How to encourage people to eat less meat

Curbing the world’s increasing appetite for meat is essential to mitigate the devastating effects of anthropogenic climate change. Although substantial evidence confirms the benefits of plant-rich diets over meat-heavy diets for the environment and people’s health, governments only exert little efforts to reduce the consumption of meat and dairy, partly due to fears of facing backlash from consumers. Research from environmental and consumer psychology however suggests that subtle interventions might suffice to encourage people to reduce their meat intake without them even realizing.   

Drastic changes in our diets, global land use and agriculture are needed to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and to reduce the impacts of global warming. Meat-heavy diets are neither good for the environment nor for our health, and it is vital for both the environment’s and the public’s health to reduce meat intake. A special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentions plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Nevertheless, especially in high-income countries, animal foods are produced and consumed at levels that are incompatible with meeting reduction targets for greenhouse gas.

Cattle on field

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Even though many people are aware of the adverse effects of meat heavy diets on the environment, only few decrease their meat intake despite saying that they intend to do so. Changing dietary behavior can be difficult for several reasons. First of all, people might simply not be motivated to change their habits. If you have ever talked to a heavy meat-eater about changing their diet towards a more plant-based one, you might be familiar with comments such as “But what should I eat then? I won’t be able to eat anything”, “Tofu tastes terrible” or “My meals will lack protein”. Other reasons include our social environments (e.g. family or friends) that might pressure us into sticking to our current eating patterns as well as our physical environments (cafeterias, grocery stores, worksites etc) which can indirectly affect our dietary behavior via the availability of certain foods.

Campaigns aiming at encouraging people to eat less meat often focus around giving people information on the environmental and health implications of eating meat. Research however has shown that this is not enough. While providing people with information might help to raise awareness of the issue, it does not suffice to induce behavior change.

So are there any alternative strategies to encourage people to eat less meat? Recent research from the fields of consumer psychology and environmental psychology increasingly looks at the concept of nudging to induce behavioral change, which suggest that subtle changes to our environments could encourage people to reduce their meat intake. Below, I will briefly introduce the concept of nudging before presenting some nudges that have been shown to encourage people to eat less meat, oftentimes without them even realizing.

Using nudges to encourage behavior change

Our food choices are influenced by many factors, such as physiological mechanisms, cultural and social pressures and cognitive-affective factors (e.g. perceived stress). Additionally, our food choices can be the results of habits or cognitive biases, meaning that they are not always rational, but oftentimes automatic and impulsive.

Woman in grocery store

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Nudging is a behavior change concept that ties into this last aspect. Nudges are commonly understood as “soft pushes” towards behavior that is considered to be desirable by individuals or policy makers. The concept builds on a dual process model of cognition, which posits that our behavior is governed by two modes of thinking – an intuitive, fast and automatic mode of thinking and a reflective and controlled mode of thinking in which cognitive effort is high. Nudging usually targets decisions that are made using our automatic mode of thinking, which are decision that are oftentimes heavily influenced by situational cues.

As mentioned above, food choices are a classical example of decisions that are made automatic and impulsive. If you ever bought a chocolate bar at the cash register because it suddenly looked so good, that’s a perfect example of how our environment or situational cues influence our food choices. It is more than just the salience of food items though. Think of food packaging or the structure of food assortments – all of these are factors that influence our food choices. Nudging tries to influence such impulsive choices by altering situational cues or the decision environment – in this case the settings, in which people typically eat or buy food – to encourage the desired behavior – in this case to eat less meat. It is important to note, that while nudging does alter the “choice architecture” (i.e. the way in which choices are presented), this is done without changing economic incentives.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of nudges that encourage people to reduce their meat consumption.

Make more vegetarian meals available

What do you think happens when you double the proportion of vegetarian meals that are available at a cafeteria? In 2017, researchers in the UK collected anonymized data from 94,644 meals purchased from three cafeterias at an English university, looking at exactly this question. They found that doubling the amount of vegetarian meals available (e.g., from 1 in 4 to 2 in 4 options), vegetarian meal sales increased between 40 and 79%!

When linking the sales data to data from previous meal purchases of the participants, they found that especially diners with the lowest prior level of vegetarian meal selection were likely to be persuaded into getting a vegetarian meal when more options were available. Who would have thought that a simple change such as increasing the selection of vegetarian meals can have such a big impact on people’s food choices?

Vegetarian meal

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Design greener menus

How foods are displayed on menus also makes a difference with regard to whether people choose a meat-free dish or not. Currently, many restaurants include an exclusive vegetarian section at the end of their menu. Research however has shown that this can actually reduce the likelihood of people trying one of these dishes. Instead, keeping only plant-based meals on the menu can significantly increase the likelihood of people to go with one of these meal options.

According to a study that was conducted in a restaurant, the share of vegetarian dishes sold increased significantly when meat dishes were made available on “request only”.  This nudge works by making it slightly more inconvenient to order the meat option, as people first have to ask a waiter about the meat option. In other words, introducing a small “non-monetary cost” of ordering meat can deter people from doing so. 

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Reduce default portion size of meat

Portion sizes of food, including those of meat, have increased drastically over the recent years. The problem? Seeing larger portions biases people’s perceptions of what a “normal” portion size looks like, prompting consumers to eat more than recommended as they orientate the amount of food consumed on the concept of “one” portion, irrespective of actual portion size. The resulting overconsumption is not only an issue in light of the current obesity pandemic, but also in terms of sustainability. Consuming larger portions of meat inevitably leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions. In line with this, a simple strategy to encourage people to reduce their meat intake is to reduce default portion sizes.

A study conducted in Belgium found that adding smaller sausages to the assortment of a retail store was linked to a 13% reduction in meat purchases. Similarly, a study conducted in a restaurant setting found that increasing vegetable portions while simultaneously decreasing meat portions made customers eat 28g less meat on average. Whilst changing default portion sizes of meat was done unknowingly to the consumer, they remained satisfied with their dish and overall restaurant visit. 

Decrease portion size of meat

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Position meat out of sight

As mentioned above, food choices are decision that are often seen as being governed by the “choice environment”, such as the structure of food assortments or the salience of certain foods. In other words, it is likely that we pick foods that are easily visible to us. One study that was conducted in a university canteen showed that this is indeed the case – making veggie options more visible at the counter of the canteen was linked to an increase in the selection of meat free dishes. This means that when it comes to buffet setups, placing the veggie options at the beginning of the aisle while placing the meat options at the end, should make people more likely to select a veggie meal. 

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Help people make the obvious connection

In a previous post, I talked about how the fact that people disconnect meat from its animal origins can help explain why we love some animals but eat others. In line with this, one study has found that helping people make the obvious connection by reminding them where meat actually comes from can reduce people’s meat intake. Presenting people with an image of a pork roast with the head present resulted in a lower willingness to eat. This worked better with participants who were infrequently exposed to unprocessed meat, as it elicited more disgust and empathy on this group of people.

Happy piglet

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Nudging = the solution to curb our appetite for meat?

While research on how to encourage people to eat less meat is still in its early days, strategies that increase the salience of veggie options – by e.g. offering more vegetarian meals or by changing the order in which dishes are presented on a menu or a buffet – are easy-to-implement solutions that can help to decrease the negative environmental impact of our meat consumption. On top of that, decreasing portion sizes of meat or helping people to make the obvious connection between meat and its animal origins too present ways that might help to decrease meat consumption.

Further readings & resources:

  • Shukla et al. (2019). IPCC, 2019: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. [Link]
  • Bianchi, F., Dorsel, C., Garnett, E., Aveyard, P., & Jebb, S. A. (2018). Interventions targeting conscious determinants of human behaviour to reduce the demand for meat: a systematic review with qualitative comparative analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity15(1), 1-25. [Link]
  • Marteau, T. M. (2017). Towards environmentally sustainable human behaviour: targeting non-conscious and conscious processes for effective and acceptable policies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences375(2095), 20160371. [Link]
  • Sunstein, C. R., & Thaler, R. H. (2014). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. [Link]

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