Vegan and vegetarian “defector” stories are regularly headlined in cyberspace, with some born again meat-eaters recounting horror stories of near death experiences blamed on their vegan diet. There are even support groups geared at providing ‘victimized’ vegans with help and counseling on their journey back to the healthy and blissful life of eating animals.
Bloggers like Tanya, an alleged vegan for 3.5 years, claim to be “debunking myths” about veganism and exposing its hidden health risks. Tanya and others like her who have had even less experience with veganism are nonetheless attacking doctors and researchers who have devoted their life’s work to demonstrating the benefits of a plant-based diet.
So why do vegans and vegetarians defect? That is the subject of an ongoing research project of Jaime Hecht, a sociologist and Outreach Coordinator at A Well-Fed World. Interestingly enough, health problems are not a primary contributing factor to vegan recidivism. Hecht has been publishing the findings of her research and interviews with vegan defectors on the Faunalytics’ website. Her latest report focuses on the following top 6 reasons for vegan / vegetarian defection:
1. Family Relationships / Compromise
Dynamics within family and spousal relationships are areas of negotiation and compromise regarding food choice. We especially see the home as a place in which there are several different tastes and preferences. Many individuals claimed that when they began a relationship with a new partner who held differing beliefs regarding food, the relationship proved detrimental to their current belief system. Participants would often compromise when eating with family as a way to “not cause trouble.” Many recall feeling the pressure to be polite and go with the flow. Within most family structures, compromise on tastes is frequent and used as a way to build cohesiveness within the unit.
2. Personal Identity Issues
The vegetarian identity is complex as it competes with other roles in one’s life, including personal (wife, daughter), culturally assigned (Puerto Rican, Baptist) and even religious / spiritual identities.
3. Gender Roles
Food and gender are deeply interconnected. Many female defectors caved into the tastes and wants of their partners and children over their own. Many of the women in Hecht’s study struggled with catering to their families even with their own personal distaste for meat. For male vegans in the studies, social pressures were a big factor as meat is strongly associated with masculinity in many cultures.
Within the vegetarian literature, disputes persist concerning how to approach the ambiguity of the definition of vegetarian or vegan. What exactly constitutes a “vegan” is a source of debate occurring inside classrooms and non-profit meetings both here and abroad. These unclear definitions affected the backsliding tendencies of several of my participants.
5. Peer Influences / Social Networks
Social networks have the ability to provide positive encouragement or act as a substantial barrier to veganism. Studies of dietary change have explored the effects an individual’s social environment has on his/her ability to maintain a change in health habits. The results show a positive relationship between social support and the ability to maintain health changes.
6. Trend Participation
For most of the individuals in Hecht’s study, fish was found to be a particularly difficult meat product from which to abstain. I found fish is not only more easily defined as “not meat,” but it is also attached to issues of social status.