Veering towards Veganism: Reflection of a PhD Researcher

Katherine Jones

My name is Katherine – secret food enthusiast, not-so-secret eco-warrior-wannabe, and ultimately, a dedicated Post-Graduate Researcher here at Edge Hill University!

My passion for learning has always been evident, however, it was particularly ignited in 2018 when I transitioned to a vegan diet to support and maintain my health. Like many others before me, I took the pledge with “Veganuary”, and successfully maintained my vegan food practices consistently and completely for a full two years. Now, let us be honest – you and I both know that changing habitual behaviour and maintaining the new behaviour can be difficult for many, and so although I cannot claim that I currently pursue vegan dietary practices 100% – my diet is mostly plant-based.

Despite this, I’ll never forget the moment I realised how much energy I felt after strictly consuming a vegan diet for only two full weeks. Curiosity and enthusiasm to learn more about plant-based and vegan diets in an academic manner led me to commencing a PhD in Health at Edge Hill University in January 2021.

Since beginning my literature review, my eyes have truly been opened to some of the many motives for transitioning to a vegan diet, including ethics, health, and the environment. Learning about these motives gave me a whole new appreciation for those engaging with veganism for reasons different to my own. Yet unsurprisingly, the more I read, the more potential barriers and facilitators surfaced, including the likes of stigma, social norms, healthcare support, food availability, accessibility, and affordability. Furthermore, it’s stated that vegan diets are supported by the British Dietetic Association, NHS, and World Health Organisation for their implementation across the human lifespan, providing they are nutritionally balanced… but are people consuming nutritionally balanced vegan diets? Do these potential barriers and facilitators influence nutritional intake? I felt inundated with questions.

Prior to my deeper reading, my original proposal focused on transitions to vegan diets, inclusive of barriers and facilitators. It has since evolved with a specific focus on families within the UK, including children, an area which is undiscovered and yet to be developed more in academic literature. Whilst acknowledging that my primary question is to explore the factors that affect families and their transitions towards vegan diets, I cannot help but wonder what their diets are like… and whether there is scope to gain an insight within my project. Consequently, I have developed a mixed method embedded design, comprised of two stages to explore this topic further.

Utilising the Behaviour Change Wheel to inform my methodology, stage one will collect qualitative data through semi-structured interviews with individual family members. They will be conducted electronically via telephone and video calls to explore family dynamics, food practices and experiences of transitioning to vegan diets. Stage two will be conducted using estimated food diaries to assess nutrient intake, foods and food groups between adults and children and dietary reference values. Whilst I certainly will not be able to draw conclusions and generalise findings about vegan dietary consumers in the UK, I do hope to find trends and themes associated between the data collected in stage one and stage two, which will hopefully enrich the overall analysis of data collected during the study.

Speaking of data analysis, if I want to really increase the reliability of my research, I’m going to need to include some reflexivity. Naturally, with a passion for the subject area that I’m researching, the pre-existing knowledge I have on veganism and my own personal experiences of transitioning to a vegan diet, I’m bound to have researcher biases. However, being aware of such bias and utilising reflexivity to mitigate its impact on the research project, especially during collection and analysis, I feel like I am at an advantage point.

As stated earlier, when I transitioned to a vegan diet, I did so for my health. After a decade of difficult and painful experiences of hospital investigations, conversations, and never finding a cause or receiving a diagnosis, I went down the self-help route. By improving my diet with an increased array of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and reducing animal-based foods, I wanted to try to boost my immune system to give my body the best fighting chance it could, to be as healthy as possible.   

When I transitioned, I did not live with any family members, yet they were quick to subject me to stigma for my dietary choices. My family members were not the only people who did not support me with my dietary choices, as healthcare practitioners were also quick to suggest I was partaking in a “dangerous diet”. Despite the challenges I faced, I successfully transitioned and maintained my dietary choices for 2 years, which I still believe was mostly due to my original motive.

By reflecting on my experiences, I will be able to relate with many of my participants, have non-judgemental follow up questions and discussions about their responses and build rapport with them to enhance the data that follows. However, my circumstances are very different to my sample, as I am researching families within the same household, and also the broader literature suggests that only a minority of people transition for primarily health reasons.

Although I have knowledge of familial contexts due to a BSc in Child Health and Wellbeing, I have no pre-existing knowledge on families and their transitions to vegan diets. As a result, I will be able to enjoy being led by the data unfolding, both collecting and analysing the data without having lots of pre-dispositions of what could be expected. This is further highlighted by so many different factors that could influence one’s dietary transition that contrast my own experiences, such as various motives, barriers, facilitators, including the characteristics located on the Behaviour Change Wheel.

I really am so excited to commence my research project… who knows what I will discover during the data analysis stage (let us hope it’s as good as the vegan nut roast recipe I came across last Christmas!).

Not only am I new to my PhD project as a Post-Graduate Researcher – but I’m also new to blogging – and so if you have any answers, or even questions about this topic – please feel free to drop me an e-mail on [email protected] as I’d thoroughly love to hear from you and your thoughts!

Until our next blog post, take care, stay safe and live to learn!


Post-Graduate Researcher at Edge Hill University

On behalf of the Centre for Human-Animal Studies (CfHAS)