared to be less of an obstacle for lapsed veg*ns in 2019 than in 2014.
- Access to veg*n food options is still limited. Lapsed veg*ns struggle with access issues and a lack of options (Faunalytics, 2022), signifying that there is still room for improvement in terms of plant-based food access. While plant-based alternatives are becoming more widespread, they aren’t available in all areas or all grocery stores and restaurants. This poses difficulties for veg*ns when eating out, for those in need of easy, ready-to-eat food, and for those in need of more plant-based ingredients to cook at home.
- The cost of veg*n food often poses an obstacle to peoples’ ability to pursue a veg*n diet. Many lapsed veg*ns found the cost of a veg*n diet to be too high for them to maintain it long term. While we didn’t have access to participants’ income levels, education is often used as a proxy for it due to the statistical association between them. We found that the lower lapsed veg*ns’ education level, the more they reported facing issues related to the cost of food or experiencing financial difficulties while on their veg*n diets, supporting the idea that people of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to experience these difficulties. Although some plant-based proteins are beginning to reach price parity with their animal product equivalents (GFI, 2022), there is still a ways to go, with advocates noting that crops for human consumption are neglected for subsidization compared to the animal agriculture industry (Faunalytics, 2023).
- Some obstacles, like social struggles and accessibility challenges, tend to co-occur, so overcoming one obstacle may improve other related issues. Many people encountered certain obstacles in tandem. For instance, social struggles tended to co-occur with accessibility challenges: People who mentioned their loved ones posed challenges to their veg*n diets often had concerns about the time and effort it took to shop for, plan, and cook meals. As a result, helping veg*ns combat one obstacle, such as finding easy and tasty veg*n recipes for the whole family, may help combat other related issues.
- The older you are when you go veg*n, the better your veg*n experience. People who adopted veg*n diets at a younger age faced more difficulties than those who adopted a veg*n diet at an older age. Younger people expressed more difficulty managing their health, lack of veg*n knowledge, issues related to their loved ones’ needs, and were less likely to mention having a positive experience with veg*nism. People who first tried a veg*n diet at a young age but were unsuccessful may have better luck a few years later. While the reason isn’t clear from these analyses, practical skills (e.g., cooking), self-knowledge, and self-reliance gained over time could be involved.
- Lapsed veg*ns eat fewer animal products overall, but those who eat the least tend to be older, have financial difficulties, and to have been vegan rather than vegetarian. Our previous research (Faunalytics, 2014) showed that lapsed veg*ns eat fewer animal products than the general population, and in this analysis we looked at which factors predict how much they consume. Humans are complex, so our behaviors are bound to be influenced by many things. While there are likely other variables that we didn’t consider in this study that affect animal product consumption, our findings give an idea of what some of those influencing variables are: money, age, an initial commitment to a vegan diet, and maintaining a veg*n-friendly attitude even after lapsing.
Motivation and resources like recipes and health support are key for lapsed veg*ns to return to veg*nism.
With motivation coming up quite frequently as a requirement to resume a veg*n diet, advocates should work on providing sources of motivation to new and returning veg*ns to help them stay focused on their goals – whether those be health-related, environmental, or for animal welfare. Motivation should be coupled with resources to help them stay on the path towards veg*nism, particularly in the form of very simple, nutritionally complete recipes and tips for staying healthy on a veg*n diet. Additional recommendations for increasing motivation and resources are available in our study of the barriers and strategies for new veg*ns (Faunalytics, 2022).
Encourage lapsed veg*ns to try the buddy system as they return to veg*nism—support goes a long way.
The need for support from loved ones came up often as a requirement to resume a veg*n diet, emphasizing the significance of the people we surround ourselves with. Advocates can encourage people to pursue their new veg*n diets with someone close to them, provide support networks for veg*ns by connecting them with local or online veg*n communities and events, or even create those options if they don’t exist.
Advocate for better access to plant-based foods and for plant-based agriculture to be subsidized more.
Many lapsed veg*ns didn’t have veg*n options available locally, and for some, this included a lack of fresh produce. Previous research has also shown that plant-based diets, fruits, and vegetables are less accessible to lower-income people (CDC, 2017; GFI, 2022). If we want to make veg*n diets more accessible, we need to be pushing for an increase in plant-based food options in grocery stores, food banks, restaurants, and food kitchens. Furthermore, advocates should be lobbying for governments to support and subsidize plant-based protein agriculture rather than continuing to increase their subsidization of the animal agriculture industry (Faunalytics, 2023).
Target more diet campaigns to women over 35 years of age.
Our results showed that people who went veg*n after 35 not only experienced fewer obstacles than those who first tried veg*nism at a younger age, but they also enjoyed their diets more and even those who lapsed from veg*nism still consumed fewer animal products. The older people are, the more confident they likely feel in the kitchen, they’re less likely to have to worry about preparing non-veg*n meals for their young children or roommates, and they may benefit more from a veg*n diet health-wise. Additionally, women reported significantly more positive sentiments regarding their veg*n diets than men. Research also shows that grandparents in general and grandmothers, in particular, are influential on children’s nutrition, so this may present an avenue for influence on younger generations (Aubel, 2011; Young et al., 2018).
For Lapsed Veg*ns Considering Returning To Veg*nism
An apple a day keeps the doctor away—but you should still see a doctor if possible when you start any new diet, especially if you had any health concerns the last time you tried it.
While following a vegetarian or vegan diet is a healthy option and many people go veg*n for this reason, it’s important to get the right vitamins and nutrients for your body. Getting routine check-ups is an important consideration when going veg*n to make sure that you are staying healthy, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition like anemia. Your doctor may recommend that you take certain supplements, like B12, iron, or calcium.
Give the buddy system a try.
You don’t have to go through the veg*n journey alone—try going veg*n with a friend, sibling, partner, parent, mentor, or even online communities found through a program like Challenge 22. Having someone to share the ups and downs of this experience with provides an important source of support, motivation, and companionship. You can try new veg*n recipes together or work through difficulties.
Try simple and tasty plant-based alternatives for the whole family.
It can be stressful, time-consuming, and expensive to cook both a veg*n and non-veg*n meal for the family. When there are picky eaters in the household, it can seem easier to just eat meat with the rest of the family. Luckily, there are many global cuisines that use cheap, readily-available, plant-based ingredients (e.g., Mexican, Indian, Chinese), and more and more products are becoming available in stores that mimic the meats your family may be more comfortable with.
Applying These Findings
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Behind The Project
This project’s lead author was Constanza Arévalo (Faunalytics). Dr. Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) reviewed and oversaw the work.
While this project was conducted by Constanza Arévalo and Dr. Jo Anderson, it is the product of two very large projects that involved many supporters over the course of multiple years. Other project authors included Kathryn Asher and Che Green of Faunalytics, as well as Marina Milyavskaya and Marta Kolbuszewska (Carleton University). We offer our thanks to them as well as the many volunteers who advised and supported both projects.
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Research Ethics Statement
As with all of Faunalytics’ original research, this study was conducted according to the standards outlined in our Research Ethics and Data Handling Policy.