I became a vegetarian while still a prepubescent tween – and I had to fight like hell to do so. My parents wouldn’t allow me to go vegetarian, so they’d make me sit at the dinner table until I’d eaten the meat on my plate.
My stubbornness would always win when, 4 hours later, they sent me to bed with the meat untouched.
After fighting so hard just to not eat dead animals, there was no way that I was going to relapse into eating meat. I put up with the slimy foods that my mom prepared for me because this was an era where suburban supermarkets didn’t have vegetarian-friendly foods. Eventually, I got my license and was able to drive to the city where a health food store awaited with its wonders of smoked tofu, seitan, and whole grains.
Because of the struggle I went through to become a healthy vegetarian (and later vegan), it irritated me when vegetarianism suddenly started becoming trendy in the early 2000s. According to Wikipedia, just 1% of US citizens were vegetarian in 1971. By 2000, 2.5% were vegetarians and 4.5% were fish-eating vegetarians. Now, there are about 15 million vegetarians in the US! So many that even Wal-Mart carries veggie crumbles and soy milk!
The fact that vegetarianism has gotten so trendy should excite me. But, instead, it irritates me because the trendiness of vegetarianism undermines the seriousness of my moral convictions not to eat meat!
When you do something because it is trendy, it isn’t likely to last. So, it is no wonder that many vegetarians fail.
Vegetarians vs. Ex-Vegetarians
Depending on which poll you go by, approximately 3.5%-7% of Americans are vegetarians, and about 0.5%-2% are vegans.
I have little faith in these statistics though because they are self-reported. Not surprisingly, many self-proclaimed vegetarians actually eat animal products – like my sister who eats fish yet still calls herself a vegetarian.
When it comes to determining how many of these vegetarians and vegans keep their dietary choices, the numbers are even hazier.
The only information I found about the percentage of failed vegetarians comes from CBS back in 2005. They conducted a survey which found that 75% of people who become vegetarian will eventually return to eating meat. However, the survey only consisted of 77 participants, so hardly can be considered indicative of the vegetarian community as a whole.
According to this same survey, 57% of people go vegetarian because they are concerned about the treatment of animals. Yet, at 35%, the most common reason that people stopped being vegetarian was for health reasons.
“Health” is an Easy Fallback Excuse
I think the health excuse for returning to meat-eating is a sham. It isn’t that hard to be a healthy vegan, so long as you aren’t just eating Soy Dream and granola all day. Of course, there are some people who don’t adapt well to a vegan diet – but the image of the scrawny, pale, and brittle-nailed vegan is exaggerated. These people probably just fall back on the health excuse so that they won’t feel guilty about eating meat again.
When vegetarians go back to eating animals, they normally face a major backlash from the vegetarian community. Just look at the NFL football player Arian Foster as an example. When he told the Houston Chronicle that he sometimes eats meat, veggie bloggers immediately started to scold him for his lack of morality.
Interestingly, we don’t usually scold the general public for eating meat – at least in the same way that we scold ex-vegetarians. This dichotomy used to confuse me. Then I realized it is morally “worse” to be an ex-vegetarian than to never have been a vegetarian at all.
The ex-vegetarians know better yet still choose to eat meat!
Considering the backlash that they get, it is no wonder that ex-vegetarians fall back on the “health” excuse. It is a lot easier to justify doing something you know is morally wrong when you claim that your health was in jeopardy!
How Should We Treat Ex-Vegetarians?
It is easy to point a finger at ex-vegetarians and call them immoral or lazy. But I personally tend to be a bit more forgiving. After all, it is impossible to be 100% cruelty-free, which is why it irritates me that some vegans I know criticize me for eating eggs while they pollute the world with their digital gadgets.
I don’t have an answer to the question of how we should treat ex-vegetarians and ex-vegans, but guilt tripping them doesn’t seem like the right course of action. As Winograd at All American Vegan says,
“How do such individuals overcome the guilt of knowing they are engaging in admitted unethical behavior which is detrimental to both animals and the environment, without also admitting to being unethical themselves? They rationalize.”
If you put a guilt trip on the ex-vegetarians, they will probably react by finding ways to rationalize their behavior – thus pushing them further into the world of flesh eating.
Maybe it is time for vegetarians and vegans to stop criticizing others for not living up to their own personal moral line (some vegans choose to eat honey – and others choose to live as hermits in the forest – who is morally superior?). Showing some compassion to ex-vegetarians and helping them overcome their problems is a much better way of advocating vegetarianism than criticism!