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Study: How to Make People Become Vegetarians—At Least Temporarily

New research shows you're less likely to eat meat when you think about the animal it came from.

You're in denial. It's okay, really. We understand. When you're face-deep in a burger, gnawing on hot wings, or chowing down a hot dog, you're not thinking mmm, ground up cow shanks, chicken arms, or pig snouts. What? Not so appetizing? (Yeah, we're a little nauseated now, too.)

But that's exactly the point of a new study from the University of Oslo. We've distanced our favorite proteins from the very animals they come from. And a lot of it has to do with how the industry presents meat to us, the researchers say.

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The body of research, published in the journal Appetite (naturally), is made up of five studies. Overall, more than 1,000 men and women, most of them meat eaters, participated in the studies

In the first, participants in Norway and the U.S. were shown chicken in various stages of processing: whole, cut down to just drumsticks, and chopped into chicken fillets. For each stage, researchers measured participants' associations to the animal—to measure how much empathy they felt.

In the second study, participants saw two images of roasted pork: one pig was beheaded, the other was not. This time researchers examined men and women's level of empathy and disgust. Participants were also asked if they wanted to eat the meat or would rather choose a vegetarian alternative.

In the third study, participants looked at two ads for lamb chops: one picture showed a living lamb, the other didn't. People were asked which picture made them more or less willing to eat the lamb chops, and, again, how much they empathized with the animal.

In the last two studies, researchers analyzed the use of words and phrases—not processing or presentation—on people's desire to eat meat. They had men and women read menus that replaced the words "pork" and "beef" with "pig" and "cow" to analyze changes in feelings of sympathy and distaste, as well as swapping the terms "slaughtered" or "killed" with "harvest."

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You're probably not surprised to find out people were far less willing to eat meat after each study. For some men and women, eating animal protein was difficult—and for those who typically spend more time and effort disassociating Ms. Piggy from their slice of morning bacon were more sensitive to more blunt presentations and descriptions of meat. Conversely, when restaurants exhibited meat as being "harvested," rather than "slaughtered" from an animal, people were less likely to feel empathy.

This process of fighting evocative visuals to feel more at ease is called the "disassociation hypothesis." The researchers quote Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who only ate meat he slaughtered himself for a year, in a press release: "Many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat." They also quote well-known vegetarian and musician Paul McCartney who said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." 

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You've probably seen on the news and in the media (maybe even on our site) that eating tons of red meat isn't good for your waistline and overall health, and a diet high in processed meat is one of the deadliest nutrition mistakes.

So, why not take a break from all the meat and get some of your protein from plant-based food sources instead? Skeptical you'll starve and shrivel up—lose all your muscle? Check out The 8 Best Muscle-Building Foods For Vegans and Vegetarians and 8 Best Protein Powders For Vegetarians and Vegans. Your body will enjoy the reprieve from meat—as will the, um, animals. 

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