Why are vegan men perceived as “less masculine”?

Just as surely as cats are girls and dogs are boys, everybody knows that salad is girls and meat is boys. A recent study out of Europe, published in the journal Sex Roles, affirms that “Of all foods, meat has the strongest association with masculinity and identity” and that among both male and female respondents, “Men on a vegan diet were not perceived as masculine, which is related to the stereotypical association of eating meat with power, prestige, and manhood.” Similar research published in 2023 in Frontiers in Communication explored the “feminine connotations associated with veganism” and found that describing vegan food with “masculine attributes” helped participants “weaken  the [food’s] link to femininity.” This fear of not being perceived as manly may explain why fewer than a quarter of all vegans are men. So, is it possible to butch up vegetables? 

Leaning in a more plant-based direction is better for everybody’s health, but can be uniquely beneficial for men. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men — responsible for a stunning 1 in 4 male deaths. One of the leading contributions to heart disease is diet, and lowering cholesterol can help. Men also have higher rates of obesity, a contributing factor not just in heart disease but certain kinds of cancers and type 2 diabetes.

“Avoidance of red and processed meats, was found to be associated with a lower risk of developing erectile dysfunction.”

Meat consumption has also been tied to heightened Alzheimer’s risk, and processed meat has been linked to colorectal cancer. And if none of that is persuasive, how about some of the promising research out of China that suggests that “More plant-based diet intake was associated with a reduced presence of ED [erectile dysfucntion] and less severe ED”? Similar research published in JAMA in 2020 suggested that “Avoidance of red and processed meats, was found to be associated with a lower risk of developing erectile dysfunction.” Think nothing’s more manly than meat? Your penis would like a rebuttal.

Nobody’s suggesting that we all have to eat nothing but kale, all the time. I’m a firm believer in moderation in all things, and I still eat meat — although I eat a lot less than my spouse. But breaking out of the mindset that fruits and vegetables are somehow girly (ergo inferior) and a ribeye is firm handshake from your dad can make all of us feel freer to explore a wider variety of culinary options without fear of judgment.

Why do we think meat is so macho? “It could be a longstanding cultural association that connects meat-eating with hunting or hunters, or with the image of ranchers or cowboys,” says Dr. Daniel Boscaljon, director of research and co-founder of the Institute for Trauma Informed Relationships, “all categories that connect to fantasies of normal or virile masculinity.” It’s a deeply rooted notion. Over thirty years ago, The Beef Industry Council tapped into that association with a campaign featuring the deep voice of hardboiled cinematic legend Robert Mitchum asserting that beef is “what’s for dinner,” no further comment needed. Conversely, Iowa City psychotherapist Tyler J. Jensen notes that “Plant-based diets, often perceived as more compassionate, may be seen as less aligned with traditional masculine ideals.”

There may be other factors going on too. “It could also be amplified by more recent efforts in gender-based marketing” suggests Boscaljon. “In a world where gender has become an increasingly precarious concept, simple behavioral clues — like eating meat — allow a way for people to perform masculinity for others in society.” He adds that, “There’s nothing inherently masculine or virile about eating meat, nor anything inherently feminine about eating vegetables or salads. These kinds of behaviors are simply cultural associations that provide baseline of recognizably gendered actions.” 

Regardless of our gender, our stereotypes about them are deeply embedded in our psyches. If we want to make the case that meat isn’t the only way of asserting manhood, we need to consider new ideals. “Contrary to the stereotypes, adopting a plant-based diet does not compromise masculinity or physical strength,” says Zoe Pulido, a nurse and the director of operations at Transcend Recovery Community. “Many professional athletes, including tennis champion Novak Djokovic and American football player Trent Williams, have successfully embraced plant-based diets and excelled in their respective sports.” And Rod Mitchell, a family violence psychologist with Therapy Calgary Emotions Clinic in Calgary, recommends looking toward “role models who defy traditional stereotypes, such as vegan athletes, chefs, and public figures,” and watching documentaries like Netflix’s “The Game Changers,” which he says “showcases elite athletes thriving on plant-based diets.”

Tenny Minassian, a vegan lifestyle coach, adds a similar insight. “There are also many professional athletes and body-builders who are vegan or eating plant-based,” she says, “so we know that strength is not correlated with consuming animal products.” She adds, “While it is great to highlight this aspect, I want to emphasize that compassion is for everyone, regardless of your gender or gym goals.” 

And if nothing else makes the case, let’s bring it back to love and sex. Kayden Roberts, CMO and dating coach at the dating app CamGo, says that “As a relationship expert, I often encounter diverse perspectives on masculinity and have observed that dietary choices can indeed influence these perceptions.” He also interrogates the notion that this is inevitably desirable to potential partners. “The notion of masculinity traditionally aligns with strength, dominance, and a provider role, often symbolized by the consumption of meat,” he says. “Vegan and vegetarian men, by deviating from this norm, might challenge these conventional ideas of masculinity. However, this does not make them any less masculine. In fact, choosing a plant-based diet often reflects qualities like empathy, health-consciousness, and a willingness to challenge societal norms, which are commendable masculine traits in their own right.”

“Men who choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle often do so out of a sense of responsibility towards the environment, animal welfare, or their own health. These men might not fit the traditional macho archetype,” Roberts says, “but they embody a modern, more holistic understanding of masculinity that values personal conviction and societal impact.” 

Rod Mitchell echoes the sentiment, suggesting that we all take a moment to “Reflect on what strength and masculinity mean to you. Recognize that true strength lies in making informed, healthy choices for yourself and the environment,” he says. “And understand that adopting a plant-based diet is a form of self-care and resilience, not a compromise of masculinity.”

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