October 16, 2021

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Vegetarians and non-vegetarians embrace different motives for adopting a plant-based diet

Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians are motivated to adopt (or to consider adopting) a plant-based diet for health reasons. However, vegetarians are more strongly motivated to pursue a plant-based diet for animal rights and environmental reasons than non-vegetarians. These findings come from a study published in the journal Collabra: Psychology.

Interest in plant-based nutrition has been steadily rising in Western culture, likely due to growing concerns about sustainability and the environment. Still, a vegetarian diet remains an unpopular choice — the majority of Westerners are non-vegetarians.

Researcher Christopher J. Hopwood and his team were interested in exploring how the motivations for adopting a plant-based diet might differ among vegetarians and non-vegetarians. They focused on the three major motives for choosing a vegetarian diet: health, the environment, and animal rights.

The study authors distributed a questionnaire among a sample of 251 vegetarians and 431 non-vegetarians with an average age of 31. To assess health, environmental, and animal rights motives for following a vegetarian diet, they had subjects fill out the 15-item Vegetarian Eating Motives Inventory (VEMI) — a new measure that was validated in a previous study led by Hopwood.

First, using several statistical tests, the researchers determined that the VEMI remained an appropriate measure of health, environmental, and animal rights motives among non-vegetarians. Importantly, these test results suggested that the three motives were relevant among both vegetarian and non-vegetarians, that the two groups defined the motives in similar ways, and that scores on the scale could be similarly interpreted among both groups.

Next, it was found that while both groups were equally likely to select health as a reason for following a vegetarian diet (e.g., I want to be healthy), vegetarians were more likely than non-vegetarians to be motivated by environmental (e.g., eating meat is bad for the planet) and animal rights (e.g., I don’t want animals to suffer) reasons.

The researchers then looked at the personality profiles connected to each motive, zeroing in on the types of personalities that felt that health, the environment, or animal rights was a reason for adopting a vegetarian diet. They found that the personality types associated with each motive were similar among vegetarians and non-vegetarians. As Hopwood and his colleagues say, this finding is noteworthy because it suggests that the two groups share similar personality correlates. Therefore, it might be less important to compare the motives of vegetarians and non-vegetarians and more meaningful to look at the variation within these two groups.

For example, it would be interesting to consider to what extent health motivations actually push people to adopt a plant-based diet, given that both vegetarians and non-vegetarians embraced this motive. “Questions remain open as to why many people who acknowledge the health benefits of vegetarian diets continue to eat meat, and why people who become vegetarian for health reasons tend not to stick to the diet…” Hopwood and team discuss.

The authors note that when it comes to advocating for plant-based eating, it might be useful to encourage non-vegetarians to embrace environmental and animal rights motives, given that these two motives were what differentiated vegetarians from those who consumed meat. The authors concluded that the VEMI is a valid tool for exploring the motives behind a vegetarian lifestyle and that future studies should explore this topic among non-Western populations.

The study, “An Investigation of Plant-based Dietary Motives Among Vegetarians and Omnivores”, was authored by Christopher J. Hopwood, Daniel Rosenfeld, Sophia Chen, and Wiebke Bleidorn.