Vegetarianism has become more and more popular in recent years. But, why are so many people making the switch and avoiding burgers, chicken, and pork? If you asked a long-time vegetarian why they originally adopted such a lifestyle, the most common answers you’ll hear would be related to concern for the environment and climate change, animal rights, or just looking after one’s health.
What about non-vegetarians, though? Researchers from the University of California, Davis set out to uncover what motivates most meat-eaters to put the steak knife down. Somewhat surprisingly, they found that individual health is by far the main motivator for people to try out a vegetarian lifestyle.
A stereotype has emerged over the past ten years or so of vegetarians and vegans being particularly judgmental of carnivores, but these findings don’t back up that depiction. Reasons connected to animal rights or the environment weren’t nearly as common among surveyed study participants.
In all, 8,000 people were surveyed for this research across both the United States and Holland. Various age groups and ethnicities were represented as well.
Of course, these results shouldn’t be totally shocking. There are tons of recent studies that have linked meat consumption, particularly red meat, to an increased risk of many health problems. Cardiovascular issues, like a predisposition towards a heart attack or stroke, are especially connected to meat-eating.
So, most people switch to vegetarianism for their health. Okay, but what keeps people committed to these diets? Here’s where the study starts to become a paradox.
While more people try out being vegetarian for their health, those who are motivated by ethical reasons (animals, climate change) tend to be much more committed to a vegetarian diet. Just like any other diet, it seems many people just can’t resist the occasional cheeseburger or chicken parm hero.
“The most common reason people say they would consider being vegetarian has to do with health … However, people driven primarily by health motives may be least likely to respond to vegetarian advocacy, in general,” says study co-author Christopher J. Hopwood, professor of psychology, in a university release.
Professor Hopwood goes on to ponder what these findings mean for vegetarian advocacy groups and advertising campaigns. Should they be emphasizing the health benefits of avoiding meat, or focusing more on the good it will do for the planet and animals? A health-minded campaign may encourage more people to try vegetarianism, but messaging centered on the ethics of the movement will likely result in more life-long vegetarians.
The study’s authors suggest a combination of campaigns that target different beliefs among different people. The surveys also noted that most people who cited health as their primary reason associated going vegetarian as a way to achieve a more conventionally attractive body. Conversely, those who went vegetarian due to their beliefs were observed to be more artistic, open to new experiences, curious, and likely to volunteer for causes close to their heart. With these findings in mind, vegetarian advocacy groups may want to advertise health benefits at gyms, while emphasizing the ethical benefits of vegetarianism at concerts or museums.
The same idea can be applied to online awareness measures as well; fitness messaging for people who showed an interest in exercise and ethics-based campaigns for people who showed an interest in the arts, stopping climate change, etc.
These findings just go to show that it’s never a good idea to lump an entire group of people together and assume they all think alike. It’s clear that vegetarians vary in their personal beliefs and reasons for avoiding meat.
The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.