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The plant-based food movement is real, tangible and growing with each passing day. In fact, if you’ve spent any time at all on social media (especially Instagram), you’d probably think a good portion of the world was vegan.
And why not? There are a plethora of spiritual, ethical, economic, and environmental and benefits that come with an exclusive plant-based eating style.
The increasing presence of unique and delicious vegan recipes, the notoriety of vegan athletes and powerful documentaries like Cowspiracy are all playing a part in contributing to improving the awareness and savvy of individuals around the world.
According to an Ipsos MORI study commissioned by Britain’s The Vegan Society, about 1% of the British population over the age of 15 is vegan. This totals to over 500,000 people, which is three and a half times the estimate from 10 years ago.
This is a promising sign for proponents of the plant-based movement, and of course the new recruits, who will enjoy a variety of health benefits as a result.
What health benefits you ask? It is becoming increasingly recognized that plant-based diets have the potential to confer a variety of benefits including reductions in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. In fact, former American President Bill Clinton switched to a plant-based diet for this very reason.
How unfortunate it is then that men, who are frequently prescribed medication for blood pressure and cholesterol lowering, are far less likely to pursue plant-based diets than woman. The same Ipsos study I alluded to earlier has veganism ratios in Britain at 2:1, female to male. Estimates that I’ve seen out of the USA had the ratio closer to 3:1.
That is a real shame given that the protective effect of plant based-diets is actually considered to be even stronger in men than in women,
I had to ask myself then, as a male dietitian, what is it about veganism that makes it less appealing to men?
A slew of plausible explanations rushed to mind, but I wanted to have a look at a few pieces of scholarly work on the subject before I went on with my own opinions.
In doing so, I came across a very interesting study conducted by an American psychology professor , Margaret Thomas, which found that those eating a vegan diet were perceived to be less masculine than those consuming an omnivorous diet. The study also found that the act of choosing to be vegan was associated with a perception of lower levels of masculinity.
So there we have one tangible reason, now let’s take a look at some other possible explanations, including my counter arguments to those lines of reasoning.
Why don’t plant-based diets resonate with men?
1. Lack of Concern For / Ignorance of health benefits: There are reasons why men die younger, this is one of them. Although the health benefits of veganism may be a tough sell for young man, middle aged men at greater risk of heart disease & diabetes and quite likely on blood pressure/cholesterol medication should know that a plant-based diet can offer them a healthier and longer life.
2. Meat Love/ Limited Cooking Skills: This is an obvious one. We have to face to objectively face the reality that men love to eat meat. I reside in Canada, and our last major national survey of men’s eating habits showed they consume meat beyond our national guideline recommendations. I think what many men do not realize, however, is just how amazing plant based dishes can taste and how immaculately foods like tofu (when properly prepared) can replace meat. The issue here, I believe, is that more advanced food preparation skills are required to prepare plant-based foods in a way that would appeal to the “average man”.
3. Cultural Influences: Beer, meat and sports are examples of perennial and deep-seated icons of male masculinity in modern culture. I believe this point is hard to refute, and it is one that is hammered home by media and industry from a young age. If this is something that has affected you, a simple google search of “famous male vegans” will help you to start seeing things a little bit differently.
4. Masculinity: Yes, I referenced a study earlier that showed vegan men were perceived as less masculine. But what about physiological masculinity? For example, there are misconceptions about soy negatively impacting men’s hormone levels. There is no evidence to support this claim. There are also suggestions that plant-eaters have lower levels of testosterone and other androgenic hormones than meat-eaters, this claim has been disproven.
5. The Protein “Problem”: Protein is the most overhyped and over marketed macronutrients known to man. Yes we need protein, but most of us get enough. I believe many men have been led to fear that vegetarian protein sources are inadequate to maintain a muscular physique. I approach this argument in two ways:
a. Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score ( PDCAA): This is a scientific protein-source rated system that is considered the best method to determine protein quality. The higher the score the better. On this test beef scores .92, where soy scores .91. Practically identical.
b. Vegan Athletes: I reached out to two vegan amateur athletes on Instagram to provide insight into their decision to go into vegan, the benefits it has conferred to them and the reasons why more men don’t do it.
Marko De La Rose – Vegan Fitness Enthusiast (@MarkoDeLaRose)
Marko turned to veganism after watching the little known documentary “Earthlings”, which opened his eyes to the mistreatment of animals. He experienced improved digestive health and less sick days after going vegan and believes that men may avoid veganism due to teasing and complaints they may incur about the lifestyle.
Marco Serafini – Vegan Teenage Gymnast (@PlantBasedFitness98)
Marco turned to veganism after the YouTube channel Infinite Waters sparked his interest in the spiritual aspects of being a vegan. From there, he took the time to understand the health benefits of plant-based eating from other YouTube channels (such as VeganGains) and learned more about the inhumane treatment animals experience in slaughterhouses. He was almost fully vegan by the time he watched the Cowspiracy documentary, which hit it home for him. He noticed cardiovascular and digestive benefits following the switch and believes that the modern notion of masculinity holds men back from veganism. He also is adamant there are unfair misconceptions about vegans being self-centred and always wanting to spotlight their dietary choices
I hope you found my exploration of the male vegan conundrum insightful. I’ve told a small but important part of the story here today. For any men out there reading this who happen to be on the fence of plant-based eating, I hope my words have resonated with you to a certain degree. If you are looking more information on the benefits of plant-based eating and how to carry it out right, I have included links to a variety of my blog posts below.
Thanks for reading!
Andy De Santis RD MPH
Andy is a private practice dietitian and avid nutrition blogger from Toronto, Canada. He holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition from the University of Toronto and loves spreading the good word on healthy eating through his writing.
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