How men are dispelling the myth that meat equals muscles
Canadian women are 60 percent more likely than men to call themselves vegan or vegetarian. 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.
It’s one of Canada’s fastest-growing trends: 27 percent of Canadians say they’re thinking of switching to a vegetarian diet and 11 percent are considering going full vegan.
Yet, there’s a startling gender divide. Across North America, it’s predominantly women who go plant-based.
The complex reasons reach deep into the psyche of men.
Back in the ’90s, scholar Carol J. Adams argued in The Sexual Politics of Meat (Continuum, 1990, 1999) that veganism is linked with traits such as 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 such as “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.
Masculinity is so intertwined with meat that one researcher found most men avoided ordering plant-based food in social settings for fear of being made fun of.
Arnold Schwarzenegger once used the phrase “you hit like a vegetarian” as an insult. But he’s terminating this stereotype. “I’m slowly getting off meat, and I can tell you, I feel fantastic,” he said in a 2016 interview.
Schwarzenegger went on to appear in the new plant-based documentary, The Game Changers (2018). Griff Whalen, a football wide receiver who has played with numerous NFL and CFL 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 Game Changers cast simply anomalies?
The latest research shows that earning your v-card and going vegan brings a host of benefits for men. For example, just like 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 muscle growth and athletic performance are important to you, 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 a vegan meal tends to be higher in carbohydrates.
It’s also a good fit for guys wanting muscle, as Nimai Delgado and other celebrity bodybuilders featured in The Game Changers attest. “Yes, you can build and maintain muscle with only plant-based food,” encourages Dr. 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. And then there’s the protein question.
If you’re working out, aim for 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day. The best sources of vegan protein are legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and faux meat products.
Protein is the building block of muscle, both in terms of growth and post-workout recovery. There’s just one 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.”
While a common worry, it’s thankfully 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] the only plant-based proteins that is complete like an animal-based protein,” points out Kostro Miller. Others include quinoa, hempseeds, and chia seeds. Yet soy is often vilified by guys for containing estrogen.
For instance, when a major American fast food 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 a type of plant estrogen (called phytoestrogens), more recent research shows that soy is beneficial and, at worst, neutral. The Harvard School of Public Health explains that past conflicting conclusions about soy were due to differences in how the 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 Canadian soy is genetically modified. But it won’t shrink your muscles or threaten your manhood.
Going fully plant-based can feel daunting. Start small with Meatless Mondays or just switching out a couple of meals.
“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.”
Plant-based guys live an average of seven years longer than their meat-guzzling friends.
Vegan diets reduce prostate cancer risks and increase your odds of surviving it.
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.
Most saturated fat is animal fat. Saturated fat reduces your sperm count by a whopping 41 percent. Processed red meat is especially lethal to your swimmers.
Most guys guzzle big tubs of whey protein, but plant-based alternatives such as pea protein and rice protein have been shown to support muscle strength just as effectively.
BCAA supplements are often used by athletes after workouts to provide energy for muscles and assist with protein metabolism.
Creatine is one of the world’s most well-researched, and most popular, strength- and power-boosting supplements. It’s naturally only found in animal tissue, but vegans can opt for a supplement.
These healthy fats have numerous benefits, including assisting in post-workout recovery. Instead of fish oil pills, try alternatives such as flax oil or seaweed extracts.