Strategies to Eat Less Meat

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What is the most effective way to help people reduce their meat consumption?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

According to a survey of more than 30,000 U.S. residents, a third of American adults self-identify as meat reducers, meaning one in three of us is trying to cut down on our meat consumption. Why? For those earning less than $40,000 a year, the #1 reason is cost; for those earning more than $40,000, the #1 reason is health. And indeed, if we were to define a healthy diet, compared to how we’re eating now, we should be eating more plantbased foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes—meaning beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils—seeds, nuts, and, at the same time, lower in animal foods––particularly fatty and processed meats.

In an editorial entitled “Plant-Based Diets for Personal, Population, and Planetary Health,” co-authored by the chair of nutrition at Harvard, healthy plant-based diets are not only more sustainable, but they have also been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. What do we mean by plant-based? Basically, any diet that reduces the amount of animal products and increases the amount of plants—again, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Transitioning global diets towards healthy plant-based dietary patterns would require large-scale public health efforts but could be instrumental in ensuring future human and planetary health.

Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and includes a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption. Okay, but how do you do it? In a systematic review of experimental studies on strategies to reduce meat consumption, one of the most effective experiments came out of the Midwest. Sadly, research shows that the provision of information on its own can be of limited utility in facilitating behavioral change. However, default interventions have been successfully employed in a variety of prosocial contexts, making the right option (or the healthiest option) the easiest option—the default option. 

Take for example, organ donation. Every year, thousands of people in the United States have died waiting for a suitable donor organ. But wait; 85 percent of Americans approve of organ donation, yet less than half have made a decision about donating, and fewer still had granted permission by signing a donor card. If you look at Europe, there’s nearly a ten-fold difference in the organ donor rates across different countries. In some countries, consent is only about 10 percent, while in others it’s up to like 99.9 percent. What’s the difference between the two colors? Gold is opt-in; blue is opt-out. In opt-out countries, the default is that people are organ donors unless they actively register not to be, and in the opt-in countries like the United States, the default is that nobody is an organ donor without explicitly registering to be one. So, there are all sorts of calls for campaigns to change public attitudes about organ donation. But remember that 85 percent are already on board. If we want to change behavior and not just attitudes, changing the default condition may be more effective. So, does it work for diet?

In the DEFAULT treatment, participants received at their table a menu listing only five meat-free options. But they were informed—verbally and in writing on the menu—that they could also consult a second menu that was posted on the wall about a dozen feet away, which had your standard array of popular nonvegetarian dining hall dishes. In the control condition, both lists of options were mixed together on the same menu they were handed.

When you do that, only a minority of people choose the meat-free options––between 5 and 40 percent, depending on if you describe the meat-free options in an appealing way, like pasta with Provençal vegetables, or in unappealing terms, like vegan calzone. Okay, but what about the default condition, where the menu in front of them is all meat-free? They can still get up and order all the meat they want, but the alternate menu is a few steps away. You’re not taking away anyone’s options, but just by making it the default, meat-free choices shot up to like 75 or 90 percent. Even an unappealingly described meat-free option totally won out.          

Even just adding more vegetarian options, from a quarter of the options to half the options, increased the sales of the vegetarian options between about 40 to 80 percent.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

According to a survey of more than 30,000 U.S. residents, a third of American adults self-identify as meat reducers, meaning one in three of us is trying to cut down on our meat consumption. Why? For those earning less than $40,000 a year, the #1 reason is cost; for those earning more than $40,000, the #1 reason is health. And indeed, if we were to define a healthy diet, compared to how we’re eating now, we should be eating more plantbased foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes—meaning beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils—seeds, nuts, and, at the same time, lower in animal foods––particularly fatty and processed meats.

In an editorial entitled “Plant-Based Diets for Personal, Population, and Planetary Health,” co-authored by the chair of nutrition at Harvard, healthy plant-based diets are not only more sustainable, but they have also been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. What do we mean by plant-based? Basically, any diet that reduces the amount of animal products and increases the amount of plants—again, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Transitioning global diets towards healthy plant-based dietary patterns would require large-scale public health efforts but could be instrumental in ensuring future human and planetary health.

Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and includes a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption. Okay, but how do you do it? In a systematic review of experimental studies on strategies to reduce meat consumption, one of the most effective experiments came out of the Midwest. Sadly, research shows that the provision of information on its own can be of limited utility in facilitating behavioral change. However, default interventions have been successfully employed in a variety of prosocial contexts, making the right option (or the healthiest option) the easiest option—the default option. 

Take for example, organ donation. Every year, thousands of people in the United States have died waiting for a suitable donor organ. But wait; 85 percent of Americans approve of organ donation, yet less than half have made a decision about donating, and fewer still had granted permission by signing a donor card. If you look at Europe, there’s nearly a ten-fold difference in the organ donor rates across different countries. In some countries, consent is only about 10 percent, while in others it’s up to like 99.9 percent. What’s the difference between the two colors? Gold is opt-in; blue is opt-out. In opt-out countries, the default is that people are organ donors unless they actively register not to be, and in the opt-in countries like the United States, the default is that nobody is an organ donor without explicitly registering to be one. So, there are all sorts of calls for campaigns to change public attitudes about organ donation. But remember that 85 percent are already on board. If we want to change behavior and not just attitudes, changing the default condition may be more effective. So, does it work for diet?

In the DEFAULT treatment, participants received at their table a menu listing only five meat-free options. But they were informed—verbally and in writing on the menu—that they could also consult a second menu that was posted on the wall about a dozen feet away, which had your standard array of popular nonvegetarian dining hall dishes. In the control condition, both lists of options were mixed together on the same menu they were handed.

When you do that, only a minority of people choose the meat-free options––between 5 and 40 percent, depending on if you describe the meat-free options in an appealing way, like pasta with Provençal vegetables, or in unappealing terms, like vegan calzone. Okay, but what about the default condition, where the menu in front of them is all meat-free? They can still get up and order all the meat they want, but the alternate menu is a few steps away. You’re not taking away anyone’s options, but just by making it the default, meat-free choices shot up to like 75 or 90 percent. Even an unappealingly described meat-free option totally won out.          

Even just adding more vegetarian options, from a quarter of the options to half the options, increased the sales of the vegetarian options between about 40 to 80 percent.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

In a perfect example of this strategy, Greener by Default helped New York City Mayor Eric Adams initiate default plant-based meals in NYC public hospitals. Healthy food in a hospital? What a concept!

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