Nonprofit research organization Faunalytics has released a new analysis on reasons people abandon vegan or vegetarian (veg*n) diets, looking at the obstacles former veg*ns faced and what they would need to resume being veg*n.
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.
Read the full report here: https://faunalytics.org/veg-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.
This project’s lead author was Constanza Arévalo (Faunalytics). Dr. Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) reviewed and oversaw the work.
Diets Are More Than Food
Food plays an important role in our lives. More than just nutrition, food is a very personal yet social experience, a cultural identity, and at times, a religious or spiritual practice or symbol. Naturally, a good-tasting diet is important—especially when the idea is to maintain it long-term. However, lapsed veg*ns’ answers suggested that food dissatisfaction, although a very common struggle, was not the most crucial obstacle to overcome to return to veg*nism. Instead, having access to veg*n options, as well as the time and ability to prepare veg*n meals (often alongside non-veg*n meals for family), were much more common must-haves.
Additionally, people’s feelings of healthiness while on their diet, seemed to hold a lot of weight. Many lapsed veg*ns who had faced issues managing their health named this as their main reason for lapsing. Similarly, Faunalytics (2022) found that people who felt unhealthy when first trying out a veg*n diet were significantly more likely to lapse within the first six months than people who felt healthier. This was the case even if their initial motivation for going veg*n wasn’t health-related.
Seeking professional medical advice while pursuing a veg*n diet (ideally from a doctor who understands and has experience with veg*n diets) is the best way to manage any major concerns and get information about the vitamins and nutritional supplements that would help combat diet-related health issues, though we recognize that access to affordable healthcare is a challenge for many people. For additional strategies to manage health-related difficulties, you may wish to review our previous research (Faunalytics, 2022) or websites that are specifically dedicated to health and nutrition on a plant-based diet (e.g., NutritionFacts.org).
Veg*n Options Aren’t Always Very Accessible
A commonly discussed obstacle to maintaining a veg*n diet and a major requirement to resume veg*nism was people’s access to veg*n options, from plant-based substitutes for animal products to fruits and vegetables. This was a problem in 2014 as well as 2019-2020. Many people struggled to find plant-based options in their local grocery stores and when eating out, while some didn’t even have an easily accessible grocery store. This all points to the socioeconomic issue of food deserts—areas where access to affordable and healthy food options is limited or nonexistent. Food deserts are much more prevalent in poorer communities, often affecting BIPGM (Black, Indigenous, People of the Global Majority) groups to a greater extent than wealthy, predominantly white communities.
The good news is that the selection of plant-based foods reaching the market has increased, with many more veg*n options available in stores and restaurants now than just a few years ago. While this should increase access to fast and easy veg*n food options, more work is needed to make these options accessible to all communities.
Motivation Doesn’t Just Come From Within
Many lapsed veg*ns discussed needing motivation and willpower to resume and maintain a veg*n diet. Some studies suggest that animal protection is the best long-term motivator for maintaining a veg*n diet (Grassian, 2019), while others indicate that the only ineffective motivation is a singular focus on health (Faunalytics, 2021), with all other combinations seeming equally beneficial.
While we did not look at initial motivators in this study, the effectiveness of different ones is an important consideration with respect to recommendations. We suggest that advocates looking to bring back lapsed veg*ns try to increase their focus on animal protection as a motivator if possible, and avoid health as a sole motivator. Faunalytics’ (2022) study discusses some promising strategies to increase motivation, some of which tie into animal protection as a motivator.
Having A Good Support System Matters
The relationships we have, regardless of whether it’s the family we were born into or the family we choose for ourselves, can be very influential in what we eat. This study found that people who lived with a significant other while they pursued a veg*n diet and people who adopted a veg*n diet at a younger age struggled with various difficulties posed by their relationships, such as experiencing hostility due to their diet, needing to cook meals for non-veg*ns in the household, and having concerns about providing proper nutrition to their children. Food is a social experience, so the dietary practices and beliefs of the people we’re surrounded by are bound to have at least some influence over our own diets, sometimes imposing practical or emotional difficulties on being veg*n.
Faunalytics (2022) found that about 20% of new veg*ns didn’t feel they could be open with their family and friends about their dietary goals, about 25% said their family and friends didn’t listen to how they wanted to do things regarding their diet goals, and about 30% felt their family and friends didn’t seem confident in their ability to make changes toward their diet goals. Similar sentiments were expressed by the lapsed veg*ns in this study, many of whom lacked the support they needed from their family and friends, recognizing that to resume a veg*n diet they would require a better support system. However, the 2022 study also found that autonomy support—the feeling that one’s choices are supported by friends and family—can increase with time. So, new veg*ns who at first don’t feel they have the support of their loved ones may find that this improves over time.
Extra work may also be involved in feeding a household that is both veg*n and non-veg*n. Living with a non-veg*n partner, parents, children, or roommates can be difficult regardless of who handles shopping and cooking. It may mean planning, shopping, and cooking for two different diets. If family members are open to it, finding family-friendly veg*n recipes and simple meat substitutes may provide some relief with this particular obstacle, with participants in this study noting that easy and tasty recipes are essential.
Many lapsed veg*ns had faced financial issues that made it difficult to maintain their veg*n diets. They tended to indicate that they would need greater financial stability or more affordable veg*n options to resume a veg*n diet.
Other research shows that after taste, price is the most important decision-making factor in whether consumers purchase plant-based products, and lower-income consumers have been found to purchase less plant-based meat than higher-income consumers (GFI, 2022). Historically, the prices of plant-based foods have been much higher than their animal product equivalents, making them rather expensive for the average consumer. For example, plant-based ground “meat” cost approximately double the price of ground beef in 2021 (GFI, 2022). These high prices not only apply to plant-based foods, but to fresh produce too—people living in poverty have been found to consume the least amount of fruits and vegetables (CDC, 2017).
Adding to this point, lapsed veg*ns with higher levels of education reported fewer financial difficulties and concerns about the cost of veg*n food. This is likely income-based, as attaining higher education is associated with higher income and a lower unemployment rate. It would be highly beneficial for crops intended for human consumption to be subsidized more relative to meat and crops for animal feed. Of an estimated $38 billion used by the U.S. government to subsidize the meat and dairy industry, it spends less than 1% on the production of crops. Because of how much money is used by the U.S. government to subsidize meat, it’s much cheaper and easier to purchase a hamburger than a plant-based meal.
We hope that the cost-related obstacles faced by the lapsed veg*ns in this study will be less of an issue in the near future, at least in the U.S. Recent studies suggest that plant-based proteins are at or approaching price parity with their animal product equivalents. These price changes may encourage lapsed veg*ns to try again.
The Many Influences Of Age
Of the multiple demographics we looked at, age at diet adoption was the most associated with obstacles to maintaining veg*n diets. Our findings showed that the younger people were when they first adopted a veg*n diet, the more difficulties they faced. These included having more trouble managing their health and a lack of veg*n knowledge, including about the preparation of veg*n food and concerns about GMOs or additives in prepared veg*n foods. The latter likely points to younger people having less cooking experience in general. However, this can pose a significant challenge to being veg*n when access to plant-based food is lacking. This is yet another reason that easy and tasty veg*n recipes should be a priority.
People who adopted veg*n diets at an older age made positive comments about their veg*n experience more often than those who adopted veg*n diets at a younger age, suggesting that overall enjoyment of veg*nism may increase with age.
Additionally, the older people were when they adopted a veg*n diet, the fewer animal products they consumed even after lapsing. While we cannot definitively say why this may be, it could be associated with people’s initial motivations for going veg*n. For instance, older participants may have tried veg*n diets to manage health issues more often, so even after lapsing, they may continue with reduced intake. Considering that older lapsed veg*ns are often consuming fewer animal products already and are more likely to have had a positive experience with veg*nism previously, older lapsed veg*ns may be the low-hanging fruit for diet campaigns.