Women are twice as likely as men to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet. The reasons are tied to complex concepts of masculinity and men’s fears about losing their strength. But to be jacked, you don’t need steak. You might even be better without it.
Of meat and men
Back in the ’90s, scholar Carol J. Adams argued in The Sexual Politics of Meat that veganism is linked with traits like empathy and compassion. Western culture associates these traits with femininity, while masculinity is tied with domination and eating animals.
A recent study agrees, finding that men are more likely to associate meat with ideas like “healthy,” “powerful,” and “virile.”
But some guys are finding the opposite is true: Going plant based helps them be healthier, more powerful, and more virile than ever.
Plants and pro athletes
Arnold Schwarzenegger once used the phrase “you hit like a vegetarian” as an insult. But he’s terminating this stereotype and championing eating more plant based.
Schwarzenegger went as far as appearing in a recent documentary on plant-based athletes, The Game Changers. Griff Whalen, a football wide receiver who has played with several NFL teams, also appears in the film.
“A healthy plant-based diet has had an extremely positive effect on both my athletic performance and overall health,” says Whalen. He says that thanks to his plant-based diet, he’s seen his speed improve and feels stronger and leaner.
But are Schwarzenegger, Whalen, and the rest of the cast of The Game Changers
Harder, better, faster, stronger
The latest research shows that going vegan brings a host of benefits for men. For example, just as Whalen experienced, a study following nearly 61,000 adults found it’s one of the best ways to stay fit and lean.
Staying lean doesn’t just help you attain the much-vaunted six pack. It may also boost your levels of testosterone—the male sex hormone responsible for your sexual health and your muscle growth and strength.
And if you’re a fan of pushing yourself to your athletic limits, you’re in luck. According to the American Council on Exercise, going plant based is a natural fit for those who enjoy endurance sports, because vegan meals tend to be higher in carbohydrates.
It’s also a good fit for guys wanting muscle, as the growing ranks of vegan bodybuilders can attest. “Yes, you can build and maintain muscle with only plant-based food,” confirms Keith Ayoob, a nutritionist and dietitian.
There are a few caveats. If you’re trying to bulk up and gain mass, you might need to eat a little extra. You’ll want to supplement with vitamin B12, as it’s tough to get enough of this nutrient from fortified plant-based foods alone.
And then there’s the protein question.
You complete me
Protein, which is made of various amino acids, is the building block of muscle, both in terms of growth and post-workout recovery. There’s just one famous issue for vegans.
“Most plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins,” says registered dietitian Amanda A. Kostro Miller. “That means they don’t offer all the essential amino acids that you need.”
This common worry is actually unfounded. If you eat a variety of foods throughout your day, you’ll supply your body with all the essential amino acids you require.
“Men can still get all the essential amino acids from plant-based proteins,” says Kostro Miller. “Simply diversify your plant-based protein intake. For example, peanut butter with whole-grain bread creates a well-rounded amino acid profile.”
But no discussion about vegan protein is complete—pun intended—without talking about the big soy elephant in the room.
Soy protein is one of the only plant-based proteins that is complete (quinoa and chia are a couple of others). Yet soy is often vilified by guys for containing estrogen.
For instance, when a major American restaurant chain rolled out a new soy burger last year, alarmists proclaimed that eating these burgers would give men breasts. Similar worries exist about tofu, soy milk, and other products.
And while soy does contain isoflavones, which are a type of plant estrogen (or “phytoestrogen”), more recent research shows that soy is likely beneficial or, at worst, neutral. The Harvard School of Public Health explains that past conflicting conclusions about soy were due to differences in how each study was conducted or the type of soy that was used in the study.
That doesn’t make soy perfect. Some products are highly processed, and most American soy is genetically modified. But soy won’t shrink your muscles or threaten your manhood.
Where to start
Going fully plant based can feel daunting. Start small with Meatless Mondays or just switching out a couple of meals a week.
“Simply increasing the number of plant-based meals per week may decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and other chronic disease,” says Ayoob. “Everyone should strive to incorporate at least one or two vegetarian dinners per week.”
The pros of going plant based
Plant-based guys live an average of seven years longer than their meat-loving friends.
Protect your prostate
Vegan diets reduce prostate cancer risks and increase your odds of surviving it.
Be better in bed
Eating plant based is strongly associated with better circulation, blood pressure, and cardiovascular health. Doctors argue this may help boost your erections and love life.
Less meat is associated with improved moods and feeling happier.
Speed your sperm
Most saturated fat is animal fat. A high intake of saturated fat could reduce your sperm count by a whopping 41 percent. Processed red meat is especially lethal to your swimmers.