Research Essay

Vegetarianism: Exploring the Primary Motivations for Choosing a Lifestyle Without Meat


You turn on the T.V and you begin watching the commercials. Within a span of only five minutes you have been bombarded by several images of fast food. All of the commercials you see have exaggerated images of juicy cheeseburgers and crispy chicken sandwiches. At no point in the commercial do they recognize a vegetarian option for the viewer. According to an article published by Frank Newport in 2012 on the Gallup website, he states that only “5% of American adults consider themselves to be vegetarians, largely unchanged from the 6% who identified as vegetarians in 1999 and 2001.” When considering why so few individuals are vegetarian, we need to examine the influence that popular media plays as well as the cultural attitudes about vegetarianism. However, amidst the amount of omnivores in the world, there are individuals who choose vegetarianism. In this paper I will be exploring the many reasons why individuals choose to live a vegetarian lifestyle and what motivates them to do so. Although I recognize there may not be one distinct factor that determines why someone would choose to become vegetarian, this is my interpretation of what it means to be vegetarian in a culture which places so much emphasis on eating meat.

            My curiosity about vegetarianism began here at Eastern Michigan University, while I was taking a sociology class. In this large lecture class we discussed many interesting topics, but I will never forget the day we discussed the ethics of eating meat and animal rights. It just so happened that my professor was vegan and he and his wife had lived according to such diet for many years so he was very well knowledgeable in the subject. He warned our class that the materials we would be watching that day would be graphic, but nonetheless I wasn’t prepared for what we actually saw. My professor showed us a video about the unethical treatment of animals, specifically those that Americans consume on a day-to-day basis such as chicken, cattle, and pigs.

            The video took viewers behind the scenes and showed the conditions where animals were kept before they were slaughtered, the process of the animal being killed, and the use of the parts of the animal afterward. Chickens had been fed so many hormones to boost their weight that they couldn’t even stand up. Pigs were crammed together tightly, barely fitting in the cage. The worst was cattle; they were marched off behind each other being slaughtered as if it were nothing. What was shown in the video was horrifying, disturbing, and surreal. I distinctly remember leaving class thinking, “How could I ever eat meat again after what I just saw?”

            Coincidentally, after I left class that day it was dinnertime. At this point there was no way I could eat meat but I had no clue about vegetarianism. I decided to go to whole foods and find something to make for dinner because that was the only place I knew I would be able to find vegetarian dishes. When I first walked in I grabbed fruit and avocados, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough to sustain my appetite for dinner. Next I walked down the frozen aisle and found some vegetarian enchiladas and some “chicken nuggets” which were actually made from mushrooms.

            When I finally prepared the food, it was pretty tasty but after the second day I found myself craving meat really badly. It’s not surprising that I would crave meat considering I am a waitress at a Steakhouse and I am constantly subjected to smelling steak cooking on a grill. After that entire experience I found myself asking many questions. Why do so many Americans eat meat if this is how our food is prepared? Is it because we don’t really know where our food comes from and we have been detached? Why are there significantly more food items which have some kind of meat in them and so few that are strictly vegetarian? What about our culture influences so many people to eat meat?

            In order to better understand the types of vegetarianism I will be discussing in this research paper it is important that I define the various types of vegetarianism that exist. Kerry Walters, a Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College and award-winning author, defines vegetarianism in his book Vegetarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed as the following, “The most common type of vegetarianism is known as ovo-lacto whose practitioners allow themselves eggs and dairy products. Other vegetarians allow themselves eggs but not dairy products; still others eat dairy products but not eggs. Vegans are vegetarians who neither eat eggs nor dairy products.” The definitions are very similar in a book written by Donna Maurer author of Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment?  Maurer is a long time practicing vegetarian and is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Maryland University College. In her book she adds, “Then there are those who call themselves vegetarian even though they occasionally eat meat or seafood.” As you can imagine from the previous definitions, defining vegetarianism is very complicated, just as the reasons for why someone becomes vegetarian are also complicated. Another concept about vegetarianism which is often misinterpreted is it’s history and where it began.

            Contrary to popular belief, vegetarianism has been a part of our history for a very long time.  A book edited by Margaret Puskar-Pasewicz, an independent historian, titled Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism states that vegetarianism began between “599-483 BC, Vegetarianism ideas develop within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India”. Secondly, Puskar-Pasewicz states that between “580-540 BC, Ethical vegetarianism emerges in Greece, most notably through the work of Pythagoras and his followers.” She also makes a very strong statement in the preface of the book to the reader which addresses how many Americans feel about vegetarianism. She writes, “Perhaps the greatest and most harmful misunderstanding that many Americans have about vegetarianism is that it is a new or even distinctly modern invention…it is both inaccurate and naïve to assume that vegetarianism’s recent popularity in the United States is disconnected from the past.” She concludes this statement by explaining that vegetarianism dates back to the 19th century in the United States.

            As I was conducting research online there were several sources that exhibit exactly what Puskar-Pasewicz argues in the preface of her book. Several sources state that vegetarianism only began in America in 1971, with the publication of a book called Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe. With this book he launched the movement of vegetarianism in America. Four years later, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is founded which encourages a vegetarian lifestyle.  Furthermore, the origins of vegetarianism can be very complex depending on the source but it is important for individuals to understand that for most people that practice vegetarianism, it is a lifestyle not just a fad diet. Maurer further drives this idea forward by stating, “For many people, however, being a vegetarian means more than following a set of dietary proscriptions-it is a way of life.” If we can accept that vegetarianism has been around for a large part of our history, and regard the idea as more than a diet but a lifestyle, then we can begin to appreciate an understanding of why individuals choose vegetarianism.

            I recognize that trying to identify one simple reason for why individuals choose vegetarianism is nearly impossible because people have such unique moral and ethical views, but I would like to surface on the main driving forces in this paper and briefly describe what previous research claims might be the reasons. The first article I read regarding vegetarianism is titled, “Model of the Process of Adopting Vegetarian Diets: Health Vegetarians and Ethical Vegetarians” by Jabs, Devine, and Sobal. These authors state that the purpose of their research was “to increase understanding of the complex factors involved in making dietary change and to develop theoretical understanding of the process”. Similar to these authors, I agree that the reasons for which people choose to be vegetarian are indeed very complex but can be based on several factors. Nearly all of the sources that I read regarding vegetarianism stated that the process by which individuals do so was a gradual process. It is fundamentally difficult to absorb a diet without meat when many of us have eaten meat our whole lives. One must first learn how to make substitutions in their diet to sustain the necessary amounts of protein and other vitamins that they would normally obtain from eating meat. They must also identify their personal reasoning behind choosing vegetarianism.

            The results of the research conducted by Jabs, Devine, and Sobal showed that “respondents motives for adopting vegetarian diets differentiated them into health-motivated and ethically-motivated vegetarians”. Of the individuals in their study, only eight said health was the main motive whereas eleven respondents said they chose vegetarianism due to ethical purposes. Another article written by Nick Fox and Katie Ward titled, “Health, ethics and environment: A qualitative study of vegetarian motivations” also explores the motivations for why people choose vegetarianism. Similar to the previous article, the results of their study also found that “among the 33 respondents in this study, 2 distinct initial motivations for vegetarianism have been identified: personal health and animal welfare…only one of our respondents indicated environmentalism as a primary motivation.” I find it significant that in both articles, the researchers narrowed the motivations for becoming vegetarian down to health and ethical reasons. In both articles, ethical reasons were the majority of the reasoning and health reasons were the second purpose. In my opinion, this says a lot about the ethics of the people that choose vegetarianism. In order to be willing to eliminate meat from their diet in a culture that places so much emphasis on food, means that they are in some way knowledgeable about where their food comes from and they have some concern about the mistreatment of animals bred for popular consumption.

            In his book Walters states that “vegetarians generally work hard at making what they consider to be moral dietary choices.” He later quotes Michael Allen Fox when he says, “Above all, it is a path leading to less harm to the planet and more peaceful coexistence with other sentient life-forms.” If people are to choose vegetarianism for ethical purposes they must first be aware that there are issues with the way in which the food we consume is raised and treated before we eat it. Walters later makes the bold statement that “the average American consumer still believes that his hamburger comes from a cow peacefully grazed in green and open meadows, fresh air, and sunshine.” This can be said for any aspect of a culture but I believe it is true that most people don’t want to think about where their food comes from, and would prefer to continue on eating “ideally treated meat”. It is much easier to continue to eat meat if you don’t analyze where it came from and all the work it took to get to your grocery store. The article by Jabs, Devine, and Sobal mentions that for individuals who are vegetarian based on moral reasons did so by “making a connection between the animal-derived food they ate and the animal from which it originated”. By recognizing that the foods which we eat came from a living, breathing, organism people are going back to a time historically where the process by which animals were killed for consumption was on a lesser scale and was inherently more humane.

            As I mentioned previously, there are also individuals that choose to be vegetarian for health reasons. In many cases if people choose to be vegetarian for health purposes, it is because they are experiencing issues with their health and they hope that by changing their diet they will see improvements in overall health. According to Jabs, Devine, and Sobal a person might change their diet “after being diagnosed with a chronic degenerative disease such as cancer or heart disease”. In the same article, they mention how other individuals “adopted a vegetarian diet as a preventative measure against future chronic degenerative diseases, often following the diagnosis of a health problem in a parent or spouse.”

            This is the argument made by many individuals who choose vegetarianism at a younger age. This is also one of the reasons that The American Dietetic Association believes that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate and beneficial. In their opening statement about their position on vegetarianism they write, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” Many people who follow a vegetarian diet for this purpose, have recognized that if they are well knowledged, they can find healthy substitutes that they can incorporate into their diet in place of meat.

            The remainder of vegetarians have been known to adopt the diet because of environmental or religious reasons. However, throughout my research on vegetarianism it seems that these numbers are very few. In Maurer’s book she states, “Although people often associate vegetarianism with religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Seventh Day Adventism, according to one study, 90 percent of vegetarians are not motivated by religion, and vegetarians are much less likely than nonvegetarians to practice a traditional religion.” She continues by saying that although some vegetarians may not consider themselves to be religious, they may perceive themselves as spiritual.

            With regard to vegetarians who cease eating meat for environmental purposes, although there are few, their argument is very similar to the ethical argument. Walter writes, “It’s central claim is that the natural resources damaged by factory farming ought to be valued by us… and that consequently the adoption of a meatless diet… is at least a prudential and perhaps even moral obligation.” It is surprising to me that given the way our food is currently prepared, and how much energy it takes to produce meat on a mass scale that more people wouldn’t choose to be vegetarian on this basis alone. I’m guessing that even far fewer individuals are really aware of the environmental effects of producing meat and this is why less vegetarians identify this as their main motive.

            It is intriguing that none of the articles that I read (which conducted surveys) mention culture as an influence for choosing vegetarianism. This might be due to the fact that how we are affected by culture is much more subliminal and harder to identify. A few years ago, a popular clothing line, Urban Outfitters released t-shirts advocating for vegetarianism. One of the shirts features a picture of a pig holding flowers and smiling next to the statement, “Please don’t eat me…I love you”. Another shirt by the company reads, “V is for VEGETARIAN”. These shirts were released when I was in middle school and I remember thinking at the time that it was a bold move by the company to produce such shirts because it made people stop and think for a second about where their food comes from.

            Not only that, I remember knowing the people at my school who wore the shirts. They were proud to be vegetarian even at a young age. Culturally in America, being vegetarian has been mocked and stereotyped repeateldly. In an article titled, “Vegans and Vegetarians in Pop Culture: ‘You don’t win friends with salad” the blogger John Zukowski writes, “So in movies and on TV, vegetarianism and veganism are largely portrayed as lifestyle choices resulting from oversensitivity, selfish pretention, or just one of the flaky characteristics of the hippie lifestyle… Usually, the most that vegetarian and vegan characters can hope for is a truce to be accepted for who they are. But transformation of other characters to a vegetarian/vegan diet or overtly challenging the meat industry is for the most part impossible.”

            As Zukowski so eloquently states, these are the only types of vegetarians we are shown in the media and therefore we continue this cycle of misrepresentation. Being that the majority of Americans are influenced so heavily by popular culture and famous figures, if there are few famous individuals who are willing to speak up and talk about being vegetarian then there will be less of an influence to become vegetarian. This cycle further continues when popular forms of media such as news channels on T.V., deny the public audience information regarding vegetarianism.

            Another way in which the culture influences vegetarianism is by minimizing it to a “trend”. Maurer quotes Sally Clinton in her book when she says, ”Many parents think vegetarianism is just copy-cat behavior mimicking the actions of the cool kids. But those people tend to drop out of the movement within a year or so. When it’s based on ethics, you stick with it.” By portraying the vegetarian diet as a fad, popular culture discourages people from committing to it as a lifestyle as opposed to a diet. Consumers recognize that trends fade away, they don’t remain popular over time.

            It is especially interesting that among other “anti” campaigns in this country, the anti-meat eating campaign has been so unsuccessful. An article written by Hal Herzog in Psychology Today titled, “Why Are There So Few Vegetarians? Most “vegetarians” eat meat. Huh?” He writes that the reason why so many Americans continue to eat meat is due to propaganda by the meat industry. He states, “About the same time the animal rights movement was gearing up in the 1970s, the anti-tobacco forces were also getting their act together. Since then, the rate of smoking among American adults has dropped from nearly 50% to less than 25%. In contrast, the number of meat eaters has remained stable, hovering around 98%.” Maurer describes the same increase in the amount of meat consumption in her book by saying, “the USDA predicts that overall meat consumption will continue on an upward trend.” However she suggests that this is because unlike other “anti-campaigns”, the call for a meatless diet focuses on the behaviors of individuals as opposed to the masses. I certainly agree that Americans have a harder time making individual adjustments for the greater good when we have been taught to value individualism in this country as opposed to collectivism.

            Another cultural purpose for the lack of vegetarians might be rooted simply in the fact that it is of the minority. In his book Walters states, “Vegetarianism is a minority diet around the world. Because meat-eating is seen as a status symbol in most parts of the world, many people in developing nations whose diets are primarily vegetarian would prefer to eat meat if it was affordable. Even in a nation such as India, where Hinduism and Jainism both discourage meat-eating, no more than a third of the people voluntarily abstain from meat.” In America, we tend to jump on the bandwagon. If everyone else is consuming meat on a daily basis, so will we. It’s harder to be the person who holds a restricted view of eating meat when we are continually bombarded with images of meat in our everyday life.

            Essentially becoming a vegetarian is a paramount decision. It can’t be a choice that you make because others want you to do it. You have to become well informed about the decision and talk to other people who have chosen the same lifestyle for purposes similar to your own. There are several reasons for why individuals choose to become vegetarian, but statistically the most prominent are ethical purposes and health purposes. As I mentioned, a very small percentage of the population is actually vegetarian. This may be due to several factors but it is my opinion that cultural influences are the most powerful. I recognize that people cannot change their opinions about eating meat over night. This is especially true if they are not well informed about alternative options for eating meat. However, I ask that as an American consumer of meat we consider why it is so important to us. If we could invest a little more time revisiting where our food comes from and how much work it takes to get to our plate then we will be less likely to disregard vegetarianism as a whole. Becoming a vegetarian is a gradual process and the more questions we ask in order to understand vegetarianism the better off we will all be. It is only then that we can decide what is best for our consumption as a nation and ourselves individually. In the words of socialist George Bernard Shaw, “Animals are my friends…and I don’t eat my friends.”

Works Cited

 Craig, Winston J., and Ann Reed Mangels. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009.

Fox, Nick,. Ward, Katie. “Health, ethics and environment: A qualitative study

of vegetarian motivations”.  South Yorkshire, England. University of Sheffield. Web. 20 September 2007.

Jabs, Jennifer., Devine, Carol,. Sobal, Jeffery. “Model of the Process of Adopting Vegetarian Diets: Health Vegetarians and Ethical Vegetarians”. Ithaca, New York. Cornell University. Web. 1997.

Povey, R., Wellens, B., Conner, M. “Attitudes towards following meat, vegetarian and vegan diets: an examination of the role of ambivalence”. Staffordshire, England. Staffordshire University. Cardiff, Wales.

Cardiff University. West Yorkshire, England. University of Leeds. Web. 3 May 2001.

Walters, Kerry. Vegetarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Print.

Bluejay, Michael. “A Short History of Vegetarianism: with an emphasis on the U.S from 1970+”. 1998. Web.


Herzog, Hal. “Why Are There So Few Vegetarians? Most “vegetarians” eat meat. Huh?”. Psychology Today. 2011. Web.


Newport, Frank. “In U.S., 5% Consider Themselves Vegetarians”. Gallup Incorporated. 2012. Web.

Zukowski, John A. “Vegans and Vegetarians in Pop Culture: You don’t win friends with salad”. New Vegan Age. 2012. Web.


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