Most vegetarians go back to eating meat—so should you even bother?

By: Rachel

One thing I love about being the author of a book for veg-curious teenagers is what a conversation starter it is. People can almost always relate in some way—most often, either they had a vegetarian moment in high school or college, or their sister or friend did. But one thing I’ve been struck by is how rarely the people I have these conversations with are still vegetarians today. In fact, that observation—that loads of people have vegetarian phases during their teenage years—was part of what inspired me to write The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian.


I wanted to create a book that was welcoming of people from across the vegetarian spectrum, whether they’re testing out Meatless Mondays or going vegan (no animal products whatsoever), and that encouraged readers to find the fit that works best for them. I also wanted to let readers know that they haven’t “failed” if they have a slip up, or even choose to eat meat every once in a while. My opinion is that every step people can take toward a more plant-based diet is a positive one, and I don’t want to alienate readers by pushing them into an extreme that might not be right for them. Let’s call it a “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” approach (er, maple syrup for the vegans!). And that’s why I often use the term “VegHead” rather than vegetarian. Even if you’re just thinking about eating less meat, you’re a VegHead—and I aim to give you the tools and support to shift toward a more plant-based diet at the level and within the time frame that makes sense for your life right now. I want to help readers have a positive experience that they will carry with them and influence how their eating for the rest of their lives, even if they choose to go back to eating meat at some point.


Up until recently, there hasn’t been much great research on the popularity of vegetarianism—since people’s habits are always changing, it’s a particularly hard subject to focus on. So I was super psyched this past week to see a study on “former vegetarians” by the Humane Research Council and Harris Interactive. Their research found that 84% of vegetarians go back to eating meat, most often within the first year. That statistic is the one that made major headlines, and the one that people have been asking me about. “Most people who try to give up meat fail,” said one client. “So why even bother?”


Before we get into why I think you should bother (and why going back to eating meat does not equal failure), here are a few other statistics from the study that are worth considering when we have a conversation about vegetarianism.

·      37% of former vegetarians and vegans are interested in re-adopting the diet.

·      58% of former vegetarians said that health was their main motivation for giving up meat. Current vegetarians were more likely to cite multiple reasons (like animal welfare, not liking meat, health, etc.).

·      63% said they disliked that their diet made them stand out from the crowd.

·      65% of former vegans and vegetarians transitioned to a veg diet over days or weeks. Fewer, but still more than half (53%), of all current vegans and vegetarians transitioned quickly.


Here’s why I don’t think going back to eating meat after attempting to go veg is a failure. Nearly 40% of former vegans and vegetarians would like to go back to a meatless diet. This tells me they took something positive out of the experience of being a vegetarian. Maybe they had more energy, saved money on grocery bills, or felt good about eating a kinder diet with a lower environmental impact. And maybe they discovered some delicious plant-based foods that they continue eating even when they’re no longer veg. What I wonder is, where are they on that spectrum now? Are they eating as much meat as they once were? Or are they eating a more plant-based diet? While it might be technically accurate that that person is no longer vegetarian, how has her relationship with food changed?


The fact that nearly 60% of the former vegetarians surveyed said that health was the main motivation for going veg tells me that going veg has to come from within you. Of course, some people are very motivated by health, and that’s great. But often, when people do something for the health benefits, it’s because they feel like they have to. I applaud you if you take your health seriously. But if you love the taste of meat, you don’t care much about the environment or animals, and cost is no factor, health is going to have to mean a lot for you to really stick with it.


The last two numbers I mentioned helped remind me why I’m so proud of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian and this blog. More than half of all former vegetarians and vegans didn’t like that the diet made them stand out from the crowd. Part of my goal in writing the book and maintaining this blog is to help empower you guys, my readers, and make sure you feel great about your decisions. Plenty of people think it’s great not to eat meat, and in the book we talk about loads of reasons why it can be a super smart decision (more on that below). What’s more, there are loads of other vegetarians out there who can make you feel anything but alone. If you don’t happen to know any in your hometown or school, connect with others on our Facebook page or through our conversations on Twitter, or on the comments at the end of each blog post.


And finally, 65% of former vegetarians went meat free over a matter of days or weeks. Now, for some people that does work. But I’ve found that for most, it helps to take it slow—first introducing more plant-based meals, then dropping red meat altogether, then giving up all meat and possibly keeping fish, and so on. The approach The Smart Girl’s Guide to Going Vegetarian uses in looking at vegetarianism as a spectrum underscores that going veg doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. I’m so glad that we’ve given readers a safe place to experiment and flourish as a plant-based eater.


Now that we’ve cleared all of that up, here’s why you should bother. Every step you take toward a more plant-based diet can be a health-boosting, environment-protecting one (as long as you focus on nutritious, unprocessed, whole foods like veggies, beans, nuts, fruits, whole grains, and so on—being a Skittles and Diet Dr. Pepper vegetarian doesn’t cut it!). If you feel strongly about animal welfare and the environment, going meat-free is an opportunity to vote with your dollar by ending your financial support of companies whose policies and practices you may not agree with. And don’t forget, plant-powered food tastes great, and can be cheaper than animal products. But it’s not black or white. Every step counts, and makes a difference. So yes. Take just one. Take two and then take one back. Play around with your comfort zone. You’re not a former anything. You’re just a VIP (Vegetarian-In-Progress).


Now that the Humane Resource Council has uncovered all of this great information on former vegetarians, I’m curious to see a study that looks at vegetarianism as a spectrum. Let’s start our own research here! Are you a current, former, or sometimes vegetarian? Vegetarian-in-Training? Vegetarian-in-Progress? What’s your motivation? And what about those who used to be vegetarians, but now eat meat every once in a while? Do you consider yourself a “former vegetarian”?