Researchers have claimed British men are afraid to choose the vegetarian option in a restaurant for fear of being socially shunned.

Scientists from the University of Southampton found even men who dislike meat or are unable to eat it for health reasons find it difficult to pick a vegetarian or vegan dish from a menu for fear of being ridiculed.

A year-long research project found men had experienced "social isolation" among friends after admitting to reducing their consumption of meat.

The findings, based on a sample of 22 men, are to be presented to the Royal Geographical Society's Annual International Conference this week.

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Dr Emma Roe said: "What we have discovered is that many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so.

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"As more men make vegetarian and vegan choices, that permission is becoming more readily available."

Dr Roe and Dr Paul Hurley, from the University of Southampton, found that the reluctance to be seen ordering vegetarian dishes extended even to those who had been advised to reduce their meat consumption for medical reasons.

The research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, saw 22 participants drawn from three different groups: "green-minded men" who are exploring vegetarianism for environmental reasons, "exercising men" who want to keep protein intake high without relying on meat, and men who relied on the emergency aid of food banks.

No formal interviews were undertaken, with researchers instead observing men in focus groups and as they ate vegetarian options in social settings.

The conference will hear that "participants valued eating vegetarian and vegan food in social environments, and that this was a way of 'normalising' their choice".

Researchers added: "As evidence shows that eating less meat is vital to a more sustainable future food supply, unpicking this strong cultural association between men and meat is an important aspect to global food security research."