Plant-based diets become more popular indicator of masculinity among male athletes

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Athletes no longer perceive masculinity as inherently linked to eating meat. Image source: PeopleImages/Getty Images
Athletes no longer perceive masculinity as inherently linked to eating meat. Image source: PeopleImages/Getty Images

Related tags sports Sports nutrition plant-based vegan Protein alternative protein

Traditionally, eating meat has been considered a cornerstone of masculinity, especially for professional male athletes. A recent small study, however, suggests that attitudes towards plant-based diets are changing among athletes.

The study, published in the journal Appetite, ​questioned 13 male athletes between the ages of 22 and 37 about their views and perceptions regarding plant-based diets compared with meat diets. Of these, two were vegetarians, two vegans, and the rest were mixed-eaters (eating a combination of plant-based food and meat). The athletes were from Finland and the Netherlands.

The article examines how present carnism is in athletes’ perceptions of vegan and vegetarian diets. Carnism, a term coined by psychologist Melanie Joy in 2010, means perceiving a meat-based diet as three things: natural (humans have naturally evolved to be meat-eaters), normal (simply ‘the way things are’) and necessary (to one’s nutritional health and, in an athlete’s case, physical performance).

A fourth category, that meat is nice (as in, it tastes nice and thus should not be given up), was added later by researcher Jared Piazza.

The Appetite ​study found that while many athletes consider meat as normal, nice and nutritionally necessary to their athletic performance, none of the athletes questioned considered it natural in regards to man’s relationship with nature, and natural that people should necessarily eat it.

Furthermore, the idea of a plant-based diet as contrary to one’s masculinity was not found in the majority of respondents. Instead, the study found that eating a plant-based diet could be considered a new kind of masculinity, respected even among those athletes who weren’t on one.

Protein as the key to performance

Traditionally, meat is seen as vital to an athlete, as it is one of the primary sources of protein which is usually viewed as necessary to good athletic performance.

Indeed, when they were asked, the respondents put protein ahead of other nutrients such as fibre as necessary to good performance, and for many of the mixed-eater athletes, meat was synonymous with it. Meat, they believed, was key to getting enough protein to succeed in their career.

Athletes often see meat as a key to accessing protein, which they view as vital for good performance. Image source: We Are/Getty Images

However, those on a plant-based diet questioned this narrative. Conversely, many even believed that a plant-based diet improved their performance rather than hindering it.

Although many of the athletes thought meat was tasty, most considered it unhealthy. They viewed giving it up a greater sacrifice than already restrictive yet meat-based diets that they were on, which often involved measuring food by gram and having limited eating times. They considered eating a plant-based diet as almost an act of asceticism.

They also considered that plant-based athletes had more time to prepare their food to taste good despite being vegan. However, plant-based eaters maintained that preparing plant-based food was not as difficult or time-consuming as the mixed-eaters had imagined.

Nevertheless, athletes rejected more radical animal-based diets, such as the keto diet. Even the mixed-eaters felt that this diet wouldn’t lead them to better performance.

None of the athletes in this study followed the keto diet. However, some had experimented with it for the short term, eventually returning to their usual diets​,” Hilje van der Horst, one of the study’s authors, told FoodNavigator.

Several interviewees emphasized the importance of carbohydrates for their sports performance. The emphasis on animal protein in the keto diet may make individuals more hesitant to give up animal products, but it is difficult to determine if this is a countervailing trend based on this study's population.

Some individuals who were more open to experimentation had tried multiple different diets, transitioning from keto experiments to a plant-based diet, for example​.”

Difficulty of adopting a plant-based diet

Turning to plant-based diets was not just a matter of choice among athletes. There were considerable obstacles for them, especially among athletes in team sports.

While solo athletes had control over their diets, many athletes in team sports were restricted in what they could eat by coaches, doctors or nutritionists. Even those who want to follow a plant-based diet could be forced to eat meat for this reason.

There has been some change to this. "Some plant-based eaters in the study noted a recent increase in the availability of plant-based options offered at caterings, but this matter should be studied separately,​” Horst told us.

The paper could raise awareness for the problem. “At least, this paper may illuminate the topics around athletes and plant-based diets. Potentially it can spark a discussion among sports nutritionists and clubs to evaluate their dietary paradigms​.”

There is also stigma around veganism. While it was rare, one respondent to the study said that, upon going vegan, he experienced pushback from his teammates, who felt that the team had been ‘downgraded’ by his dietary choice.

There is also a scarcity of vegetarian and vegan sports products in Finland and the Netherlands. “Vegetarian and vegan sports products are still in the minority compared to animal-based sports products in both countries​,” Horst told us.

There is, of course, a growing view across Europe of the need to transition away from meat and towards plant-based products. But the sports nutrition market in Finland and the Netherlands has some animal-based products entrenched.

Perceptions about plant-based food is changing. Image source: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

It is worth noting that certain animal-based sports products have a long and established history of production and consumption. For example, dairy-derived whey protein has a strong foothold in sports nutrition.

Thus, only time will tell whether consumers will transition to plant-based options as the selection expands or if they will stick with these more familiar products​.”

The changing face of masculinity

The study also found that, despite preconceptions about meat being linked to masculinity, this idea is no longer as widespread as it once was. Gender norms, it points out, are ‘dynamic’ and do not always remain constant. Eating a plant-based diet, the study suggests, could even be a way of ‘performing’ masculinity.

Rather than seeing masculinity as itself unimportant, the athletes’ views reflect a reformulation of the idea of masculinity as being included within veganism. In contrast to this, they spoke negatively about ‘men who gorge on pork’, a more traditional idea of masculinity.

In historic cases, veganism was adopted in a traditionally masculine way, as an example of men ‘standing up for their beliefs’. The study also mentions the ‘hegan’ archetype, a man who adopts veganism for health rather than ethical or environmental reasons.

However, of the athletes interviewed, those who at first adopted plant-based diets to improve their performance stated that they had began increasingly to care about things such as animal welfare and sustainability. The report questioned whether caring about animal welfare was still considered a ‘feminine’ trait, or whether dynamic gender norms had changed this.

The study provides a window into the changing face of ideas about masculinity. Male athletes, often seen as exemplars of masculinity, can be a weathervane to such changing trends.

We know that athletes are seen as role models for food and health​,” Horst told us. “This is predicting the future, but I do think they could be frontrunners, that may be emulated by non-athletes​.”

Sourced From: Appetite
'Game changers for meat and masculinity? Male athletes’ perspectives on mixed and plant-based diets’
Published on: 2023
Authors: H. van der Horst, A. Sällylä, Y. Michielsen

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