Meat eaters are far more apt to choose plant-based foods at restaurants if menus are at least 75% vegetarian, according to a new study.
Along with the health benefits, British researchers said getting more people to eat plant-based foods could help fight climate change.
"The findings provide practical instruction on what percentage of their food offerings should be vegetarian if they are to succeed in encouraging sustainable eating behaviors," said lead author Beth Parkin, a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.
"If the food service industry are to decrease their carbon footprint, they need to act by providing far more plant-based items than currently on offer," she said in a university news release.
To gauge how the availability of vegetarian food affects the choices of people who typically eat meat, Parkin and her team randomly gave 776 study participants menus with different ratios of vegetarian and meat dishes.
People who usually eat meat shifted to vegetarian foods only when menus were 75% vegetarian, but not when 50% or 25% of the menu items were vegetarian.
That suggests meat eaters may change their preferences when given enough vegetarian options, but that it takes a large number of vegetarian choices to prompt that switch, according to findings in the February issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
Increased vegetarian choices on a menu may make meat eaters more likely to select a plant-based item by providing them with a wider range of desirable dishes or by suggesting that doing so is normal behavior, Parkin and her colleagues said.
They noted that the meat and dairy industries account for about 25% of worldwide carbon emissions associated with climate change.
On a large scale, incremental shifts to plant-based foods could have a significant impact on carbon emissions, according to the authors.
They said the food sector can play a major role in promoting sustainable foods by changing how choices are presented without the need to consciously persuade people of the benefits of environment-friendly diets.
"[The study] shows the potential that the food service sector has in creating large-scale shifts to encourage meat eaters to change their preferences," Parkin said.
To learn how to build a healthy vegetarian diet, see the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
SOURCES: University of Westminster, news release, Dec. 14, 2021; Journal of Environmental Psychology, Nov. 7, 2021, online