This past May, FCP, through our staff and social media accounts held a vegetarian & vegan one month long challenge to abstain from meat or all animal products for an entire month. From our social media core, 19 people registered and entered the first half, and 13 continued on to the second half. Of the original group, at least three have completely and permanently transitioned to veganism.
There is incontrovertible scientific evidence that balanced vegetarian diets that exclude the consumption of red meats improves life expectancy and reduces premature mortality significantly, as well as ample and growing evidence that plant based diets can provide a further health boost and reduce the risk and severity of a number of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and inflammatory diseases, if not cure them in some cases. There are also significant environmental benefits from reducing the consumption of animal based products including reducing water and carbon usage, reducing the amount of arable land required to feed the human population, and reducing methane output from livestock. Finally the suffering prevented by the cessation of meat consumption is immeasurable, and this is why the goal was deemed worthy of promoting.
The aim of the project was not simply to convert people to become vegan or vegetarian, it was to give people an opportunity to learn how to change themselves.
As someone who has abstained from meat for years, and is passionate about the environment, but especially about animal rights and dignity, this challenge was meant to not only change the way people think about animals and animal products, but their habits and diets: to be more conscious consumers of food and conscious about our automatic habits, and actively thinking human beings, aware of the costs and suffering that goes into the food we eat every day.
The theory of habitual domains explains how we all are focused on our specific areas of thought, our behavior patterns, and the traps, routines and limitations that drive how we act and who we are. This theory, derived from the works of Po-Lung Yu, served as the source for a good amount of the strategy and planning of FCP’s Meat Free May campaign which ended just a couple of weeks ago.
The event, Meat Free May, was our one month challenge for many socially affiliated with the staff of FCP to try to break out of their existing domain, test their limits, and better understand their potential domains including the limits of their physical self-control, behavioral patterns, impulse control, and their own bodies and health. In this process, I too, as a longer-term vegetarian (5+ years), and a shorter term vegan (only a couple of months), had to try to adjust my strategy, my thinking and my rhetoric to try and convince a group of many strong willed people to radically shake up their entire lives and try a new way of living for an entire month. Some of the solutions I came up with were based on my own recent transition to veganism. Some prospective participants were met with ideas about potential health outcomes, some were presented with the environmental benefits, and some concerns about animal welfare. Some were given high pressure, some were given no pressure, and in the end the results can be measured by those who joined, and then those who left changed.
Several of the people who participated experienced self-reported higher levels of energy, some reported better skin, some reported better sleep. As of this point, three are still entirely veganａ even after the completion of the challenge, including some with and some at risk of lifestyle based health problems, and therefore, this can be viewed as a major success. Many others tried and quit early, or went through the month and then returned to eating meat, but each who did expressed that they learned lessons about the fact that changing not only one’s diet, but one’s entire habit structure, as one must as a vegetarian or vegan because of the difficulties of eating outside of the home sometimes, was not nearly as difficult as they had initially anticipated. They, too, expressed that they would likely be willing to try the challenge again in a more extreme form, for longer, and for those who had only been vegetarian, to try a vegan challenge.
A large part of convincing people, not only to participate, but to open their minds to the benefits instead of being fully skeptical meant communicating with their emotional side as well as their logical side. This aspect of the project was based on the works of Jonathan Haidt, who dichotomizes the mind and decision making processes into two, one led by intuition, and one led by reason. Too often, people’s objective experiences are colored by the subjective, as can be seen with any placebo test, and therefore, to really engage with someone it is often crucial that we first engage with their less logical emotional side first, a kind of gatekeeper. Johnathan Haidt describes this in an analogy of an elephant and a rider, with two elements, rational and emotional, not fighting for control, but cooperating to lead the way. In this sense, the job of a recruiter initially is to try to appeal to the emotional side of people, first, before giving them the logical side of the equation because people are so naturally resistant to changing their behavior. Eating, one of the most primal and important parts of our behavior, is no exception. Therefore, my strategy for engaging with different people was also different, and I experienced both successes and failures.
For many, my approach consisted of emotional personal appeals, and for those with whom I engaged recently and frequently with, this often worked. For those more distant though, they often felt little pressure to change their behavior that radically, and this serves as a lesson that personal appeals of course rely on the strength and freshness of the connection on which they rely upon. Another group, though, had circuit patterns of behavior so deep that even with an emotional connection, they could not conceive of breaking down these habits to try. In the future, I would likely try a kind of bargaining in which I minimize the time commitment for some special cases, saying things like try it for two weeks and if you quit early, no pressure. For some of these people, I also often tried to emphasize that I would not be directly supervising them. If they cheated, that was their own business, and the transformation and process mattered more than each individual meal: thus occasional cheating didn’t break the process, it was a self-learning opportunity. Whether this hurt the seriousness of the project I’m not sure, but it certainly helped keep some people on, who otherwise would have dropped out earlier or never participated in the first place. There was a final group that responded to invitations for the challenge with animosity and suspicion, and their social habits were so deeply ingrained and their elephant so tied to the issue of consuming animal products that their response was as if I were asking them to make a sacrifice for my sake, and not for their own. Some of this may have come from the angle that they thought that the challenge was an implicit criticism of their choices and lifestyle, and they therefore were instantly repulsed by the idea. Perhaps in the future, presenting this as adding new foods to their diet as opposed to changing and removing old parts of their comfortable lifestyle may help. Approaching them initially, not with the downsides of meat, but with the positives of increased veg consumption may also be extremely helpful.
Finally, some others were included in the project who were not directly socially affiliated with FCP, and they were made aware of the project though other social connections and through posts made in social media groups. These people engaged with the event on social media, and often participated vibrantly, but their final outcomes, health concerns, and progress are still not clear to me. In the future, keeping a more socially intense cohort may be better for creating the kind of social pressure that is probably needed to sustain such an intensive activity that requires a large degree of personal sacrifice.
In the end, I have some questions, too, about the future of this project, one which will certainly become an annual project for the FCP.
Staff writer: Ari B