Trying to eat less meat, go vegetarian, or go vegan? Here are 8 tips to make the habit stick.
This year, a record 629,000 people signed up for Veganuary — the challenge to eat vegan during January (pronounced vee-gan-you-airy, in case you need a hand).
Though meat consumption is still on the rise, nearly a quarter of Americans say they are at least cutting back — for their health, animal welfare, or to curb meat production’s acceleration of climate change.
But Veganuary is in the rearview mirror now, and if you’re like many people, much of that excitement for the fresh start of the new year has worn off, and your resolve to stick with your resolutions may be fading — or has evaporated altogether.
There’s no shortage of information on how to begin eating less meat, or go vegetarian or vegan — but there’s not a lot of guidance on how to make it stick. And for most, it doesn’t — a 2014 study conducted by animal advocacy nonprofit Faunalytics found that 84 percent of people who go vegetarian or vegan go back to eating meat.
“That’s a stat that shook a lot of people pretty hard,” Jo Anderson, a psychologist and Faunalytics’ research director, told me.
But a lot of good came out of it as well, because it gave researchers a better picture of reality — and a lot of data on what makes people lapse. Reasons range from boredom with food options, feeling unhealthy, the sense that being a vegetarian made them “stick out in a crowd,” and the belief that it was too difficult to maintain a purely meat-free diet.
But the world has changed a lot since 2014 — plant-based options are much more plentiful, and meat-free eating is more mainstream than ever. The conversation around eating less meat, rather than no meat, has expanded as well, which may help sidestep the “purity” problem some lapsed vegetarians experience.
Researchers’ understanding of what helps people maintain their less-meat or no-meat habits has improved too. In 2019 and 2020, Anderson and her colleagues at Faunalytics conducted a new study, surveying 222 people for six months as they embarked on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
They found that almost three-quarters of participants aiming to go vegetarian or vegan took weeks or months to ease into the diet. A little over half still ate a small amount of animal products after six months. To me, the takeaway here is that practicing patience and accepting imperfection are okay — probably even helpful — in making a less meat-heavy diet work for you. And for the vast majority of us, aiming for less meat, rather than no meat, is more achievable and sustainable.
I spoke with Anderson for Meat/Less, Vox’s 5-part newsletter on how to eat less meat — which includes practical tips to eat more plant-based and food for thought on the impact of our food choices. When it comes to making it stick, Anderson shared eight tips.
Define your why
According to Anderson, having a strong internal motivation is key to adopting a new habit and, more importantly, making it stick.
“Finding something within yourself as to why you’re going vegetarian or reducing — whether that’s for animals or health — and linking it to your identity helps with success in the long term,” Anderson says. External motivations, like trying to please a friend or partner, may be effective in the short term but likely won’t work for the long haul.
“People who are committed tend to succeed,” Anderson said.
This finding came from her new research, which found that more than 90 percent of people who go into their vegetarian or vegan journey with a strong commitment stick with it for at least six months.
Choose a specific, achievable goal, especially if you’re reducing
The boundaries of vegetarianism and veganism are clear, but not so much with “reducetarianism” — simply eating less meat. How much less? Which kinds of meat will you still eat and which won’t you? Will you cut out meat for particular days or meals?
Setting clear boundaries, like “vegan before 6 pm,” “weekday vegetarianism,” or Meatless Monday, and boundaries that are achievable for you, is critical.
“Shaping your goals to match what you can reasonably achieve over a longer term, as opposed to the dream-big, pie-in-the-sky approach, is a lot more likely to succeed,” Anderson told me. “And you can come back in six months or a year and say, ‘I’m doing really well with this, I’m going to go one step further.’ That’s better than trying for something huge and giving up.”
And a big part of determining what’s achievable is thinking about what you want to — or don’t want to — change, at least at this point in time. For example, if you do want to go vegetarian but don’t want to stop eating, say, bacon, then go vegetarian except for bacon.
That might sound odd, but you’ll have nearly the same impact for animals and the environment as a vegetarian, and you’ll probably stick with it longer than if you tried to go completely vegetarian.
Find social support
Whether it means a friend or family member doing it with you, or simply explaining to friends and family members why it’s important to you that they support your choices, harnessing social ties can help new habits stick.
It’s also good to meet other people who care about this issue — you can find them by volunteering for animal welfare or environmental organizations, or looking for a vegetarian group on Meetup. There are also robust online communities, like r/vegetarian and r/veganrecipes on Reddit, and Challenge 22, an organization that facilitates online community for new vegans and gives participants access to dietitians and mentors.
Try a wide range of new foods, and have realistic expectations
Reducing your meat intake or going vegetarian will probably spur you to try a lot of new cuisines and foods, some of which you may love — and some not so much. So be sure to experiment with an open mind.
And experiment with a realistic mind — today’s plant-based meat, egg, and dairy products are better than ever, but they’re not perfect replicas of animal-based foods. For a list of the best meat and dairy alternative products, tips on how to cook tofu and other plant proteins, how to find vegetarian-friendly restaurants in your area, and more, sign up for Vox’s Meat/Less e-course.
Learn the basics of plant-based nutrition
This tip comes from me — according to the American Dietetic Association, well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate, and can contribute to the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. But let’s be clear: Eating plant-based is not going to cure cancer, give you perfectly glowing skin, or make you feel amazing all the time, as some of the more fringe corners of the vegan internet might suggest.
And as Faunalytics found in its 2014 study, some just don’t feel healthy on a vegetarian diet. That might mean a plant-based diet is just not doable for everyone, or it could mean that those people would have benefited from eating more nutritious foods. (After all, potato chips and Oreos are vegan — but that doesn’t make them good for you.)
If you’re going fully vegan, the first question friends and family might ask you is: “Where will you get protein?” Americans are protein-obsessed, with 1 in 7 reportedly following a high-protein, low-carb diet. But there are many plant-based foods high in protein, like beans, tofu, tempeh, peanut butter, plant-based meat products, nuts, and soy milk. Plus, most people far exceed the recommended daily amount of protein.
Unless you’re an Olympic weightlifter, you don’t really need to worry about whether you’re getting enough protein. “On a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get enough protein if you eat an adequate number of calories from a variety of whole foods,” according to Nancy Geib, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Diabetes and Nutrition. And even if you are an Olympic weightlifter, it’s possible to compete at that level as a vegetarian or vegan (and other Olympic sports, too).
If you’re going fully vegan, be mindful to supplement with vitamin B12 and to get enough iron — whether through supplementing with a vitamin and/or eating a lot of iron-rich plant foods, like lentils, beans, soy products, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, and oats.
However, if you’re going vegetarian or just trying to cut back on meat intake, these nutrients will be less of a concern, but it doesn’t hurt to learn more; I recommend this series of vegan nutrition primers from registered dietitian Ginny Messina.
Plan for challenges and setbacks
One small study (200 participants) found that 77 percent of people maintained their New Year’s resolutions for one week, but only 19 percent kept them for two years.
One way to avoid that fate is to plan ahead for challenges and setbacks. Is it going to be your mother-in-law insisting you try her meatloaf that gets you, or perhaps chicken wings at the bar with friends? (Or, maybe these will be your welcomed exceptions.)
“Everyone’s challenges are different,” Anderson says. “Thinking about them in advance and planning for them — what your reaction is going to be at the time — is really useful.” Deciding in advance means your response is planned, so you don’t necessarily have to think of it as failure.
Anderson recommends “quit” apps, like Quitzilla, to reframe your thinking. “You can customize [the app] for any habit you want to break (such as animal product consumption), and — the key part — when you have a setback, there’s a reset button you hit which immediately starts the timer again, so you never have the sense that a failure equals quitting.”
Go easy on yourself
Change is hard. If you have trouble sticking with a plan, guilt won’t help, but modifying your plan could.
Anderson says that if you find yourself feeling guilty, or your inner voice is shaming you for perceived failure, try this reframing technique: “Imagine a rude stranger saying to your best friend or significant other: ‘You’re a failure with no self-control for eating that pepperoni.’ How would you respond if you heard that? Take whatever you would say to that stranger — hopefully a strongly worded defense! — and say it back to your inner voice.”
You’re more than a person with a New Year’s resolution. You’re a reducetarian now.
“Identity is a crucial part of behavior,” Anderson says. “Despite the subtlety of the wording, there’s a world of psychological difference between eating less meat and being a reducetarian. Labels have pros and cons, but thoughtfully applying them to ourselves can help reinforce a behavior we want to maintain, by reminding us that this behavior is not just a one-off but a central piece of who we are now.”
Labels can make us feel better about ourselves, because it “feels good to be part of a group we see as good,” Anderson writes. Of course, there’s a dark side to taking membership of any group too seriously: in-group bias — when we favor people like us, and are prejudiced against those who are less like us.
Vegetarians, environmentalists, and other passionate do-gooders can get a bad rap for in-group bias, so it’s critical to keep that instinct in check and, well, not be a jerk about it.
Want more resources on how to eat plant-based? Sign up for Meat/Less, Vox’s 5-part e-course.