For most people,
vegetarianism is a temporary phase.
June 20, 2011
I am interviewing Staci Giani who is forty-one but looks ten years younger. Raised in the Connecticut suburbs, she now lives with her partner Gregory in a self-sustaining eco-community deep in the mountains twenty minutes north of Old Fort, North Carolina. Staci radiates strength, and when she talks about food, she gets excited and seems to glow. She is Italian-American, attractive, and you want to smile when you talk to her. She tells me that she and Gregory built their own house, even cutting the timber and milling the logs. I think to myself, "This woman could kick my ass."
Staci wasn't always so fit. In her early 30's, Staci's health started going downhill. After twelve years of strict vegetarianism, she began to suffer from anemia and chronic fatigue syndrome, and she experienced stomach pains for two hours after every meal. "I was completely debilitated," she tells me. "Then I changed the way I ate."
"Tell me about your diet now. What did you have for breakfast today?" I ask.
"A half pint of raw beef liver," she says.
* * *
Ok....Staci is a bit extreme in her carnivory -- these days she prefers her meat raw, and she eats a lot of it. But the transformation from hard-core vegetarian to meat-eater that Staci illustrates is surprisingly common. Indeed, according to a 2005 survey by CBS News, three times as many American adults admit to being "ex-vegetarians" than describe themselves as current vegetarians. This suggests that roughly 75% of people who quit eating meat eventually change their minds and return to a diet that includes animal flesh. It seems that for most people, vegetarianism is a phase rather than a permanent change in lifestyle. Why?
Perhaps because I was raised a Southern Baptist, I have always been fascinated by backsliders, so I decided to find out why so many vegetarians eventually give up their all-plant diet. To study the motivations of ex-veggies, Morgan Childers and I set up a website that included a survey related to eating.Then we put out a call for ex-vegetarians through Internet sites devoted to topics like health, nutrition, and the treatment of animals.
Over the next week or so, seventy-seven former vegetarians took our survey. As is true of vegetarians generally, the majority of the participants were women. Their average age was 28, and on average, they had been vegetarian for nine years before for reverting back to eating animals. We asked the participants to indicate the primary reasons they quit eating meat in the first place and why they subsequently decided to give up their all-plant diet. They also had the opportunity to comment at length on the reasons for the changes they had made in their eating habits.
Why Did They Stop Eating Meat In The First Place?
As other researchers have reported about vegetarians, our participants originally quit meat for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons in our study were ethical concerns about the treatment of animals (57%), followed by health and environmental reasons (15% each). Fewer people stopped eating meat because they did not like the taste of animal flesh or because of social pressure from friends, spouses, etc.
Why The Ex-Veggies Resumed Eating Animals
The reasons that the ex-vegetarians gave for reverting to omnivory fell into five categories.
Declining Health. In his book The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson extols the health benefits of an all plant diet. He writes, "Now at 68, several years a vegan, I find I have never been healthier. I weigh less than I did at thirty; I am stronger than when I was forty; I have fewer colds or minor illnesses than at fifty." While Masson may have thrived on a meatless diet, this is not always the case with vegetarians. In fact, thirty-five percent of our participants indicated that declining health was the main reason they reverted back to eating flesh. For example, one wrote, "I was very weak and sickly. I felt horrible even though I ate a good variety of foods like PETA said to." Another wrote, "My doctor recommended that I eat some form of meat as I was not getting any better. I thought it would be hypocritical of me to just eat chicken and fish as they are just as much and animal as a cow or pig. So I went from no meat to all meat." The most succinct response was by a man who wrote, "I will take a dead cow over anemia any time."
Hassles and Social Stigmas. About a quarter of our ex-veggies described the hassles they said were associated with strict vegetarianism. They complained that it was difficult to find high quality organic vegetables in their local supermarkets at a reasonable price. Others began to resent the time it took to prepare meatless dishes, and some said they simply grew tired of the lifestyle.
A related reason for returning to meat consumption, one mentioned by 15% of our subjects, was that vegetarianism was taking a toll on their social life. The degree that vegetarianism and particularly moral veganism can screw up your day to day existence was nicely summed up in a New York Times op ed by the philosopher Gary Steiner titled, appropriately, "Animal, Vegetable, Miserable." In describing his personal experience with giving up the consumption of animal products, he wrote "What were once the most straightforward activities become a constant ordeal."
Irresistible Urges. About one in five of our participants had developed an irresistible urge to taste cooked flesh once more. This occurred even among some long-term vegetarians. Participants talked about their protein cravings or how the smell of sizzling bacon would drive them crazy. One, for example, said "I just felt hungry all the time and that hunger would not be satisfied unless I ate meat." Another described his return to meat in mathmatical terms:
Starving college student + First night back home with the folks + Fifty or so blazin' buffalo wings waiting in the kitchen = Surrender.
Shifts in Moral Thinking. About half of the respondents originally gave up meat for ethical reasons. Yet only two of our ex-vegetarians said changes in their views of the morality of killing animals motivated their decision to resume meat consumption. In fact, most of the former vegetarians were still concerned with animal protection and the ethical issues associated with eating animals. The participants' original reason for giving up meat did affect their level present meat consumption. Individuals who had given up eating meat primarily for social reasons indicated that they ate meat much more frequently than did people who originally became vegetarian for ethical or environmental reasons.*
The Bottom Line
For most people, the draw of meat is powerful -- often irresistible. This is not a justification for slaughtering creatures because they happen to taste good. Philosophers correctly warn against committing "the naturalistic fallacy" - assuming that because a behavior is "natural," it is also ethical. In fact, I believe the case against eating other creatures is strong on moral, environmental, and health grounds. Why then do even most vegetarians eventually cave to the desire to eat animal flesh? Is meat-eating in our genes? I will take this question up in a future PT blog. Stay tuned.
Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the human-meat relationship. Here are the first two:
Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think ...
I'm reading and listening to Herzog now. His thoughts will aggravate vegetarians, but he makes a good case. I listened to a podcast, "The Livin' da vida low carb show with Jimmy Moore" episode 466, (find it on iTunes if you want).
A few notes on what he has to say:
If meat is so disgusting why are there so few vegetarians? Around 90% of animal rights supporters are women. About the same percentage of men are in jail for animal cruelty. Humans are natural meat eaters, like chimps. There is an aesthetic quality to eating meat that you can't get from meat. Meat avoidance leads to many problems. 75% of vegetarians return to eating meat. Vegetarians, especially women, are prone to eating disorders. Impossible to be morally consistent, being an extremist, (vegan), will drive you nuts. Vegetarianism makes it difficult to live in the world.
He backpedals on some statements and tries to clarify that not all will have problems.
Interesting, he almost has me convinced that I'm an idiot for not getting the nutrition I need. Promotes anti-cruelty farming.
Hell, I'm getting a burger, screw this veggie crap.
Make that a cheeseburger!
Doesn't Herman Cain tell you that manly man do not want veggies piled on his pizza? That would be a "sissy pizza!" Listen to the man, he makes lots of sense. A man's best measure of manhood is how much pepperoni and salami he wants on his pizza!
Herzog states they are meat eaters, and that they are good, and at times, brutal hunters.
I agree. Not sure where he is getting his information.
I searched around for some provocative information on Herzog, but came up empty, then again I'm not great at uncovering stuff online.
He doesn't claim to be an animal activist, clearly he still enjoys his meat, that in itself does not predispose me to think well of him ethically. During my search I ran into some youtubes of Peter Singer (my hero) and his much more palatable view on humans using and abusing animals. Vive la Différence!
Even Dawkins voices his opinion on Speciesism:
One of Herzog's comments is that the stop smoking campaign started around the same time as the promotion of vegetarianism. Smoking was cut in half, but the same percentage of people eat meat.
Veganism or vegetarianism failed.
I'm not convinced that the move toward vegetarianism has failed totally. A good friend is an editor in NYC and she told me that vegetarian/vegan cookbooks are the biggest sellers at her publishing house.
I do think that for those who are concerned about the environment, animals, & health there has been a significant movement away from meat. Perhaps not fully becoming veggie, but moving in that direction. The more liberal and progressive the community, the more you'll note that organic, local produce, gluten free, cage-less chickens(eggs), and grass-fed meat are on the rise. Many restaurants in my area offer varied vegetarian & vegan entrees, and will state the local organic farm where they buy their meat. Pretty cool. Y'all need to relocate- haha
The "failed" statement was from Herzog, I do not agree. I find vegetarianism to be more and more widespread.
Yeah, Portland is not a progressive community. They're into double cheeseburgers here. =)
Greasy cheeseburgers here as well... We have all the fast-food joints like anywhere in the good ol' US... Sometimes I stop in for coffee, and note that the customers are either moms with their kids, teens, blue collar workers and old folk. Won't find the professors and general college student population lining up for a 'happy meal'.... Surprisingly McDonald's has decent coffee for less, not 'fair trade' but it I'm not downtown I just make do...
Well, i'm one of these ppl who "used to be" vegetarian, i was seriously into it, for about a decade or so. I was part owner with some pals of a vegetarian restaurant across the street from my college. Painted the window, a mushroom with a tablecloth on it, wine and veggies on top of it, it was so so cute,
it was called, "The Veggie Table"
When i became a mother, for some reason, i felt my growing children "should" eat meat, and there was tons of pressure on me to give my children meat.
this was pre-internet, less info available, and i did begin to feel i was doing wrong to raise vegetarian children. Their doctor, my parents, my inlaws, all my medical coworkers were horrified i didn't give growing children meat, just everyone insisted my kids would not grow and develop properly, B-12 and all that, would have mild brain damage, etc etc. Again, this was in the 70s and 80s.
so we broke down bought our kids meat.
i am still vegetarian, and my kids won't eat the meat.
They always asked why i didn't eat it. Then my hubby began to eat meat again, too, to show the kids it was okay.
eventually, i ended up eating meat. I can still remember that meal....was so odd.
i went full on carnivore then. for many years. I've never eaten a LOT OF meat, but occasional meat, yes.
then i began to wean back to mostly fish, only rarely meat.
then, i began to rethink it all again, and am pretty much off of meat again, but, still occasionally eat some. I still eat fish often, love fish. Can't picture life without fish.
i can't picture life without cheese, BUT when i watch the videos and articles posted around AU, on how the animals are treated,
so i can get some cheese...then i get squeamy and try to stay off of animal products more...
for a while........
but it wears off again if i dont' keep reviewing the animal abuse, i somehow manage to forget that over time....i'm so aware of all the ecology /environmental reasons, health reasons, etc,
but the one that reeeeeeeeally gets me, is the animal abuse involved in even getting some cheese...THAT ONE really gets to me.
i think, how *i* manage to still sometimes eat meat,
is same way ppl still beleive in gods,
or same way ppl still manage to get themselves to vote republican,
i keep myself in a mental bubble, a fact-free zone. that's how it's done, imo.
i do sometimes wonder, though, if i lived alone, (i live with total carnivore who HAS cut back his meat intake somewhat..and we've given up the worst of the meats, like bacon, etc)
if i might turn vegetarian again. He cooks A LOT...and it's usually got meat in it.
Cheese is a biggie for most wanting to go vegan. I either buy my dairy from the local small organic farms around, or buy imported cheeses ONLY. I've read that France won't import US cheese because of our horrific treatment of dairy cows. I do think that Europe has better ethical standards when it comes to farm animals, but it's something I should further research.
And it's true that even though many might know better and actually want to avoid meat, that 'mental bubble' allows them to sidestep their moral convictions. For some reason what we like to eat is set-in-stone, our taste-buds dictate and override our best intentions. I have a neighbor who told me that she'd like to at least cut back her meat consumption, but other than salad and potatoes she does not like vegetables! Or beans! Now that's a dilemma and I've known quite a few people like her.