Vegan Stigma: A Barrier To Dietary Change
Meat consumption is increasing globally, as rising income levels in developing nations drive people to adopt a Western-style diet. Eating meat is still very much the norm in the developed world, too—in 2016, only 4% of Americans identified as vegetarian or vegan.
Groups working to persuade people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products—whether for ethical, environmental, or health reasons—will benefit from understanding the potential barriers to their efforts. So far, research has mostly identified personal barriers related to individuals’ personal characteristics, attitudes, or beliefs. For instance, common justifications for continuing to eat animal products include finding it too difficult to change dietary habits, enjoying the taste of meat, viewing meat-eating as a masculine behavior, and denying that animals suffer. The authors of this study suspected there might also be a social barrier to dietary change: fear of stigmatization.
Eating is a highly social activity—existing research shows that sharing meals fulfills a variety of social functions, including strengthening and maintaining relationships and teaching and reinforcing cultural beliefs and values. In Western culture, meat and other animal products are traditionally a core component of a meal. So when a member of a family or other social group chooses to go vegan, their rejection of this central aspect of the shared food experience can cause others to see their behavior as deviant. In response, non-vegans may attempt to distance themselves socially and behaviorally from vegans in order to avoid being deemed deviant themselves by association.
The authors hypothesized that anticipating this “vegan stigma” – and the consequent loss of friendships and exclusion from social activities – might discourage people from adopting a plant-based diet. They set out to test their theory by conducting five focus groups in which they asked college students to discuss perceptions of vegans and veganism. One group consisted of vegans, two of vegetarians, and two of omnivores. Their main findings were as follows:
- Vegetarians and omnivores generally had negative perceptions of veganism and of vegans themselves, describing them with terms ranging from “pretentious” to “aggressive.” Vegans accurately anticipated being perceived in this way.
- Non-vegans avoided being associated with vegans by distancing themselves physically—i.e., by avoiding vegans—and verbally. For instance, vegetarians reported asserting that they didn’t care how other people ate and wouldn’t try to change others’ behavior. Non-vegans suspected that if they decided to go vegan, other people would stigmatize them in the same way, and the vegans confirmed that this had been their experience.
- Because non-vegans anticipate that they, too, would be judged by others and socially excluded if they reduced or eliminated their consumption of animal products, they have a significant incentive to maintain their current eating habits.
Since the participants were college-aged students, these findings suggest that vegan stigma is still common among young people, even though this age group is the most likely to reduce its meat consumption.
The authors conclude by noting that many existing interventions intended to encourage people to transition to a plant-based diet tackle only practical and personal barriers to dietary change, such as by improving product labeling and highlighting the health benefits of eating vegan. On the basis of their findings, they suggest that for these efforts to be as effective as possible, social barriers must be overcome, too. Therefore, groups working in this area should consider developing initiatives aimed at changing attitudes by portraying vegans and veganism in a more positive, socially acceptable light.