The mere sound of the word veganism is enough to hurtle an army of 10,000 men to the ground, tear through ranks of tough, muscular soldiers, and leave many dead or wounded in a bloody, and gruesome free-for-all. While exaggerating the disdain that men seem to have for this expanding lifestyle choice, there is certainly a staggering discrepancy between the number of male and female vegans in society. A recent poll suggests that there are nearly twice as many female vegans in the UK (63% to 37%). So, is this because women are inherently more likely to oppose the aforementioned massacre of sentient beings, including animals? Or can we muster up alternative explanations for the lack of men following a plant-based diet, whose benefits have been repeatedly affirmed by science? I think we will find, like so many things, that a lack of education surrounding different lifestyles and constructs is an important factor.
Firstly, we need to ask what veganism is and outline some of the reasons someone want might to be one. The vegan society describes this philosophy as a way of living which aims to avoid animal exploitation as much as is possible. This would mean giving up your medium-rare steak that you have each year in the circus café after a long day of buying Italian leather goods for yourself. Of course, I don’t think anyone reading this article will live such an opulent lifestyle, but you get the idea.
So why would you give up these kinds of pleasures? Some people cannot support the idea of animal exploitation for momentary indulgence, and other people for health reasons: science has shown that a diet high in animal products and low in plants is linked to cancer, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal complaints, and psychiatric conditions. Given that there is a lot of evidence in favour of reducing animal consumption, why do men seem reluctant to sign up?
A good place to start would be gender roles within our patriarchal society. Men are expected to be strong and dominant. There is an unfortunate association between veganism and physical weakness. Men who want to express their masculinity often do so by means of working out and staying lean and muscular. A plant-based diet is surely lower in protein: the very substance needed to promote muscle growth and repair. If a man wants to be manly in our society, surely, he would have to enjoy all things meaty.
Remedying this gender problem requires an increased knowledge of nutrition. Guidelines for protein intake are generally around 0.8 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For the average man, this is around 56-60 grams of protein per day. This is entirely doable on a vegan diet, providing you know your sources of protein. Men, I’m putting you under the spotlight. How many fitness enthusiasts believe they need 100 grams or more of protein? How many really understand nutrition? Or do you just go to the gym to look good, without thinking if your health is also good?
To further complicate matters, having a good knowledge of nutrition is, unfortunately, still viewed as a female domain. After all guys, surely the kitchen is a woman’s place.
Indeed, society has a lot of expectations for women: we expect kindness and empathy, sex appeal and beauty, service and subordination. Somewhere in the collective psyche maybe we men really believe that compassionate and empathetic vegan men are weak; maybe we see them as less strong and valuable to our society; maybe we laugh at their expression of more feminine qualities, whilst supporting women who want to be vegans. We want men to be strong, rough, and protective. Do we really associate a man who supports animal welfare and cares about bunnies with sex-appeal? I think it is unlikely. We want a bad guy, an alpha male with a killer instinct. Do these descriptions evoke images of a scrawny vegan boy? Probably not.
Yet, there are many vegan bodybuilders, such as Patrik Baboumian who is the world’s strongest man. They are strong and sexy. They are compassionate and empathetic. And they are healthy, with less risk of developing disease in the future. Is this the kind of guy we want in society? Someone who is well-rounded and long-lasting: a fully-functioning person in the words of Carl Rogers. I think our society needs men with good sell-by dates; guys who will live long enough to use their caring qualities to make an impact on this earth, not dudes who are destructive both internally and externally.
As a society, we need to look at our gender norms. We need to challenge them. Men, we need guys to tell us it is doable. We need people to tell us that we can achieve our fitness goals with the same level of commitment on a vegan diet as an omnivorous one. We do not lose anything, but we gain the world. To do this, we need education.