High-performance food for real men
Vegetarian: Old Indian word for bad hunter. You’ve probably seen that saying somewhere, on an F-150 bumper sticker or a t-shirt like the kind they sell at gift shops in the South. My dad used to repeat it, and I remember eight-year-old, hunting-and-fishing, meat-loving me finding it hilarious.
Beneath the corny joke looms something larger, a fundamental assumption that we see all around us but don’t recognize, a cliche that has been reinforced so many times in advertisements and conversations that most of us accept it as truth: the idea that real men eat meat.
Think about it—what does it really mean to be a hunter? A hunter is someone who provides for their family. Someone with the strength and speed and stamina and skill to kill an animal. Someone not frightened by blood and guts and death. Someone brave and capable enough to get the job done.
These traits—which form the core of a kind of stereotypical, idealized masculinity that, even now, is dominant in cultures throughout the world—are linked directly to eating animals (as well as to other things like drinking beer, liking sports, and driving large vehicles). It’s no coincidence that Hooters became a lucrative restaurant chain by combining sex, football, and chicken wings. It goes without saying that the business model wouldn’t have worked if Hooters was a smoothie or salad joint. And it’s no coincidence only 37% of vegans are men, according to a recent survey.
Not eating animals, conversely, is linked to an absence of these so-called manly traits, and the presence of a set of inverse, negative traits, such as weakness and cowardice. I can speak from firsthand experience: I decided to stop eating meat during my final semester of college, in the middle of my baseball season. When my teammates found out, they reacted as if I was going to wither away. I saw them reappraising my masculinity, trying to reconcile the things they knew about me with the idea that a vegetarian should not possess those qualities.
There’s only one problem with this idea that meat and stereotypical masculine traits are connected: there’s no data to support it. Nutrition science actually shows that diets low in meat and rich in whole plant foods don’t limit physical qualities like strength, speed, or virility. In fact, these diets may actually be optimal for becoming bigger, stronger, and faster, not to mention healthier overall (in terms of measures like blood pressure, cholesterol, BMI, and more.) They might even improve your sex life.
Plus, there are plenty of high-profile, badass, plant-based male athletes who prove that eating meat has nothing to do with being tough, capable, and resilient. NFL linebackers, world-class weightlifters, ultra-marathoners, Olympic sprinters, martial artists. And this isn’t just a modern trend. There’s evidence Roman gladiators were mostly vegetarian. If guys like Carl Lewis, Alex Honnold, Patrik Baboumian, and Russell Crowe in Gladiator aren’t “real” men, then I don’t know who is.
Nonetheless, the meat=manly trope isn’t going away anytime soon, and that worries me. Not because it’s annoying. In the cycling and running worlds I inhabit now, I hardly ever catch flak for not eating meat, unlike my baseball-playing days. It worries me because it’s killing people: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in American men, and study after study have shown that a meat-heavy diet is a primary culprit. For example, a study earlier this year found that eating meat regularly is associated with a 60 percent increase in the risk of heart disease, while plant-based proteins are linked to a 40 percent reduction in heart disease.
The sad irony is that many of the people who think eating meat is part of being a man—the people who wear the shirts with the slogan—are eating so much meat that it is pushing them further away from their idealized version of manhood, not towards it. Meat is making them fatter and less fit and more prone to disease. Put another way, I doubt many of them would be good hunters.
So, how do we decouple meat from manliness? First off, regular vegan guys like myself need to be open about our diets with friends and family, which can go a long way towards erasing stereotypes and normalizing plant-based lifestyles. My teammates soon realized I was still the same person and athlete, and many began asking me how to incorporate more plants into their meals.
We also need to continue shining the spotlight on badass, plant-based men in popular culture via widely accessible mediums like films, podcasts, and social media. One famous vegan athlete can do more to shape food and gender norms than a hundred academic papers ever could. That’s why I’m excited for the soon-to-be-released film The Game Changers, which profiles incredible plant-based athletes.
Unlike previous documentaries such as Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy, this film focuses specifically on the benefits of a plant-based diet for high-level athletic performance, and therefore has the potential to reach a whole new audience of athletes and sports fans. If the movie is a hit, it could represent a watershed moment in cultural attitudes about masculinity and change the way an entire generation of male athletes think about meat.
And finally, it can’t hurt to continue beating the drum about the negative health effects of a meat-heavy diet. To reinforce the message that disease, obesity, and early death aren’t part of anyone’s definition of what it means to be a real man.
Nate Lotze has led grassroots environmental campaigns and managed an organic farm. He currently handles communications at a statewide conservation organization in Pennsylvania.