I always thought that the three most important determinants of food choices for most people are taste, cost and convenience. (interestingly, health benefits feature much further down this list than most people think).
Now a fascinating article by Matthew Ruby and Steven Heine from the University of British Columbia, just published in APPETITE, suggests food choices also have to do with factors like virtue and masculinity.
In Western societies, people who chose to be vegetarian most often do so for reasons that are widely perceived as virtuous: concern for animal welfare, concern for the environment, and concern for health ( a fourth reason is disgust at the sensory qualities of meat – but this often develops after people have been vegetarian for a while). This raises the issue of whether or not vegetarians themselves are less tolerant of omnivorous diets.
But choosing to eat meat or go vegetarian may not just be about perceived morality or virtue. As the authors point out, in many societies, meat consumption is associated with manhood, power, and virility:
“In contemporary North American society, meat is often viewed as an archetypal food for men, with many men not considering a meal without meat to be a “real” meal, and the concept of the strong and hearty “meat and potatoes man” abounds.”
In their paper, the authors report the results of two studies that looked at people’s perceptions of others who follow omnivorous and vegetarian diets, controlling for the perceived healthiness of the diets in question.
In both studies, subjects were asked to rate targets who were presented in brief identical vignettes – the only differences being the targets’ reported dietary preferences, omnivorous or vegetarian – with regard to three scales: virtue, masculinity and health.
In both studies, omnivorous participants rated the vegetarian targets as significantly more virtuous and rated vegetarian men as less masculine. Ratings of female targets’ masculinity did not differ according to their dietary status.
Thus, the authors conclude:
“Taken together, the two studies support the notion that, above and beyond the previously found effects of diet healthiness, people infer a stronger sense of virtue and morality in those who abstain from eating meat. Especially for male targets, participants perceived vegetarians as less masculine than omnivores….Through purposefully abstaining from meat, a widely established symbol of power, status, and masculinity, it seems that the vegetarian man is perceived as more principled, but less manly, than his omnivorous counterpart.”
These findings may have important implications for dietary counseling. Thus, recommendations to reduce meat consumption (or even to just eat more vegetables) may be less likely to appeal to men, who may perceive this (or fear that others may perceive this) as a loss of masculinity and therefore socially unacceptable.
Indeed, I can easily picture the men, who would happily forgo taste, cost and convenience just to prove to themselves (and whoever else may care) that ‘real’ men eat meat.
On the other hand I can also see why the well-meaning dietary advise from the ‘holier-than-thou’ vegetarian may be ill received by individuals (not just men), who resent the moral and judgmental undertones implied in such advise (especially if it is unsolicited).
Suddenly, the title of Carol Adams’ seminal work, “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, makes so much more sense.
Ruby MB, & Heine SJ (2011). Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite, 56 (2), 447-50 PMID: 21256169