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8 Surprising Psychological Facts About Vegetarians

Vegetarianism affects values, beliefs, and well-being.

Five percent of U.S. citizens are vegetarians and 3 percent are vegans (Reinhart, 2018). Simply put, a vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat. Vegetarianism, though, goes beyond simple dietary choices; it affects many psychological variables such as values, beliefs, and also well-being. A new study published in journal Current Opinion in Food Science (Nezlek & Forestell, 2019a) now highlights several recent psychological findings about being vegetarian. Here are the most interesting findings that researchers found out about the psychological correlates of being vegetarian:

  1. Vegetarians are more pro-social than people who eat meat. They support environmental protection and societal equality to a higher degree than people who eat meat. They also show more opposition to hierarchy, capital punishment, and violence in general than people who eat meat (Ruby, 2012).
  2. Women are more likely to be vegetarians than men (Ruby, 2012).
  3. Vegetarians are less likely to be overweight or obese than people who eat meat (Cramer et al., 2017)
  4. Male vegetarians are more empathic to human suffering than men who eat meat – but there is no difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian females (Preylo & Arikawa, 2008).
  5. Vegetarians are more likely to be liberals and vote for the Democratic party (Nezlek & Forestell, 2019b).
  6. Vegetarians have lower self-esteem, lower psychological adjustment, less meaning in life, and more negative moods than people who eat meat (Nezlek et al., 2018).
  7. Vegetarian men have higher depression scores than men who eat meat (Hibbeln et al. 2018).
  8. Vegetarians have a higher chance to suffer from depression, anxiety and somatoform disorders than people who eat meat (Michalak et al., 2012). However, the results of this study showed that many people started being vegetarian after they got a diagnosis for a mental disorder. Thus, there does not seem to be a causal relationship between being vegetarian and mental health issues. Instead, some people tend to become vegetarian after the developed mental health issues – maybe because they want to live healthier.

At first glance, these results seem to be somewhat counterintuitive. Vegetarians clearly show a stronger pro-social orientation compared to people who eat meat so why do they show decreased psychological well-being? Wouldn’t you expect people that care more about other beings than most also to be happier about themselves than most other people?

Apparently, this is not the case. Nezlek and Forestell (2019a) have an interesting explanation for this somewhat unexpected pattern of findings. They argue that the reduced psychological well-being of vegetarians was not linked to their diet itself, but to their status as a social minority. Social minorities often experience reduced psychological well-being compared to the majority, as they often face discrimination, e.g. if meat-eaters make jokes about vegetarians or worse. Moreover, the authors argue that the prosocial and environmentally consciousness attitude of vegetarians itself might also lead to reduced psychological well-being given the current state of the world, e.g. the climate crisis and ongoing humanitarian crises.

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Cramer H, Kessler CS, Sundberg T, Leach MJ, Schumann D, Adams J, Lauche R. (2017). Characteristics of Americans Choosing Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Health Reasons. J Nutr Educ Behav, 49, 561-567.

Hibbeln JR, Northstone K, Evans J, Golding J. (2018). Vegetarian diets and depressive symptoms among men. J Affect Disord, 225, 13-17.

Michalak J, Zhang XC, Jacobi F. (2012). Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 9, 67.

Nezlek JB & Forestell CA (2019a). Vegetarianism as a Social Identity. Current Opinion in Food Science, in press.

Nezlek JB & Forestell CA (2019b) Where the Rubber Meats the Road: Relationships between Vegetarianism and Socio-political Attitudes and Voting Behavior, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 58, 548-559.

Nezlek JB, Forestell CA, Newman DB (2018). Relationships between vegetarian dietary habits and daily well-being. Ecol Food Nutr, 57, 425-438.

Preylo BD & Arikawa H (2008) Comparison of Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians on Pet Attitude and Empathy. Anthrozoös, 21, 387-395.

Ruby MB. (2012). Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study. Appetite, 58, 141-150.

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