When you show students vegetarian options at a school cafeteria and separate these healthy plant-based options from the meat options, more students choose the healthy vegetarian options, a new study has shown. It's a simple way to get young people to eat more vegetables and it begs the question: Should cafeterias try this easy switch, as a way of encouraging young people to eat more healthy vegetables, fruit, and whole foods?

It’s no secret that a meat-heavy diet can impact both our health and the environment, and that young people are both planet-conscious and aware of climate change and also suffering from childhood obesity at record rates. This simple swap, to encourage them to eat more vegetables and less meat, could impact both their health and the long-term health of the planet.

Making the swap over to a more plant-based Mediterranean, pescatarian, and vegetarian diet has the potential to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 25 percent, cancer by 10 percent, and heart disease by 20 percent compared to a meat-centric diet. Greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction would also be prevented with a plant-heavy diet.

If the trend of traditional diets full of refined sugar, fats, and resource- and land-intense agricultural products like beef continues, the incidence of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease will also skyrocket. Not only that, but greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 80 percent by 2050, according to scientists.

That’s why conservationists from the University of Cambridge wanted to experiment with ways to “nudge” individuals toward grabbing more plant-based meals instead of meat. Here’s what the outcome was.

The distance made the difference

In the 2020 study, researchers experimented on customers that ate at two Cambridge college cafeterias to determine if a specific placement of vegetarian options influenced their meal choice. The study collected and analyzed data from 105,143 meal selections over two years. The placement of the meat and vegetarian dishes was alternated each week to start, and then every month.

When it came to results, the researchers found that placing the vegetarian option right before the meat option didn’t make a difference in boosting plant-based eating. The other college, where they placed the vegetarian option about 3 feet (1 meter) away from the meat option, it resulted in plant-based sales increasing by about 25 percent in the weekly tally and almost 40 percent in the monthly count.

“We think the effect of the meter may be down to the additional effort required to seek out meat,” comments lead author, Emma Garnett, in an interview. “If the first bite is with the eye, then many people seem perfectly happy with an appetizing veggie option when meat is harder to spot.”

In order to confirm what the findings were showing, researchers then reduced the gap and saw that vegetarian sales fell sharply. “All cafeterias and restaurants have a design that ‘nudges’ people towards something. So it is sensible to use designs that make the healthiest and most sustainable food options the easiest to pick without thinking about it,” added Garnett.

Adding this veggie option not only cuts back on meat consumption, but it doesn’t impact overall sales of the cafeteria. Therefore, the UK’s public sector caterers are pledging to cut the amount of meat used in schools and hospitals by 20 percent.

“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,” stated Garnett in the same interview. “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.”

Vegetable intake is lacking overall

When it comes to eating our fruits and vegetables, the majority of us are missing out. According to the CDC,  fewer than 1 in 10 Americans eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The guidelines tell us that a healthy diet includes at least 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit per day and up to 3 cups of vegetables. Yet only 9 percent of adults met the recommendation for vegetable intake, with the highest percentage being in Alaska at 12 percent. When it came to fruit consumption only 12 percent met the recommendation with the highest being in Washington, D.C. at 16 percent.

In terms of the vegetables that people were reaching for, the number one choice was potatoes. Dark green and orange vegetables along with legumes were only a small portion of vegetable intake, with very few people meeting the specific recommendations for this group of veggies.

“This report highlights that very few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, putting them at risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease,” said Seung Hee Lee Kwan, Ph.D., of CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, in an interview. “As a result, we’re missing out on the essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fruits and vegetables provide.”

The CDC Suggests 10 Strategies to Increase Fruits and Vegetables

Barriers to eating more fruits and vegetables include the perceived high cost of fresh foods (although studies have shown meat and junk food are more pricey than whole foods at the story), limited availability and access to produce in the inner cities, and perceived amount of cooking or preparation time. That’s why the CDC came up with 10 strategies to help boost access to fruits and vegetables.

  1. Promote food policy councils as a way to improve the food environment at state and local levels
  2. Improve access to retail stores that sell high-quality fruits and vegetables
  3. Start or expand farm-to-institution programs in schools, hospitals, workplaces, and other institutions
  4. Start or expand farmers’ markets
  5. Start or expand community-supported agriculture programs
  6. Ensure access to fruits and vegetables in workplace cafeterias and other foodservice venues
  7. Ensure access to fruits and vegetables at workplace meetings and events
  8. Support and promote community and home gardens
  9. Establish policies to incorporate fruit and vegetable activities into schools as a way to increase consumption
  10. Include fruits and vegetables in emergency food programs

These strategies also need to focus on maintaining the healthy qualities of these foods. The fruits and vegetables offered can be fresh, frozen, canned, or dried as long as their healthfulness is maintained. For example, canned vegetables should be low in sodium, and fruit cups should be packed in their own juice instead of heavy syrups.

Bottom line: To get kids to eat more vegetables, show them the vegetarian options first, and once they choose it they won't want the meat. Talk to your local school board about separating the vegetarian food from the meat and keep it at the front of the offerings.