Male Veganism; understanding the social, cultural and psychological factors behind gender and food

* 8 min read
Clare takes a look at male veganism and asks if men are finally ready to ditch the steak.

Are men finally ready to ditch the steak?

Is there a vegan revolution underway? There’s been an explosion of interest in vegan products and lifestyles over the last few years and whilst there’s definitely a gender bias towards female vegans the divide is shrinking. Recent studies show 60:40 female/male split in the UK but interest in veganism is growing fast and gaining traction in sectors previously believed to be impenetrable.

"The vegan market has changed fundamentally in the last six or seven years - it's now for everyone. Social media has brought it to the forefront of customer's minds, and the mainstream. It's not seen any more as a choice for life, but as a choice for one meal, one moment, for one or two days a week. Flexitarianism, part-time vegetarianism or veganism, is becoming more and more popular.”

Giles Quick - director at market researcher Kantar Worldpanel
BUT ‘real’ men eat great lumps of red meat right?

"Meat remains for many men a stable, if arbitrary, hook on which to hang their gender identity," says Dr Richard Twine, senior lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University. He adds: “Men who are invested in inflexible models of masculinity as opposed to seeing gender identity as socially constructed and changeable, tend to have more problem with the idea of compassion to other animals, as historically that has been antithetical to dominant models of masculinity."

 “Putting aside the misinformed conception that you need animal proteins to build muscle, there’s an idea that men need to be muscular, and to most people this is tied to the consumption of animal products.”

Nick Squires, vegan champion powerlifter

The relationship between what we eat and our identity is complex and has evolved over millennia since our hunter gather ancestry when men took on the majority of the hunting and their individual prowess would have boosted their social standing. A 2018 study found that concepts like “virility” and “power” were a part of the relationship we as a species have with eating meat and conventional masculine stereotypes. Even if there is a desire to reduce meat intake for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons, these embedded stereotypes are a real barrier to many men who fear the push back from their peers.

 “70% of respondents agreed that, in their experience, it is currently far less socially acceptable for men to be vegan, and male vegans would likely receive criticism or ridicule from friends or family”.

Plant powered performance

These traditional ideas of masculinity have been placed under scrutiny by many sources but most recently and explosively by the Netflix’s documentary Game Changers which studies the relationship between Veganism and the athletic performance of 3 individuals.

As well as monitoring their general athletic output, the documentary also monitored the strength, longevity and frequency of their night-time erections. The results were not only unexpected but remarkable and suddenly a vegan lifestyle was appealing to alpha males and locker rooms with the promise of improved ‘performance’ all round!

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Using virility and performance to drive growth

The 2019 documentary was hugely influential, in just one week it was crowned iTunes’ best-selling documentary ever and the buzz it created trended across social media causing a spike in awareness and interest in veganism. Indeed, figures from plant-based meal delivery company Allplants showed a 66% increase in sales directly after the airing of Game Changers, with increased enquiries particularly from athletes and sports clubs.

alplants overview webImage source: ALLplants

That was just the beginning, sportspeople competing in traditionally masculine sports can now be found promoting part-vegan diets, and some have launched their own brands challenging macho views on health and performance.

American Footballer, Tom Brady eats a mostly vegan, low-carb diet at 43 Brady is the oldest player ever to appear in a Super Bowl (and in the winning team no less). Eighty percent of the quarterback’s diet is vegetables. The highly acclaimed athlete has partnered with weekly vegan meal delivery service Purple Carrot to offer high-protein, gluten-free, low-carb dinners through his TB12 brand. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski credited the plan for “extending” his career last October, after a year out.

dave adamson rPUDwwLSohI unsplash2Image credit: Dave Adamson on Unsplash

World Heavyweight Champion boxer Anthony Joshua eats vegan before competing. In his new documentary, ‘The Calm Before the Storm,’ which he published on YouTube, Joshua speaks of how he avoids meat before fights, opting instead for “vegan lunches.”

Similarly, formerly voracious meat eater Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won the prestigious international bodybuilding competition Mr Olympia seven times between 1970-1980, is now actively promoting the connection between veganism and increased sports performance.

victor freitas Yuv iwByVRQ unsplashImage credit: Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Whilst general health improvements is cited as the main reason for meat-eaters wanting to cut down on meat consumption, there is no doubt that the claimed link between veganism and male ‘performance’ has really ignited the vegan conversation and caught the attention of a whole ‘new’ male audience.

102038956 chart meat free reasons g855o ncImage source: BBC News

Huge opportunity for brands

Male veganism is certainly growing in popularity amongst elite athletes, fuelled by the hype of Game Changers and social media attention but veganism has yet to be embraced by mainstream male audiences and this represents a huge opportunity for brands.

When Veconomist asked participants What could be done by vegan manufacturers to make vegan products more appealing to men, if anything? they overwhelmingly said that prominent male athletes should be used in association with vegan products to help them appeal to men. They agreed that bodybuilders and other sportsmen would be a positive advertising message.

“The rise of vegan men will be caused by the more traditionally masculine packaging or advertising of vegan food products, as well as the presence of high-profile vegan men who exhibit traditionally masculine physical traits.”

Nick Squires, vegan champion powerlifter

Online influencers are building loyal audiences and challenging perceptions head-on in a way that brands can’t. By sharing experiences across social media there are safe spaces to access and experiment with vegan lifestyles without judgement. The more we see and hear ‘masculine’ bodies and voices, the more accepting society becomes and the more vegan brands can expand into the mainstream.

CaptureImage source: Instagram - veganbodybuilding

PW Web Images 22 minImage source: Mighty Pea

Consumer first

Brands leading the way are those who have moved on from marketing purely at women, taking a gender-neutral approach and focussing on personality, purpose, and a human tone of voice. Ultimately the winners in this sector will also need to appeal to what modern-day men engage with and aspire towards without falling into gender stereotypes and clichés.

Brands need to de-code trends and consumer insights to reflect the conscience of consumers by combining imaginative creative with smart problem solving.

About the author

imageedit 1 6168940299Clare Leeland - Brand Strategy & Consumer Insight

Clare is a Client Partner and Project Manager. She specialises in brand strategy, consumer insight and packaging design. Clare has worked in packaging design across automotive manufacturing and FMCG brands, combining pragmatism with creativity, She's passionate about delivering effective design by getting the most out of client briefs and working closely with designers and insight agencies.

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