• A new study finds a simple way to get people to eat less meat is to simply offer more than one vegetarian dish.
  • A cafeteria that increased the number of vegetarian dishes found a 40 to 80 percent increase in vegetarian dishes sold, with no change to overall sales.
  • Experts say these tactics can be adopted in your day-to-day life to help you avoid a meat-centric diet.

How do we get people to eat less meat?

It’s a question posed by health-conscious nutritionists and concerned environmentalists alike. And despite a recent study that put the spotlight on red meat, most experts say eating a higher ratio of vegetables to meat is better for your health.

But getting people to eat their vegetables instead of meat-based options has always been a tough sell.

While the problem sounds like a difficult question to answer, the results of a recent experiment hint at a relatively easy solution: provide more vegetarian options.

The study found that simply increasing the availability of plant-based foods significantly reduced the proportion of sales of meat-rich meals without hurting overall food sales.

In the report, published on Sept. 30 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Cambridge studied the data on 94,644 meals (excluding salads and sandwiches) sold at three Cambridge college cafeterias during lunch and dinner in 2017.

The report consisted of an observational study, where the researchers looked at the effect of the quantity of vegetarian choices already offered on the likelihood of diners picking a meat-free meal at two cafeterias.

The study also included a “choice architecture” experiment, where researchers worked with the cafeteria to see how deliberately doubling the plant-based choices affected sales of meat.

The results showed that the proportion of vegetarian meals sold rose 41 to 79 percent when cafeterias increased the number of plant-based options from one in four to two in four, and had little impact on overall sales.

The most carnivorous quartile of customers were found to have the biggest increase in plant-based dining after a second veggie option was offered.

The study also discovered that diners were not more likely to opt for a meat-heavy dinner after choosing a vegetarian lunch, indicating no rebound effect.

Why are people choosing to eat less meat when more veg options are available? Decision-making experts say that the phenomenon shows the effect of context on dining choices.

“When human beings are making a choice, they’re very much influenced by context, including what other alternatives are available, in ways that are not obvious to the chooser,” said Dr. Lesley Fellows, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University, who has studied decision making.

“We look at what’s available in the moment and arrange things in order of preference, choosing the one that looks best right now.”

She said that when there’s just one meat-free meal available, diners might think of it as “the vegetarian option” and write it off if they don’t identify as a vegetarian. Increasing the proportion of plant-based options may allow diners to weigh their potential satisfaction of all meals, regardless of whether they have meat.

“It’s perhaps causing people to consider the vegetarian option as not ‘the vegetarian option,’ but as an option in its own right,” she said. “They might stop thinking about it as vegetarian and start thinking of it as just food.”

Furthermore, simply having more vegetarian options on offer might increase the chances that a diner finds a plant-based option that they enjoy. A person might be totally turned off by stir-fried veggies, but love pasta primavera.

Reducing global consumption of meat has become a strategy to fight climate change. Up to 58 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food come from meat, eggs, aquaculture, and dairy, markedly exceeding those of vegetables.

“The primary reason why some of my clients want to eat less meat is the environmental concerns,” said Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and author of “Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Pulses — The New Superfood.”

“Even if they can afford grass-fed, organic, high-quality meat, they still want to reduce consumption of it because of the impact on the planet.”

But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to switch to a veggie-focused diet, consider the health benefits of cutting back on meat. People who don’t eat meat tend to have a lower risk of heart disease and weigh less than their meat-eating peers.

A study out this week has put nutrition science in the spotlight, after it declared there was little evidence that eating less red meat improved health. But experts say that study aside, eating a more vegetable-heavy diet is still a healthier option than a diet full of beef or pork.

When it comes to ditching meat, it’s not easy to go cold turkey. You need to make sure you’re still meeting your nutritional needs and filling your plate with satisfying foods in order for the diet to be sustainable.

“Any time we restrict our intake, we’re likely to feel deprived, even if it’s mostly psychological,” said Alyssa Pike, a registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation.

“Try focusing on what plants you can add rather than what meat to take away. It’s often helpful to see where we can make plant-based additions instead of focusing so heavily on what foods to cut out.”

Pike also advises people to check in with their hunger clues and try to eat enough food at mealtime so you’re not searching for more after you’re finished.

“Be sure to include another source of protein, a healthy fat, and some type of grain (along with any plants you’re adding) at each eating occasion,” she said.

Replacing meat with protein-rich pulses (such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas) can help you feel satiated from a meat-free meal, said Sass.

“Pulses are unique in that they have protein and fiber — two things that are not only filling, but also delay the return of hunger,” she said.

And when you’re missing meat, consider indulging in a meat-substitute (like the Beyond Burger) instead of the real deal.

“It’s a great option for people to enjoy certain things about meat, like the flavor and texture, but without the impact on the planet, animals, and health,” added Sass.