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Want to Cut Down on Eating Meat? Just Look at It

New research suggests that even meat-eaters are disgusted by meat.

Key points

  • A new study finds that 7 percent of carnivores feel strong disgust towards meat photos, such as roast chicken or bacon.
  • Some who exhibited “meat disgust” reduced their meat intake over the next six months.
  • Other science-backed ways to curb meat intake include recognizing animals have feelings, acknowledging negative environmental impacts, and more.
 Valeria Boltneva/Pexels
Source: Valeria Boltneva/Pexels

When it comes to meat, a picture might be worth a thousand “no’s,” according to a new study at the University of Exeter.

When pictures of different foods were shown to a group of around 700 participants, about 7 percent of carnivores, 15 percent of flexitarians (those who eat meat occasionally), and 3 percent of omnivores showed a “fairly strong disgust response” to meat dishes, like roast chicken or bacon.

Compared to images of bread, chips, and rice, those of meat were rated twice as disgusting by omnivores. The results were unexpected to researchers, who suggest regular meat-eaters might feel obligated to do so out of habit or because of cultural or family traditions.

For the flexitarians, however, researchers found that those who experienced "meat disgust" did reduce their meat intake over the next six months. Worth noting, the study’s author says the results don’t necessarily indicate causation, so additional research is needed to understand whether people ate less meat as a consequence of the photos.

But even among the most ardent meat lovers, there exists the occasional disgust towards meat, particularly strange or unfamiliar dishes, such as beef hearts or squirrel meat, the study points out.

Given the enormous cost of meat—to your health, to the environment, and to animal welfare—limiting its intake seems like a wise investment. But if scrolling through pics of BBQ isn’t cutting it, here are a few other science-backed strategies that might help.

Recognize that animals have feelings too.

A 2014 paper, published in Current Directions of Psychological Science, found that those who see animals as “highly dissimilar to humans and as lacking mental attributes, such as the capacity for pain,” tend to support meat-eating. Naturally, one way to combat this framing is to acknowledge that animals do, in fact, suffer. As the author points out, “the more moral concern we afford an entity, the more immoral it becomes to harm it.” PETA often promotes this type of message in many of its campaigns, urging people to recognize all species as sentient beings capable of experiencing “pain, love, joy, and fear.”

Acknowledge meat’s devastating environmental impact.

Did you know that meat and dairy production makes up nearly 15 percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions? (This is equivalent to emissions from all cars, vehicles, airplanes, and ships!) In general, animal-based foods have a larger carbon footprint—with beef, lamb, and cheese rounding up the top three carbon emitters.

Deforestation in tropical regions, including the Amazon, is a direct result of stripping land for increased beef production and animal feed. And the consequences are dire. While beef production is tied to forest fires, cutting these tropical trees down releases significant amounts of carbon—which make up about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Another way to think of it, reducing meat in your diet doesn’t just extend your health; it also extends the health of the planet you live on.

Just imagine something else.

Perhaps a classic case of easier said than done, but in 2010, the Association for Psychological Science highlighted research that suggested people were able to reduce food cravings when asked to imagine common things, like seeing a rainbow or smelling a eucalyptus. Similarly, another experiment found that watching “a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a monitor” also resulted in a decrease in food cravings.

It's hard to say if one can just think a delicious burger away, but let me know if it works for you.