Plant-Based Students And What They Tell Us About Denison

By Leah Hansler

Since my first days at Denison, I have tried to forge a place as an advocate and leader of the vegetarian, vegan, and “veg-curious” community here. I have held my spot as the vegetarian representative on the DCGA Dining Committee since my first semester way back in 2014, I have been working as a Sustainability Fellow focused primarily on issues of sustainability in dining since 2014, and I helped found the Vegetarian Education Group (VEG) in 2015. I have had the privilege to meet a lot of Denison’s vegetarians and vegans and have been doing my best to make it easier for everyone who is so inclined to make more plant based choices (with mixed results, as we can all attest). Because of these roles, I am often asked how many vegetarians and vegans there are at Denison. I used to believe that the number increases with each incoming class year, but I have never had the data to give a firm answer — until now!

In February 2018, a 127 survey asked 530 Denison student respondents about their dietary choices and their reasons for maintaining some version of a plant-based lifestyle. Beyond measuring the presence of vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians, and omnivores on campus, we are also interested in students’ primary reasons for maintaining their lifestyles as well as whether the distribution of plant-based eaters differs by class year and gender.

As we would expect, Denisonians are primarily omnivores (444 out of the 530 respondents, or 84%). About 10% of Denisonians are vegetarian, about 3% are vegan, and about 1% are pescetarian. This is well above the US adult population, of which about 3% are vegetarian and about .5% are vegan.[1] Of course, we would probably expect a small liberal arts college that emphasizes sustainability and moral agency to have higher than average rates of vegetarians and vegans. To get a better sense of what the presence of plant-based eaters means for Denison, we can look at students’ primary reasons for maintaining their lifestyles.

Students who responded “vegetarian”, “vegan”, or “pescetarian” to the question about diet were asked to indicate their primary reason for their dietary preference, choosing between environment, health, and ethics. Interestingly, health reasons were the most common primary factor. This perhaps attests to a high level of willpower among Denisonians,[2] as I’ve always thought that people find it more difficult to remain plant-based when viewed as a diet rather than an ethical lifestyle.[3]

Along the lines of what I expected, the health factor was highest for pescetarians, and the ethical factor was highest for vegans. It’s interesting that the environmental factor is noticeably lower for vegans,[4] but as a vegan myself I suspect that it is because most vegans start out as vegetarians first, and thus probably switched to vegan primarily for health or ethical reasons rather than environmental. While this survey did not ask whether students’ primary reasons for going plant-based are the same as their reasons for remaining plant-based, I suspect that most people hold strongly to their initial reasons for making the change.

Examining how plant-based diets vary by class year was sure to prove an interesting peek into the Denison psyche. On one hand I might expect plant based diets to become more common as students progress in their college careers, because they are presumably learning more about social issues and learning to question their predilections more. However, it is also possible that plant-based diets, specifically veganism, decrease because of the limited dining options available.

Overall, plant-based diets increase from first (~10%) to senior year (18%). Each individual dietary choice mirrors that pattern. We see a progressively and relatively stable uphill trend for pescetarians. There’s a more noticeable increase in veganism from first to sophomore year and in vegetarianism from sophomore to junior year. The decrease in vegans from sophomore to junior year may be indicative of the “falling off the wagon” phenomena I predicted. Perhaps students become worn down by the relatively limited vegan options in the dining halls by the time they reach junior year, or perhaps it is a statistically insignificant coincidence.

Nevertheless, the greatest change in all the data on plant-based diets across class year is the jump in veganism from junior to senior year, which may reflect the perks of senior living. Seniors are able to have more autonomy over the food they eat, and they choose to eat vegan at higher rates than any other class year and the campus average. As much as the Sunnies may make us think otherwise, I like to think this says something positive about the choices Denison students will make as they enter the “real world.”

Lastly, I would be remiss not to examine whether plant-based diets differ by gender. Based on national data, I expected that female-identified Denison students would have higher incidences of choosing plant-based diets than male-identified students.

Women at Denison are overwhelmingly more likely than men to be vegetarian and vegan, and there don’t seem to be any male pescetarians in the survey sample. Findings like these are common, but no less concerning. When we are thinking about plant-based diets as indicators of more self-awareness about health, environmental, and ethical impact,[5] it is troubling to see so few men making these choices. This seems to be evidence that the stigma around masculinity and plant-based diets exists at Denison as it does beyond the hill.

Why should those of us who aren’t the self-proclaimed vegan champions of Denison care about the presence of plant-based eaters here, you might ask? To tie it back to the greater goal of our dear college on the hill, eating some variety of a plant-based diet tends to signal self-awareness and concern for social issues. Bon Appetit boasts sustainability as a key tenet of its mission, and all of us know that Denison wants us to be “autonomous thinkers” and “discerning moral agents.” Choosing a more plant-based lifestyle as opposed to a default meat-heavy American diet might be an indication that this mission is working (or that VEG actually reached some people! Who knows.) As such, an examination of students’ dietary choices can provide some insight into the broader effects of a Denison liberal arts education. While the distribution of plant-based diets at Denison differs by gender, the fact that plant-based diets increase from first to senior year seems to provide evidence for Denison’s success as a liberal arts institution. That seniors, the students who are left most to their own devices, are those who are most commonly choosing a healthier and less environmentally degrading lifestyle suggests that students learn something about being autonomous thinkers and discerning moral agents throughout their four years here.

Leah Hansler is your typical over-involved Denison student trying to have it all. Catch her on Qualtrics surveying the student body on sustainability initiatives or in Granville petting local cats!


1. Statistic from 2016 National Poll by Harris Poll and Vegetarian Resource Group.

2. This finding inspired us to investigate the relationship between students’ grit and their reasons for adopting a plant-based lifestyle. Interestingly, the gritty plant-based students are less likely to note health and slightly more likely to pick ethics as their primary reasons for their lifestyles. You can read more about grit at Denison here.

3. Of course, this is not to discount the validity and worth of health reasons. As a philosophy minor and a senior who has been through her share of stress, I’m learning more and more that living an ethical life also means treating yourself well!

4. Not significantly lower primarily due to a low number of cases.

5. Plant based diets use less water and land and produce less waste and emissions than omnivorous diets. Additionally, they avoid financially supporting industries that kill animals by the billions. Of course, not everyone is able to adopt a plant-based diet and thus only people who are able to limit their consumption of animal products should be held accountable for their choices of whether to do so. To read more about the ethical, environmental, and health implications of plant-based diets, refer to these resources.

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