Trying to cut down on your meat intake? Experts suggest you should just look at it

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  • If you’re trying to reduce your meat intake, sheer willpower may not be enough
  • There's another way, however, that might work: the 'yuk factor' 
  • According to a new study, some meat-eaters became disgusted by meat after viewing images of it

Die-hard meat-eaters have reduced their meat consumption in recent years, partially due to environmental and health concerns.

Despite data from Knorr’s 2020 annual review showing that 84% of the South African population are meat eaters – with 90% eating meat more than twice a week – supermarket retailers, Checkers and Pick n Pay, have also indicated that more of their consumers are going meat-free, YOU reported.

If you’re someone who’s trying to cut down on your meat intake and often find yourself relying on willpower, but it just isn’t enough, researchers have some good news for you: turn to the “yuk factor” instead. In other words, if you want to cut down on meat, just look at it. 

This was revealed in a recent study, where scientists from the University of Exeter in the UK showed food pictures to more than 711 people, including 402 omnivores (who eat meat and other foods), 203 flexitarians (who try to eat less meat), and 106 vegetarians. According to the results, some of the meat-eaters ended up being disgusted by meat.

“Meat consumption is increasingly seen as unsustainable, unhealthy, and unethical, [and] understanding what factors help people reduce their meat intake is urgently needed,” wrote the authors.

What the participants were shown

The participants were divided into groups – omnivores, flexitarians, and vegetarians – and asked to complete an online survey from April to October 2019.

They then had to complete a rapid-response task, where they were shown images of meat and carbohydrates and had to quickly sort the images into the categories “disgusting” (which were represented by the following words: foul, rancid, revolting, rotten, sickening, yucky) or “delicious” (which were represented by the following words: appetising, lovely, wonderful, mouth-watering, tasty, yummy).

About 7% of the participants who were meat-eaters (15% of flexitarians and 3% of omnivores) had a "fairly strong disgust response" to images of meat dishes commonly eaten in the UK, such as roast chicken or bacon, the researchers said.

Omnivores also rated meat images about twice as disgusting, on average, as pictures of carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, chips, and rice.

When followed up six months later, some of the participants who exhibited “meat disgust” were found to have reduced their meat intake over that period. However, it’s worth noting that the results don’t necessarily indicate causation, so further research is needed to understand whether the participants ate less meat as a consequence of the images.

Why are meat eaters disgusted by meat?

"We were surprised to find that so many people are grossed out by meat – even people who eat meat all the time," co-author Elisa Becker, of the University of Exeter, said in a news release.

Based on the findings, the researchers say if people who are trying to consume less meat harnessed the "yuk factor", it may be more effective than relying on willpower.

But while their results don't explain why these people who reported feeling disgusted by meat eat it, it’s possible that habits, family, and cultural traditions all play a part, said Becker.

The authors also wrote: “Giving up meat is hard for most people because of the strong positive emotions and high cultural value associated with eating it. On the other hand, meat can also elicit negative emotions, one of which is disgust.”

According to their paper, the potential of this emotion as a way for people to reduce meat consumption has already been demonstrated in the past. For example, disgust-based messages about meat, or presenting roast meat with the animal’s head attached, have both been successful in reducing participants’ willingness to eat meat. 

Still, according to the authors, these studies lacked certain critical aspects to understand the topic clearly, which is why the phenomenon of meat disgust and its relationship to meat consumption remains poorly understood. 

Due to this, they aimed to address this research gap in their study.

Future research

According to the team, their findings are serving to advance research into meat disgust, and they hope that the information can help them develop new interventions to help people reduce their meat intake. 

"Not everyone wants to reduce their meat consumption – but for those who do, we are working on computer tasks that might help them harness the power of disgust in a fun way,” said Professor Natalia Lawrence, of the University of Exeter.

Their research was published in the journal Appetite.

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