When looking at the experiences of new vegans and vegetarians (for simplicity referred to collectively as veg*ns here), research organization Faunalytics set out to identify barriers to their diet change and what strategies can help them be successful.
Read the full study here: https://faunalytics.org/going-veg-barriers-and-strategies
This is the third and final report in our series describing the results of Faunalytics’ longitudinal study of new veg*ns. It focuses on the critical issue of barriers and supports facing people who start a new veg*n diet, as well as the effectiveness of various strategies.
The project authors are Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) and Marina Milyavskaya (Carleton University). However, this project was a massive undertaking and could not have happened without the support of multiple individuals and organizations.
We are very grateful to Faunalytics volunteers Renata Hlavová, Erin Galloway, Susan Macary, and Lindsay Frederick for their support and assistance with this work, as well as former Carleton student Marta Kolbuszewska and the dozens of animal advocates who helped with recruitment. We are also very thankful to Animal Charity Evaluators, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and VegFund for funding this research. Finally, we thank all of our survey respondents for their time and effort.
This study examined a number of barriers to veg*n diet change that have been identified in previous research, with the goal of determining how they influence success over a moderate time period—the first six months of one’s new diet.
We identified three barriers as the most problematic because people who experience them when first trying to go veg*n were more likely to abandon the attempt within the first six months. Those three were:
- Feeling unhealthy on one’s veg*n diet,
- Not seeing veg*nism as part of one’s identity, and
- Believing that society sees veg*nism negatively.
Additional problematic barriers were those associated with having more trouble reaching one’s goal level of consumption, which included:
- Low autonomy support from friends and family,
- Negative cultural influence,
- Weak habit formation,
- High cost,
- Being ashamed of one’s diet, and
- Difficulty finding or preparing food.
Dietary perfectionism—not feeling satisfied unless following one’s new diet perfectly—was also associated with consumption success, such that people who were more perfectionist tended to get closer to their goal. However, we do not refer to low perfectionism as a barrier because while it may work well for people who chose it freely in this correlational study, perfectionism has a dark side and recommending it as a strategy could have harmful consequences (Sirois et al., 2010). It should be tested experimentally before being considered a potential strategy.
For full details, see the section Barriers and Supports for Successful Diet Change.
Recommending strategies for diet maintenance can be as simple or as complicated as you like. At the simplest level, using more strategies and using them frequently is helpful: Just using strategies more often was predictive of consumption success. We also know from previous research into other types of goal pursuit that personal strategies people come up with themselves can be more effective than “expert” strategies (Peetz & Davydenko, 2021), so it’s a good idea to encourage people to try strategies that they think might work for them regardless of whether or not they appear on our list.
But it’s also possible to get a lot more specific and take account of an individual’s particular barriers, as outlined below.
Regardless of the barriers a person was experiencing, cost strategies were often associated with a lower likelihood of abandoning one’s veg*n diet. This suggests that even when people don’t identify cost as a concern or are dealing with other barriers, having affordable plant-based options available is important for diet maintenance.
Cost strategies included four individual strategies, of which one was most promising for success: Researching low-cost products (e.g., tofu). This doesn’t mean that the others aren’t useful—they certainly may be, especially for some people or in combination with other strategies—but if you are looking for a particular cost strategy to recommend to someone, helping them find low-cost products is the best option.
Strategies for increasing motivation were effective for people with a range of barriers and were sometimes associated with a lower likelihood of abandoning one’s veg*n diet, including for people who suffered from low motivation. These strategies appeared to help people with low motivation cut out animal products and make them less likely to abandon their diet.
For those considering motivation strategies to help with low motivation or for other reasons, any of them may help, but the following were the most promising:
- Learn more about animals that are used for food
- Learn more about world hunger or social justice reasons for following a veg*n diet
- Watch unpleasant or graphic images/video of farmed animals
- Learn more about religious/spiritual reasons for following a veg*n diet
- Learn more about health benefits of following a veg*n diet
- Learn more about saving money by following a veg*n diet
Strategies for improving health effects were moderately effective. They helped people who had several different barriers, including people who were feeling unhealthy on their diet, get closer to their goal level of animal product consumption. However, these strategies did not appear to protect against diet abandonment, which is a key risk for people who feel unhealthy on their veg*n diet. This suggests that feeling unhealthy remains a difficult challenge to overcome, though using health strategies in combination with other strategies that reduce the risk of diet abandonment (cost and motivation strategies) may be protective.
Of the strategies we considered, two were identified as more promising than the rest:
- Research how to be healthy on a veg*n diet
- Talk to a medical professional about your diet
For the latter, however, we encourage advocates to let people know that not all medical professionals are up to date on the health benefits of plant-based diets, despite a wealth of evidence and direct recommendations to physicians to advise them (Tuso, 2013).
Social strategies were helpful for people who were experiencing most of the barriers we measured, making them the most flexible type of strategy. Most notably, they were helpful for people with the social barriers of low autonomy support (support from friends and family), negative influence from one’s culture, or having a small veg*n network. Social strategies helped individuals with those barriers cut out animal products and get closer to their veg*n goals.
Unfortunately, however, social strategies were less effective for people who don’t identify strongly as a veg*n, suggesting that advocates may need to suggest other strategies and find ways to increase identification. This is somewhat surprising, as we might expect that spending more time around other veg*ns would increase that identification.
For those considering social strategies, using any could help, but the following were the most promising:
- Participate in an online community (e.g., Facebook group) for people with diets similar to yours
- Ask your family or friends to be supportive of your diet
- Try to meet new people with diets similar to yours
- Avoid people who are unsupportive or critical of your diet
- Explain to your family or friends why this diet is important to you
Strategies for improving one’s ability to follow the diet were somewhat effective, helping people with a range of different barriers be successful. However, they had no apparent effect on people who were experiencing the ability-related barriers of difficulty finding or preparing veg*n food or having low personal control over food, indicating the challenge of overcoming these practical problems. Other research highlights the problem of systemic lack of access to healthy and affordable food in many areas (see Food Empowerment Project), and this finding further illustrates that individual-level solutions to these problems may not exist.
For individuals who do have choices available, the following ability strategies can be recommended as the most promising:
- Research products (e.g., meat alternatives) that fit your diet
- Switch to a restaurant, dining hall, etc., with better options for your diet
- Switch to a grocery store with better options for your diet
- Eat products that are designed as meat replacements (e.g., veggie burger, soy chick’n)
- Increase the amount of cooking you do yourself
Strategies for dealing with cravings were less useful than the rest, but some individuals may feel that they need them and may find them helpful. For those who want to try them, we recommend several strategies that were individually associated with better consumption success:
- Plan a strategy for dealing with temptation if it occurs
- Avoid places or situations that might tempt you
- Change the way you were thinking about a craving or a food you craved
- Distract yourself from a craving
- Plan meals in advance (e.g., before grocery shopping, going to a restaurant)
- Remind yourself why you’re following this diet
Sorry am I missing something? Isn't the main barrier that vegan food is often less enjoyable to eat (even unpleasant)? And that getting/making good vegan food can be hard, time-consuming, or expensive?
I'm speculating, but new vegetarians and vegans, who are the study subjects here, may have already gotten past these barriers, or these were never barriers for them in the first place. New vegetarians and vegans may often have already been eating and cooking vegan food before going fully veg.
Correct, thanks -- that's the most likely explanation. We addressed potential food issues by looking at participants' difficulties with cravings. In this sample we found that it wasn't a strong barrier on average, but I wouldn't generalize the null effects to the population at large. I would hazard a guess that the barriers we found to be impactful would generalize to others samples as well, but wouldn't necessarily assume that no association here = no association for other groups.
The three barriers listed above are particularly problematic in that they predict quitting even for people who are in the best position to go veg*n, with their high commitment and few barriers.
You can see the full list in the linked article. In order of importance: