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Real Men Eat Meat!

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.

Edmonton, Alberta

Ruby MB, & Heine SJ (2011). Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite, 56 (2), 447-50 PMID: 21256169


  1. I’m actually surprised that you’re surprised by this. Gendering of food is pervasive in our culture, and it is discussed frequently on the feminist blogs that I follow.

    Things that should be completely neutral, like yogurt and milk, are often advertised as female foods. Just look at all the commercials for Yoplait Light. They’re either all about women, or when a man is eating their product it’s because he doesn’t really what he’s actually eating. Activia is better in that the commercials seem to appeal to both men and women, so I don’t really know why Yoplait Light took that particular advertising route.

    There was a whole episode of Seinfeld that revolved around Jerry trying to eat healthy and his girlfriend looking down on him for it, ending with him pretending to eat mutton and spitting it out.

    The examples are endless, but can you really picture many men who would get the salad, oatmeal, or fruit and yogurt parfait at McDonald’s?

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  2. I have to agree with “banancat”. I am surprised that you are surprised … I am not at all surprised.
    When you watch TV/commercials and they i.e. advertise for steaks …. it’s either a group of people involving some females and mainly males or a group of only males … but never a group of only females. Especially red meat is considered very masculin. If I am not mistaken the majority of vegetarians are female.
    I still like my (bison) steak … medium pls 😉

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  3. We are overwhelmed with nutritional advice from all sides (much of it inaccurate) and most of us don’t realize its morally and politically based more than it is science based. I’ve seen a magazine in a well known supermarket titled “clean” eating. Presumably that’s as opposed to “dirty” eating. Which makes no sense at all from a scientific point of view. Its all about moral judgements. Judgements about social status also play a big part in the politics of food. Lower status people are usually portrayed as eating “bad” food while higher status people eat “good” food. Its almost impossible to separate the science from the subjective judgements.

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  4. As pointed out by Nutrition Action there are the ads for Wendy’s double baconater that say it’s for real men only!

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  5. Judging from my experiences in relationships with men, it would be a mistake to think that the fact a lot of them are very fond of meat is nothing more than macho posturing. I cannot believe the vast amounts of meat then men can put away.

    Also, I’ve never been in a relationship with someone who did not, after some initial skepticism, learn to love my tofu stirfrys, chick pea stews, and entree salads – as long as that’s not what’s served every single night. Vegetarian tonight. Tomorrow night, it’s a roasted half chicken and yes honey, you can have the leg and wing and I’ll make sure the skin is crispy and make gravy out of the pan drippings for the mashed potatoes and carrots. And you know what? Both that and the vegetarian meals feel healthy.

    One thing, though. There are more men than women who are child-like picky eaters. They prefer bland food and don’t enjoy trying new things. I couldn’t live with someone like that, but if I were to give them nutritional advice, I’d say to try to drink some vegetable juice, add fruit, and carrots and celery as snacks, and take supplements.

    Oh – and the secret to getting working class guys to eat vegetarian? Don’t make the food too light and don’t serve tiny portions. Forget low fat, and make sure there are beans, nuts, eggs and/or dairy involved. I guess that’s not what someone giving out weight loss advice would want to tell people, though.

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  6. I must be very different from most people who see what others are eating, my first thoughts are:
    -‘that looks good’
    -‘that is a big potion’
    -‘i do not think I would like that’

    I have also found that people who do heavy physical work tend to ‘want’ more meat–or protein. This in itself is not bad. The big problem is that to many eat potatoes with high fat toppings, bread with plenty of spread (high fat at that), and if in a restarunt they often have high calorie alcohol to wash it all down. Then if they do not have alcohol they will have a fairly large dessert to top the meal off. Therefore, it is not just the meat it is every thingelse that goes with the meat.

    As far as those who judge others because they eat this or that maybe they should look at “why” they are judging, and accept the other persons food choices as they would many other choices that would not interfer with there own enjoyment of life.

    How the advertising industry promotes products is regardless of this non-judgemental attitude. And whit many women being care givers we do tend to think about our health and others a little more than men would. This does not mean men do not think about others health it is that not as many do as women do. Thank you for your article I hope my insight is helpful.

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  7. Meat is incredibly nutritious and to purposefully discourage men from eating it by adding culturally-derived, negative moral beliefs and feelings to the consumption of meat is, at its core, a dysfunctional approach to nutrition.

    Do me a favor, ask yourself why men have sex. Then ask yourself why men eat meat. Then Google “proximate versus ultimate causes”. Review your answers to the first two questions and revise as needed based upon your new knowledge.

    In other words, they’ve identified a proximate cause. Good job.

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