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Most Die-Hard Vegetarians Are Actually Pretty Wishy-Washy

Vegetarians and vegans have strong ethics and ideals about animal welfare, health, and the environment, but a new study says that most of them end up selling out—and sooner than you think.

by Hilary Pollack
Dec 4 2014, 11:23pm

Chances are decent that at some point in your life, you toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, or maybe even went through with it and forwent Whoppers and barbecue pork buns for a couple of months, or years, or decades. You endured awkward Thanksgivings, glares from diner waitresses, and painful conversations with your uncle who loves recreational hunting. You befriended tofu, made "seitan" puns, and maybe even converted some friends along with the way.

And then, there's an 83 percent chance that you went back to eating meat.

A new study from the Humane Research Council that surveyed nearly 11,400 Americans about their opinions on animal welfare has found that while about 2 percent of adults are current vegetarians, five out of six will eventually revert to an omnivorous diet. As a result, there are five times as many former vegans or vegetarians running around—about 10 percent of the population—than current ones. However, while a staggering 86 percent of vegetarians gave up their meat-free lifestyle, only 70 percent of vegans did.

One aspect of the findings that was interesting was the age demographics of former and current vegetarians. While the stereotype is often of bleeding-heart college students giving veganism a whirl and then throwing in the towel a few years later, the average age at which former vegetarians and vegans first gave herbivorous life a shot was about 34.

More than two-thirds of the formerly meatless are women (69 percent) and the majority were driven by health reasons, rather than an ethical or environmental stance. Less than half stayed on a meat-free diet for more than a year. If you've been vegan or vegetarian for more than 365 days, pat yourself on the back—you're more resolute than the ambivalent majority.

Forty-three percent of failed vegetarians and vegans felt that the all-or-nothing implications of the terms themselves—and the sort of required dietary purity in order to maintain the title—were ultimately contributors in their downfall. Can you still call yourself a vegan if you accidentally eat buttered toast? How about a vegetarian, if you curl up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup mid-flu? For some, the dogmatic approach is just too intimidating.

So why else does everyone suck so badly at keeping a seemingly simple resolution—and one that has a strong basis in better health, a significantly reduced carbon footprint, and a sense of moral reprieve?

I asked Western Carolina University professor of psychology Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals and writer for Psychology Today, for some insight.

"I was surprised that the number was so high," Herzog tells me. "What really surprised me was the number of vegans that went back. One of my students and I did a study where we interviewed, rather than surveyed, ex-vegetarians, and I took a strong interest in why people go back to eating meat."

The most common reason that Herzog's interviewees went back to the beef was due to self-reported health concerns—an issue for about 35 percent of them. But for 25 percent, it was primarily the "hassle factor," as Herzog puts it—"it was harder for them to maintain the diet in terms of getting good-quality food, when going to restaurants and not having any choice."

About one-fifth of subjects had developed meat cravings, and about 15 percent blamed it on "social factors," such as feeling like an awkward loner in group situations or not receiving any support from friends.

An interesting caveat that Herzog noted: "We found, as did the HRC, that very few people had started eating meat because of fundamental changes in their ethics. Only about three percent said, 'Oh, I don't believe that animal rights stuff anymore.'" Instead, Herzog believes that the vast majority of vegan and vegetarian defectors learn to live with their moral inconsistencies rather than truly changing their minds about the issues surrounding meat-eating.

Although he studies (and has penned a book on) human-animal relations, Herzog is not a vegetarian. "I don't struggle with it at all," he explains. "I've made my peace with eating meat. I've thought about it a lot, I've studied and done my own research, and I know the ethical issues." That being said, Herzog won't get into a debate about it with his vegetarian friends. "The reason is that I know I'd lose those arguments … I know enough to know that they would win on every count."

So listen up, defectors: we know that you still feel a hint of remorse about sinking your teeth into that cheeseburger. But we also know that you've learned to ignore it.