What Drives Plant-Based Eating In Different Cultures?
As plant-based diets rise in popularity for their health and environmental benefits, many scholars are devoting time and resources to understanding dietary attitudes. So far, their efforts have been concentrated in developed, Western countries, where meat has historically been centered as the focal point of the diet. But Western countries are no longer the biggest consumers of animal products. Asia, for example, now eats more than twice as much meat as Europe and North America combined — and many experts believe their meat consumption will continue to rise.
Animal advocates need to target developing countries to maximize their global impact. Understanding the differences between non-Western and Western attitudes about plant-based diets can help. This study sets out to do exactly that, by comparing the factors that make people want to eat less meat in China and New Zealand.
The authors surveyed 581 consumers in New Zealand and 604 in China to understand how their dietary attitudes relate to three theories of diet change: 1) meat attachment factors, 2) the theory of planned behavior, and 3) food choice motives.
The meat attachment factors theory focuses on a person’s relationship with meat. It explains meat consumption in relation to four factors: hedonism, an affinity for eating meat, a sense of entitlement to consume meat, and a dependence on meat. As the authors expected, people who were less interested in plant-based diets tended to enjoy meat and weren’t reminded of animals when eating it. To them, eating other animals was seen as part of human nature, and their diets seemed unacceptable without it.
Although these trends applied to both China and New Zealand, there were some differences between cultures. Hedonism, or enjoying meat, was more likely to turn Chinese people away from plant-based diets than New Zealanders. The authors attribute this to the historically lower levels of meat consumption in non-Western countries. Because of this, eating meat is often perceived as upscale and fashionable in China.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, meat consumption was more strongly influenced by entitlement and dependence. In other words, consumers’ sense of entitlement to meat, or their personal discomfort about giving it up, was more likely to keep existing habits going. This is perhaps connected to the European, meat-centric origins of New Zealand’s culture. On the other hand, New Zealanders were more likely to feel bad or think of animal suffering when eating meat products. This could be the work of animal advocacy in Western countries, which often connects empathy with action.
The theory of planned behavior focuses on people’s views of dietary change itself. It includes five components: subjective norms, personal norms, perceived behavior control, perceived effectiveness of making a change, and general attitudes toward the behavior in question. Respondents who thought eating less meat was morally important, had confidence in their ability to change their diet, and felt excited about making the change were more likely to favor a more plant-based diet. Notably, personal norms — the moral importance one places on meat — had the biggest impact on people’s dietary intentions. In contrast, believing that one’s choice to eat less meat would tangibly help the environment seemed irrelevant.
Once again, some factors differed between countries. The average Chinese person’s interest in plant-based diets was more dependent on their sense of self control, whereas the average New Zealander’s interest was more dependent on their attitude toward eating meat. New Zealanders were also likely to be turned off by social norms in favor of plant-based eating. The authors note that the increased presence of vegans and vegetarians in the West may help to shift these reactions.
The final theory, food choice motives, focuses on health concerns and environmental concerns for reducing meat intake. In both countries, people interested in environmentally-friendly food were more willing to change their diet. In contrast, wanting healthy, nutritious food didn’t have much impact on dietary attitudes.
From this study, it’s clear that different factors related to meat consumption and diet change play different roles across cultures. As advocates extend animal welfare initiatives across the globe, it pays to remember that strategies succeeding in Western countries may backfire in non-Western ones. Similarly, strategies dismissed at home may work better when implemented abroad.