Why we make excuses for eating too much meat

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A new study from the University of Copenhagen reveals why people find it hard to cut down on meat, even though they know it’s better for the climate.

The study shows that in social situations, people often justify their meat consumption and sometimes even shame vegans.

Clearer messages from authorities about the climate impact of meat could help change this behavior, according to the researchers.

People say various things to justify their meat-eating habits, like claiming avocados are bad for the environment or that vegans are extreme.

Others say their bodies need meat or that their partners won’t let them reduce meat consumption. These justifications were noted in focus group discussions with Danish consumers.

“The study shows that while people agree eating less meat is good for the climate, they make excuses when it comes to their own habits,” says Thomas A. M. Skelly, a Ph.D. student and first author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Culture.

Participants in the study came up with different excuses. Some said they didn’t have enough information, believed meat was biologically necessary, or thought meals without meat weren’t filling.

Others doubted that meat production has a significant climate impact. Sometimes, they blamed their family members for their meat consumption. For example, one participant said, “I try to eat climate-friendly, but my partner wants meat.”

The researchers also noticed that people often changed the topic to avoid discussing meat. They preferred to talk about less controversial subjects like avoiding food waste and plastic packaging. These topics are seen as more neutral and easier to relate to without much personal sacrifice.

Another common tactic was shaming vegans. Participants laughed at the idea of going vegan, portraying it as ridiculous. They also accused vegans of being hypocritical, suggesting that vegans eat avocados and processed foods that are also bad for the environment. However, the truth is that red meat has a much larger climate footprint than both avocados and vegan products.

“People use these excuses to maintain a sense of being morally responsible, even though they recognize that meat consumption is a major climate problem,” says Associate Professor Kia Ditlevsen, co-author of the study.

It’s unclear whether people make these excuses because they genuinely lack knowledge or because it’s convenient to do so. The study found that while participants acknowledged the climate impact of meat, they still found it socially acceptable to question this knowledge.

The researchers argue that clear messaging from public authorities and politicians is necessary to address this issue. Mixed messages from officials, like suggesting it’s okay to keep eating meat while dietary guidelines recommend reducing meat consumption, add to the confusion.

“If we want people to take cutting back on meat seriously, politicians and authorities need to send clear, consistent messages about its importance,” Ditlevsen says. “This alone might not solve the problem, but it could help steer people in the right direction.”

By addressing these social and psychological factors, the study suggests that it might become easier for people to change their eating habits for the sake of the climate.

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