Becoming a Vegetarian

By Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA — Apr 09, 2021
Like a number of our friends, my wife and I are switching to a more plant-based diet but still find a steak or fish a good occasional choice. That got us to talking about why some people choose to restrict their diet. In looking for an answer I ran across a plausible explanation, that generalizes to other issues.
Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

A bit of background - Why do some people choose to be vegetarians?

There appear to be two polar positions for health or because of an ethical imperative overexploiting and killing animals. Vegans make up the latter group and do not consume dairy products and eggs, or wear or use products made from animals, think leather, not just fur. Of course, there are many people in-between those poles whose reasons include health and a smattering of ethical concerns – think free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, or sustainably caught fish, the Whole Foods crowd. 

The study sought to understand the role of “moralization” in the transformation from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan. Moralization is a process where our preferences become our values. In the case of our diet, when I prefer plants becomes I will not eat meat. The authors point out that values, the result of moralization, are in many ways far stronger than preference. 

  • Values are more long-lasting than preferences.
  • Values are more central to our identity; they are internalized. 
  • Violating our values provokes “moral emotions,” in the case of food, disgust, and anger, contempt, or shame. We tend to dislike objects or processes that do not align with our morality and create a “cognitive dissonance” – the term used to describe that anger or contempt. 
  • Values are more likely to be transmitted within family environments
  • Values are “subject to institutional and legal support.”

The Study

The researchers wanted to explore the differences between those choosing vegetarianism for health or moral reasons to get a better handle on the process of “moralization.” It was a small study, 104 “meat-avoiding” individuals, and not particularly reflective of “society,” two-thirds female, age 26, predominantly white with a 10% sprinkling of Asian. They answered a questionnaire covering twenty of their attitudes towards eating. Those attitudes included moral, ecological, health, taste, economic, and personal. In addition to the usual demographics, the research also asked questions about their sensory experience of meat; was it enjoyable or disgusting.

Amongst those who agreed or strongly agreed with “resisting” eating meat, 76% felt it was unhealthy, and 70% felt it was not sustainable, an ecologic argument. Roughly two-thirds expressed moral objections to the pain, suffering, and killing of animals associated with eating meat. Except for the sustainability argument, these were also the major reasons for initially making the vegetarian or vegan choice. The research then honed in on the two polar groups, which had initially voiced primarily a health or moral argument to explain their decision. 

“Moral-origin” as opposed to “health-origin” vegetarians 

  • Rejected a wider range of animal products
  • Demonstrated greater disgust, a more emotional and powerful response compared to, say, dislike. 
  • Associated meat-eating with animal-like personality changes, e.g., more aggressive or violent
  • Found the sensory qualities of meat, taste, texture, smell not significantly different than those health-origin vegetarians.

They conclude that moralization underlies the vegetarian diet for a significant number of individuals. Knowing that the sample was small and not “random,” let us take a leap and generalize their findings.

Moralization and other health issues

Consider first, smoking. It has gone from primarily a health-driven issue, with the release of the Surgeon Generals’ 1964 report on smoking, to an issue with moral overtones. More specifically, how smoking harms others through second-hand smoke or excessive societal costs for care are both moral issues. We also see greater disgust towards cigarettes, “it is a filthy habit.” Finally, now that smoking has a moral component, we can and have established a range of regulations and institutions to combat the menace. The University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education is an example of institutions focused on smoking. The 44% or more tax on a pack of cigarettes exemplifies one form of regulation, but age and location restrictions also exist.

Now, let’s consider a more contemporaneous health choice, wearing masks. I am not putting forward numbers because I don’t have them. But if you look at our behavior, I believe you will see echoes of moralization. 

Those that insist on masking frequently embrace other preventative measures like social distancing and staying in their pandemic pods. Some of them have become mask “vigilantes,” yelling at people in stores, expressing disgust or disdain for these other individuals' behavior. Some have been adamant about the enforcement of lockdowns. 

Those who insist on their “right” not to wear a mask display the same moral outrage as those that insist on their “right” not to be exposed to second-hand smoke, although their party affiliations may differ. The non-maskers also resist the guidance over social distancing. Some are vigilante-like “active resisters,” the gym owners repeatedly arrested for opening their business. Or individuals expressing their disgust with those wearing masks by yelling at them. They include those that see Governor DeSantis as a champion.

There is a strong public health argument to be made for wearing masks and social distancing, just as there is a strong argument in favor of the health benefits of a “plant-based” diet. Many of us come to our decisions on both of these choices based upon health and moral considerations. But those that choose based primarily on a moral justification seem to be more strident in their views. They are also the ones that appear more in our media; after all, screaming, vehemently expressing disgust and anger gets your attention.

Source: Moralization and Becoming a Vegetarian Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1997.tb00685.x


Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA

Director of Medicine

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, M.D., MBA, FACS is Director of Medicine at the American Council on Science and Health. He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon.

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