How psychology steers your food choices – and what it’s like to go vegan

How psychology steers your food choices – and what it’s like to go vegan

Browse the menu at your local cafe and you’ll likely find at least one meat-free option on offer. Plant-based food diets are on the rise in Australia, with an increasing number of people choosing veganism. Why are we making this choice and how does it affect our sense of identity?

Dr Matt Ruby, lecturer in psychology at La Trobe University, has researched widely on food choice. He shares his insights into the meaning of food, how cultural and societal norms impact what we eat, and why he decided to go vegan.

What’s important about why we choose different foods?

Food is a central part of life. People spend a lot of time thinking about, buying, preparing and eating food, and nowadays, many people also photograph and post it to social media. Beyond the fact that we need to eat in order to sustain ourselves, food is central to social gatherings and celebrations. Imagine celebrating a birthday or wedding without any food being shared, or everyone eating meals on their own. It would be pretty drab.

Increasingly, there is evidence that people consider what they eat – and what they don’t eat – to be an important part of who they are, and that food choice and eating behaviour are rich sources of meaning.

Food connects people with family traditions, their local community, their ethnic group/s, their national identity and, for many people, with their faith community.

From a more applied perspective, if you’re trying to encourage people to make healthier or more sustainable food choices, it’s important to know what’s driving their current decisions, in order to help them make these changes in ways that work for them.

What things influence our decisions about what to eat?

A lot of things influence the decisions we make about what we eat. On a really basic level, food choice is constrained by what foods are available and affordable. But beyond that, people are influenced by a broad array of factors, such as personal tastes, social norms, convenience, and concerns about health, sustainability, and animal welfare.

The move to plant-based diets is driven by a combination of concern for animals, health, and environmental sustainability.

What factors are behind Australians’ shift toward eating less meat and animal products?

I don’t know of any recent work that has specifically looked at why people in Australia are cutting back on meat and other animal products, but research in other (somewhat similar) cultural contexts, such as the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, indicates that this is driven mainly by a combination of concern for animals, health and environmental sustainability. The first two reasons have been around for a long time, but concern about the environmental impact of raising animals for food is relatively recent.

Your research has found that vegetarians are seen as ‘more principled, but less masculine’ than omnivores. You’ve also explored positive impressions of people who consume insectsWhat underpins our perceptions of other people’s food choices, and why do they matter?

In many cultures, there is a belief that ‘you are what you eat’. People routinely make judgements about others’ personalities and character based on what they see them eating. Sometimes, this is really explicit, but other times, people are doing this without even realising it. Whether or not these judgements are accurate, they influence the way that we interact with one another, for better or worse.

How long have you been vegan, and what first prompted you to try it out?

I went vegetarian in 2006, for reasons of health and animal welfare, and went vegan in 2009, after a friend of mine convinced me to watch the documentary Earthlings.

This film was extremely confronting, so much so that I had to take a break halfway through and finish watching the next day. Anyone who is considering watching it should be aware that it’s extremely graphic.

What do you find most challenging about living a vegan lifestyle?

In the early days, I’d say it was missing cheese. The early dairy-free cheeses tasted like waxy cardboard, but there’s thankfully been a lot of innovation in developing much more satisfying alternatives. Nowadays, I’d say my biggest challenge has been finding nutritious and tasty vegan food when travelling. It’s rarely a problem in urban centres, but in regional areas, I find myself packing snacks just in case.

One of the things that surprises me most is how differently people react when they find out I’m vegan. Reactions range from “Wow, that’s amazing!” to “I could never do that, I like ______ too much!” to “But where do you get your protein?” to “Oh great, another fanatic”. I found the last comment particularly surprising, because it happened at a conference on healthy and active lifestyles.

Ready to go vegan? Research a balanced diet and find a good vitamin B12 supplement.

There are many celebrity vegans – from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, to musician Moby and former US Vice President Al Gore. How important are role models for influencing people’s food choices?

Role models have an impact on people’s decision-making and purchasing behaviour, which is why so many brands pay celebrities to endorse their products. I think it’s great to have positive vegan role models from all walks of life to help dispel some of the stereotypes around veganism, and show that not all vegans are angry, malnourished, young, wealthy, etc. That said, some celebrities have treated veganism as a fad, deciding to “go vegan for a month” as a weight loss strategy, which I worry isn’t very productive.

What are some practical strategies that people can adopt in their journey towards veganism? 

Take advantage of the incredible resources online, like vegan starter kits, recipe blogs, and Facebook groups. Do your homework on how to have a balanced vegan diet, and find a good vitamin B12 supplement if you’re not planning to eat a lot of fortified foods. If you have a favourite animal-based food that you think you’re going to miss, do a bit of research, and you’ll probably find a good plant-based alternative.

Finally, what are your top 5 vegan blogs?

I’m fond of of The Vegan Strategist, Smart Vegan Kitchen, and No Meat Athlete. I also like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s website, and Courtney Act has a fun vegan cooking series on YouTube.

To learn more about how food affects who we are, watch the live stream of our Bold Thinking event, Diet and Identity: The Rise of Veganism.

Dr Matthew Ruby

Dr Matthew Ruby is a psychology lecturer at La Trobe University. He is a vegan and has published extensively on the psychology of food choice.