What is veganism and how has it become so mainstream?

What is vegetarian? In the first part of my new Food Behaviour series, I take a look at being vegan and how media trends can affect our minds, as well as our decision making.

For many people, plant-based food is more than just a diet, it is a way of life. By definition, veganism is a way of living in which people try to avoid all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty.

The Botanical Society was first established about 75 years ago, but the first modern-day vegetarian can be identified as Donald Watson. In November of 1944, he and five other non-dairy vegans met to discuss the non-dairy vegan diet and lifestyle.

Settling on the word “vegan,” the group trademarked the term and in Donald Watson’s words, marked the “beginning and end of vegan.”

Since this time, the growth and awareness around veganism and its adoption as a way of life has grown exponentially.

This was heightened by the introduction of vegan – a campaign aimed at getting more people to eat vegan dishes during January – and the Try Vegan campaign in 2014.

What is vegetarian?

Veganware is a non-profit organization that encourages individuals to try a vegan lifestyle throughout January and beyond. During their 2021 campaign, more than 500,000 people pledged to try a plant-based diet.

Since its inception in 2014, vegan has taken a global stature and led a massive change in consumers’ habits. In 2020, 41% of Britons reported actively removing or reducing the amount of meat in their diet.

Furthermore, Vegan has helped introduce 825 new vegan products and menu options in a range of countries including the UK, USA, Germany, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

To put this into perspective, since 2014, the number of vegetarians in the UK has increased dramatically from 150,000 to 600,000 in 2019 and has continued to rise since then.

vegetarian eating behavior

How did the vegan diet become so mainstream?

With the recent growth in vegan plus popular articles, talks and recipes, many people have been fascinated to either learn about or try to go vegan.

In addition to this, many well-known celebrities including Natalie Portman, Ariana Grande, Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres follow vegetarian diets. In addition to promoting them themselves, they also encourage their fans to do so as well across many different platforms.

With the increasing influence of social media in people’s lives, many enjoy trying out the latest trends, products or services due to the novelty it provides.

Why do media trends affect us so much?

When we talk about social media, many of the trends we are exposed to can directly affect how we feel and think about fashion, food and general lifestyle.

Many individuals will feel that if their friends, celebrities they follow, or even family members are involved in veganism, they should get along with those around them.

This is described as The Bandwagon Effect and it is a cognitive bias that affects everyone in some way. It’s one of the many ways group identification can affect us as humans.

vegetarian eating behavior
A sense of belonging is important to people.

This comes from Henri Tajfel’s paper on social identity theory in 1979, in which he suggested that individuals feel the need to associate with a particular type of group.

This definition gives an important source of pride and self-esteem.

If we associate this with vegetarianism, many individuals will conform to the judgments associated with vegetarianism in order to feel part of this group and the wider community, noting this particularly in January.

How does it affect our brains?

When we encounter a new or surprising experience, we will naturally pay attention to the stimulus to determine if it is a threat.

However, research by Dr. Dozel in 2016 also suggests that novelty triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, treating it as a rewarding experience and encouraging us to discover more.

Regarding dopamine, it is a type of neurotransmitter that your body creates to send messages between nerve cells.

Dopamine is responsible for how we feel happy, and thus how we think, plan, focus on learning and increase motivation.

An image of the brain showing dopamine receptors.

Why is dopamine so powerful?

Dopamine gives us a sense of happiness and basically tells our bodies that this is a rewarding experience.

When novelty triggers the release of dopamine in the body, our brain will naturally associate that stimulus with a pleasurable experience. In the case of vegetarians, this will encourage us to explore the topic further and perhaps give it a try.

This in turn creates an evolving process of constantly learning new recipes, ways to live as a vegan, and the choices we have if we follow a vegan diet.

As a result, this can cause regular releases of dopamine, encouraging us to continue with the lifestyle and thus creating the habit of living as a vegetarian.

This article is part of an ongoing series where topics around food, drink, and behavior will be discussed.

If you have any suggestions on topics you would like to read about, please submit your suggestions in the application form below.

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