Real Men Can Eat Whatever They Want, Even a Vegetarian Diet

A new study finds vegan and vegetarian men are embarrassed about their meat-free diets. They shouldn't be.


Two very manly men laughing over vegetables. Credit: Zero Creatives GmbH Westend61/Newscom

A new study claims men who dine out with male friends often don't order vegetarian or vegan dishes for fear of being perceived by their friends as somehow less masculine. The researchers claim such men "are embarrassed to eat vegetarian or vegan food in public" and have experienced "social isolation" as a result of their food preferences.

"[M]any men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so[,]" study co-author Prof. Emma Roe told attendees at a conference last month where she presented the results of the study.

The term masculinity tends to center on perceived male traits like "strength and boldness." Vegetarians can eat products derived from animals (think honey or cheese) but don't eat foods derived from killing animals. Vegans take vegetarianism one step further by also avoiding all animal products, including honey and cheese.

Data show that combined rates of vegetarianism and veganism currently hover under four percent, and have remained largely unchanged for decades. Moreover, recent data suggest that improving economic conditions throughout Asia are likely to see meat consumption rise dramatically on the world's most populous continent.

Notably, the authors of the study, Roe and Paul Hurley, her colleague at the University of Southampton, believe veganism and vegetarianism to be far better alternatives than living an omnivorous life. In particular, the authors claim that "eating less meat is vital to a more sustainable future food supply," and cite land use and greenhouse gas emissions as factors in their argument.

Headline-generating studies on gender and meat consumption, such as this one, are surprisingly and annoyingly common. For example, earlier this year, a dubious study that made the rounds argued something quite different from the one that spurred this column, namely that veganism is an explicit expression of icky white masculinity. Of course, that study is countered by another recent study, which found that "hegemonic masculinity implies an imperative to eat meat[.]"

If researchers love the masculinity and meat consumption trope, the popular media might love the pressures-to-eat-meat line of inquiry even more (see, for example, here, here, and here).

Seeking to learn more about the study, I asked Prof. Roe to send me a draft copy of the report, which she did this week. The paper's working title riffs on a line Roe and Hunter noted one study participant, who they identify as Phil, a vegetarian in his late 40s, uttered during a workshop: "Has anyone felt sort of ashamed to say they're vegetarian[?]" There's plenty to unpack in that question. For example, it expresses an internalized sentiment (shame), rather than suggesting others are ashamed to be dining alongside a vegetarian or vegan. What's more, one needn't declare their vegetarian or vegan status in order to choose to eat that way.

The study's research design leaves something to be desired. Rather than studying the pressures vegans and vegetarians may face from meat eaters in actual public settings (or attempting to recreate such settings in a controlled environment), the researchers instead attempted to create a safe dining space in which mostly vegan and vegetarian men could discuss their feelings.

"The researchers figured that in this relaxed setting, the men could be more truthful about their experiences than they might be in a rigid clinical trial or a one-on-one interview," VICE reports.

I found this apparent disconnect between the study's goals and the authors' research design a bit challenging to overcome. Namely, I wondered, why did they define the problem (that vegan or vegetarian men find it difficult "to choose the vegetarian or vegan option when in public with other men") but then focus not on these public settings or the interactions within them but, rather, on "encourag[ing men] to cook and eat meatless meals together." The key elements of the problem (public setting plus omnivore/carnivore pressures) don't appear to exist at all in the research setting.

"It might be logical to now follow up this research with a survey targeting a greater number of men, since we found that the topic of feeling ashamed, embarrassed or conflict avoidance feelings or practices associated with being a man that didn't eat meat often, or ever, was something that came out strongly in our research," Prof. Roe replied.

Additionally, though the new study intends to assess and bolster the comfort level of those who choose not to eat meat, I think the authors' approach may reinforce tired arguments about the fragility of masculinity, and may advance absurd arguments that male vegans and vegetarians are even weaker than their carnivorous and omnivorous counterparts.

I don't know too many eaters who need an attaboy before they feel comfortable exercising their dietary choices openly. But let me provide one anyways: eat whatever the hell you want. If you're a vegan or vegetarian, don't let friends who are meat eaters stigmatize you for your choices. Friends don't do that. Alternately, if you're a meat eater, don't let friends who are vegan or vegetarian stigmatize you for your choices.

"Men being concerned with the perception of lacking masculinity while ordering vegetarian is such an archaic way of thinking," says Torre Washington, a (ripped) vegan professional bodybuilder, in an email to me this week. "Masculinity is not defined by what you eat and certainly having someone else kill and cook your food for you doesn't scream 'I'm Manly.'"