Meat Reduction Through Our Lives
When people decide to reduce or eliminate animal products from their diet, they often cite a variety of social, psychological, and personal reasons. For example, research has linked meat reduction to concerns about the environment, animal welfare, and health, as well as religion and personal taste preferences. There are also practical barriers to meat reduction, such as the financial cost and availability of meat substitutes.
One factor that influences diet is one’s household status — in other words, whether someone is a young single adult, part of a couple, part of a family with children, or a retiree. At different stages of life, people may eat (or not eat) meat for varying reasons. For example, people over 60 have different health concerns than young adults under 35, while parents have to consider the needs and preferences of their children. Despite the important connection between household and diet, very little research has explored meat reduction at different life stages.
This study investigated meat reduction or “flexitarianism” among people living in New Zealand. Flexitarians are people who continue to eat meat but on a limited or restricted basis. Research has found that anywhere from 14-60% of the global population may classify as flexitarians or meat reducers. Short of going veg*n, becoming a flexitarian is one way to reduce the harms caused by animal agriculture.
The study consisted of a series of focus groups targeting people already on a journey to reduce their meat intake. The focus groups were broken down by “life stage,” specifically young adults between the ages of 18-35, parents with children living at home, and people aged 60 or older living in a retirement community. Participants were asked to discuss their motivations, challenges, strategies, and other thoughts about meat reduction.
Regardless of age or household status, participants shared the common belief that meat offers nutritional benefits. Most participants also expressed having animal product cravings, which is why they chose to reduce, rather than eliminate, animal products from their diet. However, most participants also chose to look at meat as a “treat” rather than a dietary staple. Beyond these commonalities, the motivations for choosing meat reduction differed depending on one’s life stage. Young adults were more likely to cite environmental concerns, external beauty/health issues (e.g., linking dairy to acne), and peer pressure from their social groups. Meanwhile, families often thought about cost and their children’s health when deciding to cut back on meat, and reduction was almost always instigated by the mother. Retirees typically shared that they simply stopped enjoying meat.
Another common value across the focus groups was a lack of transparency in the food system. Participants shared that they didn’t trust their government or doctors to share reliable information about dietary health. Instead, many people relied on their own bodies to guide their dietary choices. There was also a general feeling of mistrust around meat and fish production as well as processed foods. Animal advocates should note that this suspicion also extended to processed meat substitutes, as many families and retirees were hesitant to replace meat with highly-processed alternatives.
When asked to explore their strategies for cutting out meat, participants largely described it as a journey or a gradual process (note: this finding is similar to Faunalytics’ research, which found that the majority of new veg*ns shift their diet over time). Most participants didn’t have a specific end goal in mind, such as cutting out meat altogether. Furthermore, they expressed having more cravings for dairy and egg products than meat, making these products more difficult to eliminate. Meal planning, variety, and replacing meat with vegetables and legumes were common approaches to make flexitarianism easier. Notably, young adults and families often used their diet as an excuse to experiment with cooking, incorporating multicultural recipes and ingredients. Meanwhile, retirees largely stuck with their traditional meals and simply replaced red meat with chicken, fish, pasta, potatoes, or rice.
The focus groups also revealed challenges and barriers to a flexitarian diet. These largely included the cost, time investment, and effort required to plan and prepare meatless meals. Women who lived with a partner and children often shared that their partner was opposed to meat reduction. Some participants also complained about the lack of education and training instilled in the school system to help children “upskill” their cooking. To get around these issues, young adults and families frequently turned to social media to find recipes and cooking tips. Older adults largely relied on their experience and intuition.
One important limitation of this study is that it took place in New Zealand, where there is a strong cultural tie to the animal agriculture industry. For example, New Zealand has the sixth-highest rate of meat consumption per capita globally, and the dairy industry is the nation’s largest exporter. However, the study offers a helpful look at the unique advocacy strategies that are needed to target people at different life stages. For example, social media is an important platform for influencing young adults, and both young adults and families may be more receptive to experimental, multicultural recipes. Families often want to target their meals toward their children, which means creating kid-friendly recipes and campaigns. For retirees and other older adults, focusing on traditional recipes may be the key to supporting their reduction goals.
It’s also critical for animal advocates to address the barriers preventing people from reducing their meat intake. This study suggests that advocates should focus on pushing for cooking lessons in schools so children find it easier to cook a variety of food when they become adults. Advocates should also encourage governments and medical institutions to provide transparent health information about veg*n and flexitarian diets. Finally, participants raised concerns about the cost and convenience of cooking meatless meals, so addressing these issues may help ease people into a more humane diet regardless of their household status.