The analysis was conducted by a team at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, and is published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The observed changes in meat-eating were estimated to be associated with significant reductions across environmental indicators such as land use and greenhouse gas emissions, though in order to reach targets that align with sustainable diets – such as those set by the EAT Lancet commission and the National Food Strategy – much more needs to be done to achieve substantial reductions.
High consumption of red and processed meat can be bad for our health, leading to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, while meat production in general is a large contributor to global warming and environmental degradation. Understanding meat consumption trends in the UK, and within different sub-groups of the population, could help tailor public health policies and behavioural interventions to support healthier and more sustainable diets.
The team used dietary data reported in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) rolling programme between 2008/09 and 2018/19, the only survey that captures nationally representative data on food consumption within the UK. Dietary data were collected using four-day food diaries, and in instances where meat was consumed as part of a mixed dish (e.g. a beef lasagne, or a ham sandwich) the quantity of meat alone was estimated, excluding all other non-meat components of the dish.
Average daily meat consumption in the UK decreased by approximately 17.4g per person (from 103.7g to 86.3g) between 2008/09 and 2018/19. This included an absolute reduction of 13.7g of red meat (from 37.4g to 23.7g) and 7.0g of processed meat (from 33.8g to 26.8g), along with an increase of 3.2g of white meat (from 32.5g to 35.7g). The proportion of individuals who identified as vegetarian or vegan increased by 3% over the same period (from 2% to 5%).
The University of Oxford team also looked at differences in total meat consumption within different sub-groups of the population. Here, they looked at differences in meat intake as a percentage of food energy to account for differences in energy consumption. They found that meat intake was highest in the white population and those born in the 1980s and 1990s, compared to minority ethnic groups and those born in other decades. Those born after the turn of the millennium were the only subgroup to increase their meat consumption over time, despite being the lowest consumers in the first seven survey years. The team found no differences in intake across gender or household income, possibly because they looked at differences as a percentage of food energy and focussed on consumption of total meat only.
Cristina Stewart, a researcher at the University of Oxford, who led the study says: “Around the world, meat consumption is changing: average per capita consumption is rising, but in many high income countries like the UK, meat consumption is slowly decreasing. Our results show a shift in the UK from red and processed meat towards white meat, which is consistent with health advice, but we are a long way from consuming a healthy sustainable diet.
“To put this in context, the National Food Strategy has called for a 30% reduction in total meat consumption in the next ten years, while other research has estimated that beef consumption alone in the UK needs to decrease by 89% to keep us within planetary boundaries. It’s clear that we need a greater focus on changing dietary habits to reduce the amount of meat we eat if these targets are to be met.”