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Lapsed Vegetarians or, Return of the Meat-Eaters

by Guy McCardle

October 16, 2011

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Donate If you are anything like me, you love bacon. I’m fixin’ to become a member of the bacon of the month club, that’s how much I love it. If you are nothing like me, you could be a vegetarian. If you are a vegetarian, statistically speaking chances are that you are a woman. You probably stopped eating our four-legged friends for ethical reasons and you’ll probably be a carnivore again in no time.

There is a growing and undeniable trend out there that vegetarians, and even some vegans, are resuming the consumption of animal products. Studies show that ex-vegetarians outnumber current vegetarians by a ratio of three to one, suggesting that 75% of vegetarians lapse. It seems that for most people, vegetarianism is a phase rather than a permanent change in lifestyle. Why?

Hal Herzog, Ph.D. and Morgan Childers wanted to know why. They 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”, said Herzog. Seventy-seven lapsed vegetarians took the survey. The majority who replied were women, their average age was 28 and they had been vegetarians for an average of nine years before they returned to their meat eating ways.

So…what made these people give up meat in the first place? The short answer is: it was a variety of reasons. The most common reasons 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.

What made them return to their omnivorous ways? Reasons fell into one of five categories: health, hassle, cravings, social and ethical. A full thirty-five percent of participants indicated that declining health was the main reason they reverted back to eating flesh. To quote one participant, "I was very weak and sickly. I felt horrible even though I ate a good variety of foods like PETA said to." Another states, "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 an animal as a cow or pig. So I went from no meat to all meat." One particularly blunt fellow said, "I will take a dead cow over anemia any time."

Why did they find vegetarianism to be a hassle? One quarter of the ex-veggies complained that it was difficult to find high quality organic vegetables in their local supermarkets at a reasonable price. Some started to resent the time it took to prepare meatless dishes and others said they simply grew tired of the lifestyle.

One reason given by 15% of the respondents for going back to meat eating was that vegetarianism was taking a toll on their social life. Consider this piece (Animal, Vegetable, Miserable) by Bucknell University philosophy professor and my next- town- over neighbor Dr. Gary Steiner. In it he describes his personal experience with giving up the consumption of animal products. He wrote in regards to his diet, "What were once the most straightforward activities become a constant ordeal."

About one in five of the people involved in the study mentioned above went back to meat eating for what I’ll call irresistible urges. This occurred even among some long-term vegetarians. Participants talked about their cravings and 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 younger college student described his return to meat in mathematical terms: “Starving college student + First night back home with the folks + Fifty or so blazin' buffalo wings waiting in the kitchen = Surrender”.

A few of the respondents had a shift in ethical thinking. Most of them had originally given up eating meat for ethical reasons. However, only two of the ex-vegetarians said changes in their views of the morality of killing animals motivated their decision to resume meat consumption. Most were still concerned with animal protection and the ethical issues associated with eating animals.

Did all of the people involved in the study go back to eating the same amount of meat that they did prior to becoming vegetarians? No, they did not. 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.

I’ve concentrated on just one study here. The results are not meant to be hardcore, slam-dunk scientific proof that all vegetarians will once day come crawling back to meat. Several sources, however, have noticed this behavior as a trend. For most people, the draw of meat is primal and very powerful. Philosophers like Dr. Steiner correctly warn us against committing "the naturalistic fallacy" - assuming that because a behavior is "natural," it is also ethical. As they say around these parts, “ain’t necessarily so”. Personally, I have no moral issues eating nature’s creatures as long as they are served up warm on a plate with a side of mashed potatoes.

[UPDATE] Here is a listing of the sources I used in writing the above article. In the interest of time I've chosen to forgo proper APA formatting and just list them as links.

Why Do Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat? - Psychology Today

Some vegetarians beat a 'humane' retreat back to meat- MSNBC

Putting meat back on their menu: after being vegetarian for years - even decades - what makes someone go back to eating meat? - CBS

"Most Vegetarians Go Back To Eating Meat", And Other Observations About The Human-Animal Relationship - Newsvine

How and where America eats - CBS News

Moralization and Becoming a Vegetarian - Psychological Science

Why Vegetarians Are Eating Meat - Food and Wine

[22 OCT UPDATE] Motivations For Meat Consumptions Among Ex-Vegetarians - Department of Psychology, Western Carolina University


by Guy McCardle

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