Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Motivation and vegetarianism

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Motivation and vegetarianism:
What motivates vegetarianism?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Imagine seeing a cow being slaughtered on TV. Perhaps it seems inhumane and suddenly you don't really feel like eating that big steak you bought for dinner.

Imagine reading in the paper about the conditions for hens in a battery farm. Perhaps it disgusts you and you feel like never buying these eggs again.

Imagine someone close to you is diagnosed with heart disease. Perhaps you begin to wonder more than ever about your own susceptibility to chronic illnesses and whether you can reduce the risk by changing your diet.

Imagine that during an extreme weather event, you start learning more about how cows are contributing to destruction of the ozone layer, their hooves are causing erosion, and that more grain is fed to cows and used in fuel production, than is fed to people.

What impact does all of this have on you?

Many people are choosing to give up eating meat for these very reasons.[factual?] In fact, the practice of vegetarianism is steadily increasing worldwide.[factual?] So why are people choosing to forgo eating meat? Does it make them happier? Are they healthier? What are the underlying motivations that drive people to make such a significant lifestyle change? Motivation research can aid our understanding by providing theoretical models which can explain behaviour. In this chapter, we will explore three theoretical models which offer insights as to peoples motivations to become vegetarian for either health or ethical reasons.

What is vegetarianism?[edit | edit source]

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Vegetarianism is by no means a new phenomenon, however it is gaining in popularity in contemporary society.[factual?] Defined as the practise of, and belief in, obtaining food purely from the vegetable kingdom (Janda & Trocchia, 2001), a growing number of people in many demographics are becoming vegetarian.[factual?]

Reasons for doing so are varied.[grammar?] Historically, vegetarianism was practiced for religious reasons, tradition or purity (Ruby, 2011). While some of these reasons are still relevant today, more recently, people report their motivations for abstaining from consuming meat are more for health or ethical reasons (Fox & Ward, 2007). In addition, many people who don't label themselves as vegetarian are restricting their intake of meat, and incorporating more vegetarian-based meals into their diet (Janda & Trocchia, 2001).

Various levels of vegetarianism exist, which range from the strictest - Veganism, through to those who choose to not eat red meat, and consume only chicken, or fish. Descriptions for some of the main categories can be found in Table 1 below, although this list is not definitive as there are many variations. Vegetarians may even create their own definitions or labels, to suit their individual food choices (Fox & Ward, 2008). Some researchers describe vegetarianism on a continuum, with veganism at one end, extending to non-vegetarian meat-limiters at the other (Janda & Trocchia, 2007).

Breads (1)

Table 1.

Some Major Categories of Vegetarianism

Vegan do not consume any animal products for food or clothing, eat only plant based foods
Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian do not consume any meat products, but include dairy products and eggs in their diet
Semi-Vegetarian eat only chicken and plant based foods
Pesco-Vegetarian eat only fish and plant based foods
Vegetarian Oriented limit consumption of meat and increase plant based foods
Fruitarian eat only fruit, nuts, honey and olive oil

Interesting fact

John Harvey Kellogg became a vegetarian in 1866 at age 14, and later qualified as a medical doctor. A devout Seventh-day Adventist, he preached the perils of eating meat, which he claimed putrefied in the intestine and caused 9/10 of ‘all the ills from which civilized beings suffer’. According to Harvey, these ‘ills’ included moral ailments, as those who suffered the poisons from the rotting flesh would be intoxicated and unable to control themselves. During the 1870’s he ran a famous health institute where he created meat substitutes, including the breakfast cereals we know today. (Whorton, 1994)

Motivations for vegetarianism[edit | edit source]

Most vegetarians report their initial motivation as either health or ethical reasons.[factual?] Obviously there are other categories such as those people following religious guidelines, which is very common in some parts of the world, or those living in poverty who simply can't afford or access meat. For the purposes of this chapter, however, the focus will concentrate on the motivations of those people who freely choose to adopt a vegetarian diet.

The health belief model[edit | edit source]

The Health Belief Model (HBM) was proposed by Rosenstock in 1966 as means of understanding the motivations underlying health behaviour (Lajune & Rasanen, 2004).

The HBM examines how people may perceive a threat to their health, their personal constructs regarding their health, and the likelihood that they will take action to improve it. The HBM is outlined below, with each component providing an example question to aid your understanding of the concept.

Threat perception

  • Susceptibility - ‘What are the chances I will develop a chronic disease if I keep eating steak?
  • Likely severity - ‘If I do develop a chronic disease, what are the chances it kill me?
  • Behavioural evaluation [clarification needed]
  • Barriers - ‘Will it be too difficult to give up bacon?
  • Benefits - ‘I might be more healthy and feel better’.

Rosenstock (1966, as cited in Lajune & Rasanen, 2004) further proposed two more factors in his model. Firstly, cues to action are triggers that may cause someone to act. An example of a cue to action is someone hearing of a relative being diagnosed with heart disease, and deciding to stop eating red meat. The cues in this situation are both external (the relative being diagnosed), and internal (feeling scared about also developing the disease, thinking about the disease being hereditary). The final factor of the HBM, health motivation, describes one's level of concern about his/her health in general (Lajune & Rasanen, 2004).

How can this explain motivation to become vegetarian?[edit | edit source]

Crystal Clear app ktip.svg

The HBM may help us to understand the processes underlying why people choose to give up meat for the sake of their health. While exploring this question, Jabs, Devine and Sobal (1998) found that health vegetarians divided into two groups. Firstly, those who had received a concerning health diagnosis such as high blood pressure or heart disease.[grammar?] This group tended to be older and chose to become vegetarian in response to their diagnosis in an attempt to improve their health. The second group were younger, and still healthy. Their reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet were preventative, aimed at deterring the onset of disease, often after learning a parent or spouse had been diagnosed with an illness.

If you can imagine the HBM as a series of competing factors influencing your behaviour, it is easy to understand how an older person who has been diagnosed with an illness would perceive the threat to their health as very high. Similarly, any barriers they may have experienced (too hard, can't cook vegetarian food) would pale in comparison to the benefits of adopting a healthy diet, so their behavioural evaluation would shift markedly in favour of changing their behaviour. A negative health diagnosis is a less than subtle 'cue to action' and would trigger a response which may be moderated by the persons health motivations.

For the younger, preventative group, learning that a parent or spouse has been diagnosed with a serious illness would also increase their perception of threat to their health. If their parent is sick, they may be concerned about the heredity of the illness, or in the case of their spouse being sick - the shock of someone in the same age group becoming ill may increase their perception of their own susceptibility. Consequently this increase may begin to outweigh any barriers that were preventing them from changing.

To summarise this section, the HBM describes health behaviour as a balancing act, where one will weigh up the associated benefits and difficulties. Throughout the lifespan, different influences will become more or less important as ones values and beliefs change. The evaluation of the pros and cons may motivate change in health behaviour, if the benefits of change outweigh the barriers.

Is vegetarianism good for you?[edit | edit source]

Acceptance of vegetarians is increasing, no longer considered a radical choice, as evidenced by the proliferation of meat substitute products in supermarkets, and vegetarian options generally available in restaurants. Many people choose to become vegetarian to improve or maintain their health, or to lose weight.[factual?] The majority of people perceive a vegetarian diet to be healthy, and indeed there is much scientific evidence to support this (Fox & Ward, 2008).

Research has found that vegetarians are less likely to develop coronary artery disease, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and several types of cancer (Rajaram & Sabate, 2000). Similarly, they are at a reduced risk of obesity, and have a longer life expectancy (Nutrition Australia, 2011). Studies have shown an association between red meat and cancer, particularly with regards to processed meats such as sausages, salami, bacon and ham (Cancer Council).

Despite the evidence linking vegetarianism to increased health outcomes, it is important to realise the underlying factors that contribute to this. Avoiding meat is one reason why vegetarians have enhanced health, due to the reduction in saturated fats, however it is not the only one. Plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and beans provide essential dietary fiber and nutrients, which equip the body with the means to reduce risk of disease (Rajaram & Sabate, 2000). These foods are not exclusive to vegetarians; rather they are consumed in greater amounts, which may partially account for increased health effects (Rajaram & Sabate, 2000).

Health motivated vegetarians are more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle

It is important to note that optimal nutritional health is reliant on consuming a wide variety of healthy foods, and vegetarians must take care to consume adequate amounts of nutrients that are not so readily available from plant foods. Teenage girls and women of childbearing age in particular, are at risk of developing anemia due to iron-deficiency. Red meat is the best source of iron, although it is available in plant foods such as cereals, legumes and nuts in smaller amounts (Nutrition Australia, 2011). One way to increase the absorption of iron, of particular importance to vegetarians, is to eat or drink something containing vitamin C, such as dark leafy greens or orange juice, with meals (Nutrition Australia, 2011).

Another possible contributor to vegetarians being healthier is the association between their diet and other lifestyle factors. Those people who cite health reasons as their motivation to become a vegetarian, are also far more likely to adopt other healthy behaviours such as not smoking, exercising regularly and not abusing drugs or alcohol (Rajaram & Sabate, 2000).

Interesting fact

Researchers exploring the difference in health outcomes between vegetarians and omnivores have studied the two groups in a conveniently divided natural setting. Seventh-day Adventists are advised not to eat meat, although it is not compulsory to comply with these guidelines. This means that Seventh-day Adventists divide neatly into either one of these groups. The findings support previous research, as the vegetarian group had less risk of developing cancer, diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. This may not be solely due to the elimination of meat from their diet, however, and more research needs to be done to provide greater insight (Nutrition Australia, 2011).

Test your health knowledge



Which vitamin assists the body to absorb iron?


Are health motivated vegetarians more or less likely to smoke?


True or false? Vegetarians can be at risk of developing anemia due to iron deficiency.


True or false? The only reason vegetarians enjoy improved health is because they don't eat meat.


True or false? Eating too much processed meat can lead to developing cancer.

Ethical motivations[edit | edit source]

-Ellen DeGeneres

Animal welfare[edit | edit source]

Aside from health, moral reasons are commonly reported as the motivation for adopting a vegetarian diet.[factual?] Animal welfare issues are the predominant ethical consideration, no doubt bolstered by the ease of accessing information in contemporary society. Images of battery hens permanently kept in cramped cages, or the inhumane slaughter of animals for food, are often seen in animal welfare campaigns. People viewing these images begin to make the realisation that by buying cage eggs, or steak, they are supporting this practice.

Researchers investigating their motives have found that ethical vegetarians typically begin by making gradual changes to their diet, eliminating certain meat products systematically (Jabs, Devine & Sobal, 1988). Consistent with previous research, Jabs et al. discovered that ethical vegetarians would begin by excluding red meat from their diet. Once this practise was adjusted to, they would then eliminate chicken, fish, dairy products and eggs, one at a time, while allowing time in between each change to readjust and modify their behaviours. A quote from one of the subjects in the study illustrated this process - "You progress from first picking off the pepperoni and eating the cheese pizza to saying, uh, I can't eat the pizza because it's got pepperoni on it" (as cited in Jabs et al., p. 199).

Awareness of the conditions in which battery hens are kept motivates people to buy free range eggs.

Disgust[edit | edit source]

A small number of ethical vegetarians abruptly cease eating meat, as opposed to the previously described method of reducing intake incrementally.[factual?] In the post-industrial era, it is easy to separate the fact that meat comes from an animal, when it is usually bought prepared and wrapped in plastic (Fessler, Arguello, Mekdara & Macias, 2003). This group usually have a particular moment when a disgust response occurs, for example making the connection between the food on the plate and the animals it came from (Jabs et al., 1998). People in this group are often children or adolescents, and can generally recall the precise moment they experienced the realisation, deciding to become vegetarian instantly. For some, the sight of blood is the catalyst for change, as bloody meat may even disgust some people who actually eat red meat (Fessler et al., 2003). This may partly explain the reason that vegetarians tend to stop eating red meat first.

Disgust may play a larger role than is realised, in motivating vegetarians. The majority of vegetarians tend to be female, and females have been shown to have a greater sensitivity to disgust than males.[factual?]

Environmental sustainability[edit | edit source]

Concern over environmental issues alone, is not commonly an initial motivation for people to become vegetarian.[factual?] Usually, it serves as an additional reason for both ethical and health vegetarians, many of whom embrace the fact that their vegetarian lifestyle helps to reduce the negative environmental impact of growing animals for food.[factual?] Brown and Kasser (2005) found that people who lived a lifestyle of 'voluntary simplicity' by shifting their focus from materialistic ideals (such a owning a big house), and consciously acted in environmentally positive ways (by recycling, riding a bicycle instead of driving a car, adopting vegetarianism etc) reported feeling high levels of self-esteem, and were much happier.

Interesting fact

Many ethical vegetarians report that owning a pet prompted them to stop eating meat, because becoming friends with their pet led to them think more deeply about animals in general.{{fact}}

Cognitive dissonance theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive dissonance theory (CDT) was proposed by Festinger in 1957 as the 'psychological discomfort' experienced when one holds conflicting thoughts, beliefs or emotions simultaneously (as cited in Elliot & Devine, 1994). Cognitive dissonance is a motivational theory as it proposes that a person will act in order to bring his/her cognitions more closely in alignment, thereby reducing the discomfort. The theory is widely influential in the field of psychology, and has generated many subsequent theories seeking to explain the nuances of human behaviour.

CDT provides an excellent explanation as to why people are motivated to change. Consider the example in the overview of this chapter.

After viewing the images of a cow being slaughtered inhumanely, you begin to think about animal rights. You find that you are feeling increasingly uncomfortable because you feel that it is wrong to treat animals in such inhumane ways. You love animals. Animals have feelings too, right? Wait, you eat animals. In fact you have a big juicy steak on the counter to cook for your dinner.

The discomfort you feel increases the more you hear about animals being treated cruelly, or how damaging it is for the environment growing all of these cows to produce food. Gradually this unease you feel leads you to make a decision. You are not going to eat red meat anymore. It won't be that difficult, and you will feel like you are doing the right thing.

This is an example of cognitive dissonance. Holding conflicting values will eventually drive a person to act, in order to decrease the psychological discomfort. The person did this by changing their behaviour (not eating red meat) which then brought their behaviour in alignment with their values, and beliefs about the welfare of animals (Jabs, Devine & Sobal, 1998).

The CDT also can help to explain why vegetarians often eliminate one type of meat at a time. After giving up red meat, the psychological discomfort begins to increase once again as people realise their beliefs extend to all animals, not just cows and sheep. Once again this motivates a person to act, by also removing chicken from their diet, which again alleviates the discomfort. Each step allows for a gradual readjustment of behaviours and lifestyle factors, while acting in a manner more closely aligned with values aids increases feelings of well being.

It is important to note that values and beliefs are not the only driver of human behaviour. Many human values such as environmental protection and welfare of animals are universal (deBoer, Hoogland & Boersema, 2007). Although growing in number, vegetarians are still a minority group, so there are obviously other factors at play which influence our behaviour.

-D.H. Lawrence

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation[edit | edit source]

People who are motivated by unselfish reasons, such as ethical vegetarians, are happier.[factual?]
People who are motivated by self-centred reasons such as image enhancement are unhappier.[factual?]

Intrinsic motivation is about fostering meaningful relationships, becoming involved with one's community and pursuing goals which aid in personal growth (Brown & Kasser, 2005). Vegetarians who are motivated by a genuine desire to protect the environment or to support animal rights, are an excellent example of this. Intrinsic motivation is associated with increased subjective well-being (Brown & Kasser, 2005). Brown and Kasser (2005) found that people who engaged in environmentally responsible behaviours such as recycling, and reducing their use of products known be environmentally harmful, also reported to have much higher levels of well-being. This offers insight as to why those people who become vegetarian for intrinsic reasons, are far more likely to remain vegetarian.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation describes the pursuit of more materialistic goals. The quest for money, fame and enhancing ones image or outward appearance are extrinsically motivated, and research has consistently shown this type of motivation to be associated with lower subjective well-being (Brown & Kasser, 2005). Those people becoming vegetarian to lose weight are an obvious example of extrinsic motivation. The differentiation may not be as clear cut as it seems however. Even people purporting to support animals rights, or the environment may not foster a legitimate personal belief in such things, but rather may be trying to project a superficial image. This category of vegetarians are far more likely to go back to consuming meat, as these extrinsic motivations do not support their well-being.

Self determination theory[edit | edit source]

Self Determination Theory (SDT) is based on the premise that human beings possess innate tendencies to strive to reach their full potential by enhancing their skills and talents, while also behaving responsibly (Ryan & Deci, 2000). While these growth tendencies are inherent in everyone, enhancement is reliant on the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs.

Three basic psychological needs:

  1. Competence - to experience the mastery of personal pursuits
  2. Relatedness - to experience meaningful relationships and connections with others
  3. Autonomy - have personal control over one's life

Deci and Ryan[factual?] propose that if these needs are satisfied, they allow one to thrive, enabling self-motivation and the development of personality. This natural growth drive inherent in all of us, is intrinsic motivation. By exploring the foundations of intrinsic motivation (which as we now know increases self-esteem), it enables us to see why people may be motivated to become ethical vegetarians. The need for competence is satisfied by educating oneself about vegetarianism, nutrition and learning to prepare and cook vegetarian meals. Relatedness needs are satisfied when networking with other vegetarians, sharing ideas and a common purpose. Taking control over food choices in a way that aligns with personal beliefs fulfils the need for autonomy.

Putting it all together[edit | edit source]

It is difficult to separate health and ethical vegetarians completely, as in many cases there is no doubt an amount of overlap in motivations. Parents may decide to become health vegetarians not for their own sake, but in order to ensure they are able to provide for their children (Hoffman, Stallings, Bessinger & Brooks, 2013). Likewise many ethical vegetarians no doubt are motivated by their own health. Regardless of their initial motivation, most vegetarians adopt other reasons over time possibly as a means of cognitive support.[factual?] Vegetarians are generally healthier, happier people, however even non-vegetarians can take advantage of the motivation theory and research and incorporate some of these aspects into our lives.

Take home message

  • You don't need to become a vegetarian to reap the benefits of the knowledge outlined in this chapter!
  • By reducing your intake of red meat, you reduce your risk of many types of diseases including heart disease and colon cancer
  • Increasing your intake of plant based foods greatly improves your health
  • Try to avoid or at least limit processed meats
  • Good health is a result of an overall healthy lifestyle, not just diet
  • Reducing your intake of red meat has positive effects on the environment
  • The knowledge that you are helping the environment increases your feelings of well-being
  • Even small changes can be positive!

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Brown, K. W., & Kasser, T. (2005). Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? the role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74(2), 349-368.

de Boer, J., Hoogland, C. T., & Boersema, J. J. (2007). Towards more sustainable food choices: Value priorities and motivational orientations. Food Quality and Preference, 18(7), 985-996. doi:

Cancer Council, (nd). Meat and cancer. Retrieved November 2, 2013, from

Elliot, A. J., & Devine, P. G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of personality and social psychology 67.3 : 382.

Fessler, D. M. T., Arguello, A. P., Mekdara, J. M., & Macias, R. (2003). Disgust sensitivity and meat consumption: A test of an emotivist account of moral vegetarianism. Appetite, 41(1), 31-41. doi:

Fox, N., & Ward, K. (2008). Health, ethics and environment: A qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite, 50(2–3), 422-429. doi:

Hoffman, S. R., Stallings, S. F., Bessinger, R. C., & Brooks, G. T. (2013). Differences between health and ethical vegetarians. strength of conviction, nutrition knowledge, dietary restriction, and duration of adherence. Appetite, 65(0), 139-144. doi:

Jabs, J., Devine, C. M., & Sobal, J. (1998). Model of the process of adopting vegetarian diets: Health vegetarians and ethical vegetarians. Journal of Nutrition Education, 30(4), 196-202. doi:

Janda, S., & Trocchia, P. J. (2001). Vegetarianism: Toward a greater understanding. Psychology & Marketing, 18(12), 1205-1240. Retrieved from

Lajunen, T., & Räsänen, M. (2004). Can social psychological models be used to promote bicycle helmet use among teenagers? A comparison of the Health Belief Model, Theory of Planned Behavior and the Locus of Control. Journal of safety research, 35(1), 115-123.

Nutrition Australia. (2011). Vegetarian diets. Retrieved November 2, 2013, from

Rajaram, S., & Sabaté, J. (2000). Health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Nutrition, 16(7–8), 531-533. doi:

Ruby, M. B. (2012). Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study. Appetite, 58(1), 141-150. doi:

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Whorton, J. (1994). Historical development of vegetarianism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 59(5), 1103S.