A bespoke website to support people to eat less meat helped frequent meat eaters to halve their meat consumption over just nine weeks. The trial, run by researchers in the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) programme at the University of Oxford, found the programme to be popular with participants who felt it supported them to change their dietary habits. The work is published in the European Journal of Nutrition.
In the UK, many people are motivated to reduce the amount of meat they eat, whether for health or environmental reasons or concerns for animal welfare. But they often underestimate the amount of meat they eat and meat-eating habits are strongly ingrained, making it difficult to change, even with the best intentions.
Cristina Stewart, Kerstin Frie and colleagues in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, created an online platform for tracking meat intake, which provides weekly feedback to users on the health and environmental impacts of their consumption. The programme, known as the Online Programme to Tackle Individual’s Meat Intake through SElf-regulation — or OPTIMISE — encourages users to set themselves a meat reduction goal and to pick from a list of 26 meat consumption reduction strategies each day.
The team recruited 151 adults in the UK who ate meat at least five times per week and wanted to reduce their meat intake, and assigned them to an intervention or control group.
The study lasted nine weeks, including a baseline week, a four-week active intervention phase (weeks two to five), and a four-week maintenance phase (weeks six to nine).
In order to estimate change in meat intake between groups, all individuals tracked their meat intake daily using the online tool in weeks one, five and nine. After the baseline week, everyone received feedback on the health and environmental impacts of their meat consumption. Control group participants were asked to try to reduce their meat consumption with no further guidance.
Participants in the intervention group were supported for a month to develop a process of self-regulation. They set themselves a meat reduction goal, tracked their meat intake daily, planned a meat reduction action daily, and received weekly feedback. When planning an action, from a list of 26 possible strategies, participants were prompted to think about how they would overcome barriers. The next morning they reported whether they managed to perform their chosen action, reflecting on what they could do differently next time if they had been unsuccessful. In the second month, this group was asked to carry on with their action plan on their own, offline, with no web sessions to complete.
In the intervention group, average daily meat intake was 221g at baseline (the equivalent of two average sized burgers or three to four sausages), 96g after the first month (a 57% reduction) and 107g after the second month on their own (a 52% reduction). Without the help of the website, the control group who ate 231g at baseline reduced their meat intake to 138g after one month and 122g after two months (a 40% and 47% reduction, respectively). Recent LEAP research showed that meat consumption in the UK decreased by only 17% in a recent decade, so these are substantial reductions in both groups.
When comparing meat reduction between groups, the intervention group decreased their meat intake by 40g per day more than the control group at week five. At week nine – after the maintenance phase - there was no difference between groups, as both groups reduced their meat intake to a similar level.
People using the website reported that they felt motivated to decrease their meat intake and found the tool useful and informative. The most popular meat reduction actions chosen by intervention participants were:
1) Make at least one of your main meals vegetarian
2) Double the veg, halve the meat
3) Eat no red met
4) Set yourself a maximum number of animal products to consume today
5) Eat no processed meat
6) Try a new vegetarian recipe
Cristina Stewart of LEAP says: “We were surprised to see how well the control group did, it looks like the requirement for them to track their meat intake during the baseline and follow-up weeks, combined with the information we gave them at the start of the study, acted as an intervention itself. Many participants mentioned in their feedback that the self-monitoring aspect was an eye-opener and made them realise they ate much more meat than they realised, and that they found this particularly motivating.”
The research team has since finished a second study of the OPTIMISE programme, which found similar results. This time they recruited meat-eaters of all levels from the general population, via public engagement events and social media. This follow-up study was an observational study without a control group, but it was intended as a real-world test of the programme with users able to sign-up and try out the programme as they wished.
Cristina Stewart says: “We’re so pleased to have found large, and remarkably similar, reductions in meat intake in both studies. It suggests that this online programme may be effective for supporting motivated individuals to reduce their meat intake. This should only make up one part of a wider strategy to support meat reduction though. Changing our environments to support more plant-based diets by increasing the number of plant-based options available, or making them more prominent on menus and in stores, are likely to be important complementary actions.”