How Cutting Down On Meat Affects Your Social Identity


By Emily Reynolds

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.

Mostly Vegetarian, But Flexible About It: Investigating How Meat-Reducers Express Social Identity Around Their Diets

Emily Reynolds (@rey_z) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

3 thoughts on “How Cutting Down On Meat Affects Your Social Identity”

  1. I eat meat for personal health, ethical reasons, and environmental sustainability. I did try a carnivore diet for a couple of months, just as an experiment and as an elimination diet. I still do eat a lot of animal foods, though not limited to meat, as eggs are a major part of my diet and I do like to use ghee in coffee and tea. But I don’t limit myself to animal foods these days, not that I worry about a theoretical ‘balanced’ diet. Quality is more important than quantity, to my mind. And on a keto diet, my hunger and cravings are less which means I eat less than I used to.

    What I do focus on is getting as much of my plant and animal foods as possible from local farmers who use the best practices for ethics and environmentalism. The pasture-raised eggs I get from the farmers’ market have that deep yellow yolk that indicates they are rich in fat-soluble vitamins. And I love the locally-made fermented vegetables that are also purchased there. All in all, it’s nearly impossible to have a better diet than this, by any standard.

    In the normal use of the word, ‘flexitarian’ generally means that one will eat a variety of foods from diverse sources and categories. It says nothing about how much of any given category of food one eats. Sure, ‘flexitarian’ could consist of mostly vegetables with occasional animal foods. Then again, a hamburger with ketchup or a sausage with sauerkraut is also ‘flexitarian’, just as switching between all-meat meals and all-vegetable meals would likewise be ‘flexitarian’. So, I might call myself ‘flexitarian’ if someone forced me to apply a label to myself.

    I might add that, if ‘vegan’ is defined as what causes the least harm, then carnivore (based on local, organic, pasture-raised, and wild-caught animal foods) is ‘vegan’ and arguably the most ‘vegan’ diet possible. Yet standard veganism dependent on industrial agriculture and global food trade, according to the same definition, would not be particularly ‘vegan’ at all. By the way, I know ‘vegetarians’ who eat meat and ‘vegans’ who eat fish. It’s amusing.

  2. The environmental impact of meat production varies because of the wide variety of agricultural practices employed around the world. All agricultural practices have been found to have a variety of effects on the environment.

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