With increased concern about the impact of meat on our health and the environment, and an ever-expanding selection of meat-free products available to buy, popular interest in vegetarianism and veganism has steadily grown.
But for those who want to cut down but aren’t quite ready to give up their burgers, there is a third way: flexitarianism. As a 2019 study from the University of Nottingham on red meat and heart health put it, you “don’t have to go cold turkey on red meat to see health benefits”, finding that halving the amount of red and processed meat eaten can have significant health benefits.
A flexitarian tries to cut down their consumption as much as they can, but still eats the occasional meal or snack containing meat. One recent piece of market research found that 14% of the UK consider themselves flexitarian, and though more formal research would clearly be needed to paint a more critical and comprehensive picture, these figures do seem to suggest something of a cultural preoccupation with how much meat we’re eating.
Now new research, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, has taken a look at how such an approach impacts identity as well as health. The choice to be vegetarian can be a significant source of social identity — but how do flexitarians see themselves?
Researchers talk of a “dietarian identity” — a form of social identity that represents how people feel, think and behave around their diets. People’s dietarian identity may not always line up with their behaviour — so flexitarians, for example, may consider themselves vegetarian despite eating meat.
To see whether this was the case, Daniel L. Rosenfeld from the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues gave numerous survey materials to nearly 850 participants. First, the team classified the participants as either “meat-excluders”, flexitarians, or omnivores, before asking them to rate their identification as a vegetarian on a scale of 0 (vegetarian) to 10 (meat-eater).
The team also assessed participants’ frequency of meat consumption, dietary restrictiveness and the prevalence of vegetarians in their social and local networks, as well as their endorsement of carnism — the moral ideology behind eating meat.
The extent to which flexitarians identified with the “vegetarian” label depended on two factors, the researchers found: how important diet was to their identity as a whole, and their ideology around meat-eating. Dietary behaviour alone — how often a participant ate meat or how long they had engaged in meat-reducing behaviours — was not cause enough for someone to consider themselves vegetarian. Instead, their sense of “meat-avoider identity” and their rejection of a moral ideology in favour of eating animals were far more important.
It’s important to note that there’s no definitive causal relationship here: it could be that strong identification with vegetarianism influences a moral ideology or a meat-avoiding identity, not the other way around. The definition of flexitarianism is also somewhat slippery: this study took a particular definition (“an individual who limits his or her meat intake yet still includes meat in his or her diet”) rather than defining it based on frequency of meat consumption. And reasons for reducing or avoiding meat were not garnered, either — whether someone has reduced their meat intake for health reasons, for the environment, or because of a focus on animal rights.
What we eat is rarely uncomplicated socially, psychologically or even politically — particularly when it comes to potentially contentious products like meat. And as more of us grapple with the ethical and environmental implications of consuming animal products, these psychological forces will become even more important to understand.