Meat Shame And Plant-Based Diets
Research has shed light on the “meat paradox,” or the idea that consumers feel guilty about the harms of meat consumption even as they continue to eat meat. Amid concerns for animals and the environment and the growing popularity of companion animal guardianship, the author of this paper claims that the meat paradox may be increasing in many parts of the world.
Closely related to the meat paradox is the idea of “meat shame,” or negative feelings like guilt or remorse that are associated with eating meat. When confronted with meat shame, research suggests there are two types of consumers: those who adapt their beliefs and behaviors to prevent negative feelings, and those who actively oppose or avoid feelings of shame. The former group is considered “meat-conscious,” while the latter group is referred to as “meat shame-resistant.”
Animal advocates may be more effective by targeting their campaigns toward consumers who are willing to change their eating habits when confronted with the realities of animal agriculture. Bearing this in mind, this study attempts to dig into meat-conscious vs. meat shame-resistant consumers — how many consumers fall into each group, what characteristics differentiate them, and what factors motivate their dietary decisions? The goal is to better inform dietary advocacy campaigns.
The author conducted an online survey of 1,000 U.K. adults to gather demographic details as well as information about their diet, sustainability practices, exposure to animal farming and sentience topics, contact with vegetarians and vegans, and feelings related to meat consumption. All respondents had to be meat-eaters, but this included both flexitarians and regular omnivores. After the survey, the author conducted two focus groups with a subset of survey respondents who were identified as meat-conscious consumers and meat shame-resistant consumers.
To categorize people as meat-conscious consumers or meat shame-resisters, the researcher asked people: “Have you ever thought twice about eating meat due to personal concerns and feelings of shame?” Overall, 41% of consumers occasionally or often felt shameful for eating meat compared to 43% of consumers who said they never felt shameful and 16% who had never thought about it. This suggests that meat shame-resisters are slightly more prevalent in the U.K. than meat-conscious consumers.
For 51% of those who had experienced shame, the main cause was animal welfare concerns. Environmental concerns were also influential (30.5%), followed by exposure to media (13%) and social pressure (6%). Those who identified politically as liberals were more likely than respondents with any other political affiliation to have experienced meat shame (45%). Women were also far more likely to experience meat shame than men (45.5% of women compared to 24% of men).
Unlike meat shame-resisters, meat-conscious consumers were more likely to have had a high exposure to vegetarianism or veganism (41%). Knowledge about factory farming also appeared to be correlated with meat shame, as 49% of meat-conscious consumers had high knowledge levels in comparison to only 14% of meat shame-resisters. Promisingly, at least 36% of meat-conscious consumers had considered changing their diet to reduce meat or animal product consumption in some way.
The focus groups were intended to elaborate on the survey findings. Indeed, the meat-conscious focus group revealed that animal welfare concerns are a strong motivator for meat shame, as is viewing more vegan and vegetarian options on restaurant menus, seeing documentaries about animal agriculture, and having positive interactions with vegans and vegetarians. For these consumers, plant-based dietary barriers included having to feed non-vegan family members, cooking struggles, and feeling that their habits won’t make a difference for animals. There was a general feeling that the government should be taking stronger actions to encourage plant-based diets.
Meanwhile, the meat shame-resister focus group found that most of these consumers don’t think about animal welfare concerns when making dietary decisions, instead emphasizing personal choice and freedom. Unlike meat-conscious consumers, resisters are more motivated by health and the cost of meat; those without personal exposure to vegans and vegetarians also described them as “preachy.” On a more positive note, the focus group participants expressed interest in trying cultivated meat, as long as the products address their health and price concerns.
The researchers argue that addressing plant-based diet campaigns to meat-conscious consumers, rather than meat-shame resisters, is an effective way to change people’s habits. For this population, it also makes sense to focus on their main concern, animal welfare. In addition, it would make it easier for them to choose plant-based options if they were more easily available. It is therefore important to advocate for more vegan options in cafeterias, restaurants, and other institutions and to support the development of cultivated meat. Pressuring the government not to encourage meat consumption as the norm and instead to consider the harms of meat consumption in their legislation may also be an important step forward.
For meat shame-resisters, shame-inducing campaigns may not work well or can even backfire. Because discussion groups revealed their priority is not animal welfare, it makes sense to appeal to their interest in the environment, their health, and budgets. Finally, both meat-conscious and meat shame-resistant consumers would benefit from having positive interactions with vegan advocates as well as receiving more general information about the effects of meat consumption and its alternatives.