By John Salak –
A meter apparently matters when it comes to encouraging people to reduce their intake of meat-heavy meals and nudge them towards consuming more plants, at least according to Britain’s renown University of Cambridge.
Researchers at the university were interested in ways to shift personal eating habits not only for health reasons but to curb what they described as, “the environmental damage caused by excessive consumption of animal products.” They decided the best place to start was in two of the cafeterias attached to Cambridge. The process involved collecting and analyzing more than 105,000 meal choices over a two-year period and what impact positioning vegetarian options would have on ultimate selections.
The first finding was pretty dismal for those hoping to see a rush to plant foods. In fact, simply putting the vegetarian dish before meat options did almost nothing to boost the munching of greens at one college.
Not at the second college cafeteria, at least after one big change. After more than doubling the distance to a meter(approximately) between the vegetarian option and the meat dishes, sales of plant-based dishes shot up by a quarter on a weekly analysis and by almost 40 percent in monthly comparison
These results follow similar research conducted last fall by the same Cambridge team that showed that just adding another vegetarian option on a cafeteria line cut down on meat selections without denting overall sales.
“Reducing meat and dairy consumption is one of the simplest and most impactful choices we can make to protect the climate, environment and other species,” said Emma Garnett, the study’s lead author and a conservationist from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.
“We’ve got to make better choices easier for people. We hope to see these findings used by catering managers and indeed anyone interested in cafeteria and menu design that promotes more climate friendly diets.”
In line with these views, separate Cambridge researchers recently recommended eating less meat to reduce the risk of future pandemics. Britain’s public sector caterers, in turn, pledged to cut the amount of meat used in schools and hospitals by 20 percent.
Cambridge wasn’t the only university touting the advantages of reducing red meat consumption. Stanford Medicine, a unit of Stanford University, just reported that swapping out red meat for certain plant-based meat alternatives can reduce cardiovascular risks.
The Stanford study was funded by Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based meat alternatives, although the company was not involved in designing or conducting the study or analyzing the data.
The research focused on determining the cardiovascular impacts of plant-based alternatives, which have come into question because they contain relatively high levels of saturated fat and added sodium. Ultimately, they are considered highly processed foods, which might actually contribute to cardiovascular disease risk, noted Christopher Gardner, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center.
“There’s been this sort of backlash against these new meat alternatives,” Gardner said. “The question is, if you’re adding sodium and coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, and using processed ingredients, is the product still actually healthy?”
The researchers attempted to find out by examining how two different eight-week diets—one meat centric and the other plant-based—affected more than 30 individuals.
The study focused on determining how the different diets impacted the participants’ levels trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, which is linked to cardiovascular disease risk. Ultimately, those eating a plant-based diet saw lower TMAO levels than those eating meat.
“At this point we cannot be sure that TMAO is a causal risk factor or just an association,” Gardner said. However, he pointed that other studies have shown that that people with elevated TMAO had a 60% higher risk for adverse cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack.
The research showed that eating a plant-based diet before a meat diet also had a positive impact.
“It was pretty shocking; we had hypothesized that it wouldn’t matter what order the diets were in,” Gardner said. “So for the participants who had the plant-based diet first, during which they ate no meat, we basically made them vegetarians, and in so doing, may have inadvertently blunted their ability to make TMAO,” he said.
Gardner, admits, it is still unclear that these results can be worked into a strategy for decreasing cardiovascular disease risk. What it does show, however, is the importance of diet on gut health, he noted.