Many individuals make the transition from omnivore to vegetarian each year. In spite of this, there is little or no information on how long people continue to follow a vegetarian diet. Do reasons for excluding meat from a diet determine how long an individual follows a vegetarian diet? Or are there other factors that play a role in the continuation of vegetarian diets? Do vegetarians possess different personality traits than non-vegetarians? This review of current literature will attempt to answer these questions.
The first few studies examine vegetarian practices, changes in diet over time, and reasons for dietary changes. One compared the prevalence of weight loss diets and vegetarian diets among college students (Smith, Burke, and Wing, 2000). Of 428 participants, 58 percent had been on a weight loss diet, and 45 percent tried a vegetarian diet at some point. Sixty-one percent of weight loss dieters followed their diet for less than three months. Of those who discontinued a weight loss diet, 53 percent lost interest in the diet, 48 percent missed certain foods, and 24 percent did not lose weight.
Of the 45 percent of participants who had tried a vegetarian diet, 62 percent followed their diet for more than 12 months. Reasons for following a vegetarian diet included health (64 percent) and disgust with appearance of food (42 percent). Reasons for returning to an omnivorous diet included missing eating meat (42 percent), the perception that it was an inconvenience to follow a vegetarian diet (21 percent), and concern about inadequate nutrient consumption (29 percent). However, an important limitation to this study is that approximately 70 percent of ‘vegetarians’ avoided only red meat, and most of those who chose to become vegetarian cited health-related reasons. Therefore, it is possible that the results of this study may have been different and more valuable if only actual vegetarians had been examined, as well as those with motivations concerning animal welfare and the environment in addition to health.
Next, dietary practices among self-defined female vegetarians and how these dietary practices changed over time were examined (Barr and Chapman, 2002). Of 193 premenopausal women studied, 90 were current self-defined vegetarians, 35 were former vegetarians, and 68 were not vegetarians. Current vegetarians were more likely to be Caucasian and less likely to have children at home. The average duration of adherence to a vegetarian diet was approximately 10 years. Dietary changes over time among current vegetarians include fewer animal products than when first becoming vegetarian (63 percent), no changes over time (27 percent), and an increase in animal products (10 percent).
In comparison, former vegetarians only followed a vegetarian diet for approximately three years on average and resumed an omnivorous diet for an average of seven years. Similar to the findings of Smith, Burke, and Wing (2000), former vegetarians reported returning to an omnivorous diet due to health-related reasons, missing the taste of meat, and their perception that vegetarian diets are nutrient inadequate. Inadequate protein intake was mentioned most frequently, but calcium, iron, and vitamin B12 were also reported as nutrition concerns. Additional reasons reported by this population included a lack of social support, a change in living situation, and the time consuming nature of vegetarian diets.
Finally, the prevalence and duration of teenage vegetarianism in South Australia was measured (Worsley and Skrzpiec, 1998). Two thousand students from 52 secondary schools completed a two-part questionnaire. Using the definition of a vegetarian as one who consumes all meats less than twice in two months, results showed that 8 percent of females were vegetarians and 1 percent of males were vegetarians. However, among vegetarians who consumed red meat less than twice in two months, 10 percent of females and 2 percent of males were considered to be vegetarian. Eleven percent of females were vegetarians for less than five years, compared to 2 percent of females who were vegetarians for more than five years. Approximately 3 percent of males were vegetarian for less than five years; none were vegetarians for longer than five years.
Reasons for becoming vegetarian included animal welfare, weight loss, and meat aversion. Vegetarians tended to deny that eating meat was acceptable, agree meat production was bad, disagree meat-eating is difficult to avoid, and dismiss pro-meat influences. In contrast, reasons for not becoming vegetarian included an enjoyment of consuming meat, pressure by others to eat meat, and health reasons. More than half of both male and female participants cited that they expected social support for vegetarian practices from their mothers and best female friends. Less support could be expected from fathers, eldest brothers, and other relatives and neighbors.
It is apparent from these studies that the return to an omnivorous diet occurs within three years of starting a vegetarian diet among those who missed eating meat, lacked social support, or held misconceptions of vegetarian diets as labor intensive and nutrient inadequate. Reasons for initiating a vegetarian diet were more diverse, ranging from health-related reasons to strong values toward animal welfare to a negative view of meat. Although it is unclear how much these factors play a role in the retention of vegetarian diets, the view of meat by vegetarians will be explored next.
A few studies investigate the negative view vegetarians appear to have about meat’s healthiness. Lea and Worsley (2002) specifically sought to determine the factors that predict negative beliefs about the healthiness of meat among South Australians. Respondents classified themselves in one of three groups: non-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, and vegetarian. These categories were not defined, which could potentially pose a problem. However, of 601 non-vegetarians and 106 vegetarians and semi-vegetarians, significantly more vegetarians agreed ‘meat is unhealthy’ expressed in four statements—meat causes heart disease, meat causes cancer, red meat such as beef or lamb is fattening, and meat such as beef and lamb is unhealthy to eat—compared to semi-vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Additionally, among all respondents, those who believed that meat is unhealthy were most likely to perceive benefits of vegetarianism. These benefits included not only improved health but also improved animal welfare and environmental, religious, and spiritual benefits.
For non-vegetarians, those who believed meat is unhealthy were most likely to express social concerns about vegetarianism. Many non-vegetarian respondents believed they would be stereotyped negatively. The study authors suggest that non-vegetarians who believe eating meat is unhealthy may justify their meat-eating behavior by pointing to social concerns about vegetarianism. For semi-vegetarians, those with the highest income were the least likely to believe that meat is unhealthy, while more highly educated vegetarians were least likely to believe that meat poses health risks. This may be because as educational level (and possibly income) increases, individuals are less likely to agree that meat causes cancer or that any amount of meat consumption is unhealthy. It is also possible that vegetarians and semi-vegetarians have additional reasons for their dietary behaviors other than the perception of ‘meat is unhealthy.’ Furthermore, perhaps the failure to define the terms ‘semi-vegetarian’ and ‘vegetarian’ led to the misidentification of some participants and, in turn, affected this study’s results.
In a study of British teenage girls, attitudes toward meat were determined by a 30-minute semi-structured interview (Kenyon and Barker, 1998). Questions were generally written to provoke answers describing meat, meat-eating, or abstinence from meat and allowed interviewees to answer freely. Participants included 30 females between 13 and 19 years of age; 15 participants were non-vegetarians, and 15 participants were vegetarians with an average of five years following a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians tended to use negative terms when describing meat, including ‘bad’ and ‘unhealthy.’ They were also against slaughtering of animals and disliked the texture of meat. Non-vegetarians, on the other hand, tended to use positive terms when describing meat, such as ‘tasty’ and being ‘good for your health.’ Overall, vegetarians’ deep dissatisfaction with killing and eating animals was a common justification for a meatless diet. In addition, meat was portrayed negatively by vegetarians, such as contributing to poor health. In contrast, non-vegetarians were less troubled by meat and its origins and tended to attribute positive terms to meat.
Since vegetarians and non-vegetarians differ in their attitudes toward meat, it is possible that there are additional attitudes and values that distinguish these groups from each other. In the Netherlands, a group of researchers studied the attitudes towards food and health among adults (Hoek, Luning, Stafleu, and de Graaf, 2004). Participants included 63 vegetarians, 39 non-vegetarian consumers of meat substitutes, and 4,313 meat consumers. All participants completed the Dutch National Food Consumption Survey, a food-related lifestyle questionnaire, and a health consciousness questionnaire. Vegetarians and meat substitute consumers tended to have smaller households, higher education levels, and higher socioeconomic statuses and live in more urbanized residential areas compared to meat consumers. In the food-related lifestyle questionnaire, vegetarians tended to agree that product information, specialty shops, health and ecological products, and social relationships were important. Meat substitute consumers, in contrast, agreed that the price-quality relation when buying food was most important to them. Finally, vegetarians showed a higher score in the health consciousness questionnaire for ‘health-occupied,’ compared to meat consumers. Meat substitute consumers did not differ in health-consciousness from meat consumers.
Jabs, Devine, and Sobal (2005) took a population-based approach to exploring dietary intake and habits among vegetarian adults living in British Columbia, Canada. Of the total 1817 participants, approximately 6 percent identified themselves as vegetarian. Vegetarians in this sample tended to be young, single, female, and low-income in status. Furthermore, female vegetarians tended to engage in moderate to strenuous physical activity most days of the week and were less likely to be classified as overweight or obese than others in the study. Both male and female vegetarians were more likely to report ‘maintaining/improving health’ was an important factor when choosing or avoiding foods. Additionally, both male and female vegetarians were more likely than non-vegetarians to report choosing foods for their nutrients and avoiding foods because of their fat content. Taken altogether, self-defined vegetarians not only view meat negatively, but they are also more ‘health-conscious’ than non-vegetarians, as evidenced by their lifestyles and beliefs.
In examining other personality traits, Beck and Glasgow (1981) investigated the psychological and social conditions of food preferences among gourmets and vegetarians. In terms of demographics, groups were comparable in education, residence, gender, and ethnicity. Gourmets sought higher level of arousal of the mind and sensory input. In contrast, vegetarians kept themselves open to experiences and rejected social restrictions. In terms of friendship choices, gourmets tend to associate with people with similar interests, while vegetarians tend to be distinctive from a group, having dissimilar attitudes and beliefs from current friends. Similarly, in the Women Physicians’ Health Study (White, Seymore, and Frank, 1999), female physicians who characterized themselves as ‘very liberal’ were almost twice as likely to be vegetarian as those who characterized themselves as ‘conservative.’ It is clear from these two studies that vegetarians are more liberal and distinctive from their peers than their meat-eating counterparts.
To further distinguish between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, Allen, Wilson, Ng, and Dunne (2000) compared values and beliefs of omnivores and vegetarians as a means of exploring social values of meat. In the first of two studies, 158 participants completed a right-wing authoritarianism scale, social dominance orientation scale, and a vegan-omnivore scale. Results showed that omnivores showed greater right-wing authoritarianism. Right-wing authoritarianism is characterized by the ‘submission to recognize authority and dominance and aggression to persons of lower status.’ However, because the sample of the study consisted predominantly of omnivores, a second study attempted to further validate differences between meat-eaters and vegetarians with a larger vegetarian population. Of 324 omnivores and 54 vegetarians, omnivores valued self-control, responsibility, logic and equity, and social power. Vegans and vegetarians stressed the importance of intellectualism and excitement, love and growth, happiness, and peace, equality, and social justice. In terms of consuming food, omnivores tended to value reputation and practicality, while vegans and vegetarians tended to value expressiveness and affectivity.
Lindeman and Sirelius (2001) also wanted to know whether values were related to food choice ideologies (FCI). FCI reflect personal ideologies, ranging from a normative view to a humanistic view, and researchers investigated whether vegetarians and omnivores support FCIs in different ways. Of 82 adult female participants in Helsinki, 20 percent were omnivores, 24 percent avoided fat or cholesterol, 30 percent were semi-vegetarians, and 25 percent were vegetarians. Fat and cholesterol avoiders supported the health ideology (HI) more than the other three groups combined. Vegetarians endorsed the ecological ideology (EI) more than semi-vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians and fat and cholesterol avoiders endorsed EI more than omnivores. Among both vegetarians and semi-vegetarians, the EI was positively associated with animal ethics, concern for the environment, and world hunger as motives for vegetarianism.
A second study was conducted among another 149 female adults to further analyze these preliminary results. The EI, more typical of vegetarians, consisted of values of universalism, stimulation and self-direction, ecological welfare, political issues, and natural content of foods. EI was also found to be strongly and positively associated with a humanistic view of the world. The HI, more prominent among fat and cholesterol avoiders, indicated a relationship between the values of maintenance and conservation of existing social order. HI was positively associated with the normative view.
From the studies presented here, it’s apparent that vegetarians are distinguishable from non-vegetarians. Short-term vegetarianism (less than three years) was typically due to lack of social support and vegetarian nutrition education. In addition, many short-term vegetarians became vegetarians for health-related reasons only. In comparison, long-term vegetarians have strong values that deter them from meat eating, such as deep dissatisfaction with killing and eating animals. Vegetarians also show personality traits that are different from their omnivore counterparts, including being more health-conscious, being liberal, and having a humanistic view of the world.
However, there are limitations to these studies. In many of the studies, the vegetarian population was often limited and usually included semi-vegetarians. In addition, vegetarianism was usually self-defined, which may have introduced error into these studies. Thus, stricter vegetarians and vegans, with working definitions, may show different or additional personality traits not seen here. Also, a few of the studies examined teenage vegetarianism, which sometimes stems from body image issues. As a result, the teenage vegetarianism studies may not be applicable to the general vegetarian population.
As this is only a preliminary look at the retention of vegetarian diets, further research is certainly warranted. A longitudinal study of vegetarians would be ideal, but research concerning age differences and gender differences among vegetarians would be beneficial. More adult vegetarian studies, including both males and females, would assist in furthering our knowledge of vegetarianism and vegetarians’ motivations.
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