Meat and dairy consumption has become an issue of planetary urgency. “We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters,” said David Attenborough in his 2020 biographical documentary, A Life on Our Planet. Yet that transition away from flesh-eating and toward plant-based diets is fraught with fear and cultural constructions that box us in, especially for guys who go vegan.
Meat eating is increasingly recognized as negatively impacting animal welfare, the environment, and personal and public health.
Researchers warn that eating meat isn’t just a dietary preference; it is wrapped up with gender. Manifestations of masculinity continue to dominate the male body and are often symbolized by the consumption of meat. Consuming meat for males is a symbol of virility — to the point where men’s masculinity maintenance may be one factor contributing to gender differences in meat consumption and health disparities related to overconsumption of meat.
The most common demographic of vegans are women aged between 18 and 34, and twice as many women as men are vegan. And most vegans are women — in the UK, about two-thirds of vegans identify as women; in the US, it’s more like 4 to 1. Globally, men eat around 57% more meat than women, according to the US Department of Health.
An article in The Guardian earlier this year by lifelong vegan David Hillier challenged assumptions that “real men eat meat.” Hillier describes his youth as a series of constant teasing and shaming, titters and comments about his masculinity because of his decision not to eat meat. He was barraged with the ubiquitous use of “gay” as an insult. Labels of “soy boy” and “you must be gay because you’re vegan” became common.
Jibes about the vegan diet are recurrent in western culture. It doesn’t help when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims that veganism is “a crime against cheese lovers.”
How did meat become synonymous with masculinity? Males are often offended by other males who consciously choose not to eat dead things and express their dismay openly. Singular models of western masculinity attribute gender to certain foods, suggesting that men and women “do gender” by consuming gender appropriate foods. Meat, especially red meat, is an archetypal masculine food. Men often emphasize meat, and women often minimize meat, in displaying gender as individuals.
As a result, males often profess pride in their meat eating.
What is the Protein Myth?
Culturally, meat is a symbol of vigor and dominance, with its consumption both placing human beings at the top of the food chain and filling human bodies with proteins and fats required to do high energy work.
However, the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine says a varied plant-based diet of whole grains, vegetables, and beans can easily meet a human’s daily protein needs, without the risks of animal products. With the traditional Western diet, the average person in the US consumes about double the protein their body needs.
Additionally, the main sources of protein consumed tend to be animal products, which are also high in fat and saturated fat. While it is true that your body needs protein, the reality is that you need more plant-based, nutrient-dense food to provide that protein and build muscle.
Protein is found in all plant foods except fruit. It is easy to get enough protein from a plant-based diet. In fact, raw vegetables average between 5% and 15% protein content, while cooked beans and legumes boast 18% to 30% protein. Sufficient amounts of protein can be obtained from eating high-protein vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and asparagus. Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds, quinoa, and buckwheat are also high sources of protein.
The Rich & Famous & Athletic — Guys Who Go Vegan
Does it seem incongruous that bodybuilders could be plant-eating? Ultrarunners? How about race car drivers?
Could a Formula One driver be a vegan? They usually experience 5 g while braking, 2 g while accelerating, and 4 to 6 g while cornering. Every Formula One car has an ADR (Accident Data Recorder) device installed, which records speed and g-forces.
Saying he’s concerned about animal cruelty, global warming, and personal health, Lewis Hamilton is one of the “hegans” who are turning gender stereotypes on their head. He’s won the Formula One championship 7x (8 if you question the legitimacy of the 2021 season results). He’s been knighted and was named one of Peta’s 20 Most Beautiful Vegan Celebrities in 2021. As one of Britain’s most influential vegans, he shares his plant-based philosophy with his nearly 27m followers on Instagram – even his dog is vegan.
Scott Jurek doesn’t eat meat or dairy. Yet the ultrarunner excels in athletic performance — he ran the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in a record-setting 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes. He’s also won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, the “world’s toughest foot race,” twice, and he’s won the 153-mile long Spartathlon in Greece 3 consecutive times.
Multiple time Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic follows a plant-based diet for optimal athleticism. Speaking during a press conference, he explained:
“It’s a lifestyle more than just a diet because you have ethical reasons as well, being conscious of what is happening in the animal world. The slaughtering of animals and farming and everything, that’s obviously also a huge impact on climate change which maybe people don’t talk about as much. It’s more than a performance reason for me; it’s a lifestyle. It’s something I’m really proud of.”
Patrik Bouboumian became Germany’s strongest man in 2011 – the first-ever vegan to do so. He also won the 2012 European Powerlifting Championships in Finland, beating strongmen from across the continent. In 2013 he told his followers:
“This is a message to all those out there who think that you need animal products to be fit and strong. Almost two years after becoming vegan, I am stronger than ever before, and I am still improving day by day.“
Final Thoughts — Survey Says…
As early as 2010, studies illuminated that omnivorous and vegetarian participants rated plant-based targets as more virtuous and less masculine than omnivorous targets.
Non-animal diets are no longer a niche concern. But what can be done to ease more males into plant-based eating? Confronting gendered stereotypes about meat-eating will certainly help. What do recent surveys tell us about the rising acceptance of veganism?
According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Vegan Society, the number of UK vegans quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2019.
In 2020, the Vegan Society surveyed 1000 Brits and determined that a majority feel guilty eating animals like pigs but not dogs.
A 2021 global survey by the global health non-profit, NSF found that 88% of food industry practitioners said that they expect demand for plant-based products to increase. 74% said they thought consumers choose plant-based for a healthier lifestyle, and 60% believed it’s to be more environmentally friendly.
Britons have reduced their meat intake by almost 17% in a decade, according to a 2021 study in The Lancet’s Planetary Health journal.
Research also in 2021, published in the journal Plos One, found that the diet of the average British male produces 40% more carbon emissions than that of females, largely due to increased meat consumption.
An August, 2021 study indicates that, over and above other dietary, motivational, and demographic factors, pro-environmental behavior positively predicted both short-term and future-intended adherence to plant-based diets.
A US study released in November, 2021 in the journal Appetite found that conformity (or otherwise) to traditional gender roles was still a good predictor of people’s meat consumption and openness to vegetables for environmental reasons.
It helps that documentaries like those on Netflix are normalizing the concept of meat abstention or reduction. The Game Changers is great if you haven’t seen it. It tells the story of James Wilks — elite Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner — as he travels the world on a quest to uncover the optimal diet for human performance. What he discovers is that the world’s elite athletes are vegans — males as well as females.
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