by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD
Let’s cut to the chase. When it comes to dudes and plant-based diets, there’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation circulating that purposefully preys on common insecurities like virility, strength and general manliness. The mainstream media sure loves a story about soy leading to emasculating effects like low sperm count and men growing boobs. But we also know that there are tons of top strength and endurance athletes who are vegan, as well as average guys who eat plant-based and just lead normal lives. As The Discerning Brute’s resident Registered Dietitian (and yes, that makes me more qualified than a nutritionist), I’ve put together a list of five facts and six frequent concerns that men need to know when it comes to navigating the testosterone-laden waters of food gender politics.
5 FACTS SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE
1. You can get the nutrients you need from plants.
2. Eating more vegan foods reduces your risk for many diseases.
3. You can work out and hit your macros with plant foods.
4. Soy does not give men boobs or lower sperm count.
5. Science-based information is available from trusted resources.
CONCERNS WE HEAR ALL THE TIME
• Animal products are superior. What about paleo?
• Making the switch to a vegan diet is difficult and limiting.
• Men have always hunted and consumed animals, why stop?
• Some doctors say we need meat, milk & animal products.
• But kids need animal food to grow up normal & healthy.
• My peers all eat animal products.
5 FACTS SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE
1. You can get the nutrients you need from plants*
Plant foods are amongst the most nutrient-dense foods you could possibly eat. Half of a red bell pepper gives you an entire day’s worth of vitamin C. Iron is abundant in beans, leafy greens, tempeh and plant-based meats. Instead of relying on one or two foods for specific nutrients, eating a variety of plant foods throughout the day is the best way to get the nutrients your body needs.
Protein is not a problem for vegans! All whole plant foods contain all of the essential amino acids – no need to eat special foods or combine meals. Just eat. Whole plant foods. Often. There’s an excellent protein primer over at No Meat Athlete and a sample meal plan by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD here. Nutrition expert Jack Norris, RD goes into even more depth at his site, veganhealth.org.
The iron found in plant foods is called non-heme iron and yes, it is less well absorbed. But that’s not the end of the story. Absorption can be increased up to five times by eating foods with Vitamin-C at the same time. How great is that? Think beans, rice, salsa. Falafel, hummus, tomatoes. Stir-fry tofu and bell peppers. Plus eating small amounts of iron throughout the day is the best way to increase absorption. I wrote all about iron over at No Meat Athlete and more than you’ll ever need to know is available at the Vegetarian Resource Group and Vegan Health.
Iron and protein are the most common nutrients of concern so I’ve covered those here. A resource for others is the Vegetarian Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Eating exclusively vegan? You’ll need a source of vitamin B12.
2. Eating more vegan foods reduces your risk of many chronic diseases
Plants contain phytochemicals– compounds linked to longevity because of their disease-fighting properties. The smell of garlic? The orange color of carrots? Those are phytochemicals. They are the future of nutrition and eating plants is the only beneficial way to get them. There is no recommendation for phytochemicals (yet!) but strong evidence exists that they are partially responsible for vegetarians’ much lower chronic disease rate. It’s the difference between a fast food plus multivitamin lifestyle that checks all the boxes for nutrients but does nothing else.
There’s anecdotal evidence, like this man who says eating plant-based saved his life, but lots of peer-reviewed science, too. This study reviews the science and evidence of the health benefits of eating plants and there’s plenty of specific research too, from protecting your prostate, improving your gut flora and preventing type-2 diabetes. Even blood pressure reduction- especially important for men- can be reduced by eating vegan foods. The mechanism responsible for these huge health benefits is reducing inflammation- something plant foods are especially good at doing.
3. You can work out & hit your macros with plant foods
See the above links on protein to know you can get all you need from plants, no matter your training plan. Worried about amino acids? You shouldn’t be. There are many different ways to eat vegan- from raw food / high carbohydrate to whole food / high protein. Any numbers you need to hit you can do with the huge abundance and variety of plant foods. It’s a matter of finding which vegan diet works for you- from high carb to high protein and everything in between- don’t limit yourself.
A key point for those making the switch is eating enough calories. Plant foods have more volume- which could explain why vegetarians, on average weigh less- so if you are active you need to eat more. My favorite book on the subject is Vegetarian Sports Nutrition by Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD.
I have a video series on vegan athletes called Strongest Hearts and we’ve featured many inspirational stories, including the epic Plantbuilt team (see our videos with them on powerlifters, bodybuilders, crossfitters, meal prep, stage walking, motivation). The recent rise in vegan athletics is unprecedented and there are lots of resources to help you do what you do- without eating animals. Your Daily Vegan has a good list to start with.
4. Soy does not give men boobs & vegans do not have lower sperm counts
There are more than 10,000 peer-reviewed research studies on soy, a food consumed worldwide in many forms for centuries. And the evidence indicates that moderate soy consumption is safe and even healthful.
The benefit of soy—and its cause for criticism—is the phytochemical group called isoflavones. They may be phytoestrogens, but that is not the same as estrogen. In fact they can block estrogen receptors; in other words have anti-estrogenic activity. Beer is full of phytoestrogen because of hops, as this study shows, as are all sorts of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, but soy is targeted by industries threatened by it.
Most of the soy hysteria comes from groups who outwardly oppose eating fewer animals but the science doesn’t back their claims. And you don’t have to eat soy to be vegan- there are plenty of other vegan food choices!
Meanwhile, actual estrogen (estrodiol, the most potent estrogenic hormone) is in meat, dairy and egg products. Especially in dairy, it occurs in large amounts, as this study shows and as Dr. Michael Gregor discuss in this video – and this is estrogen that is identical to human estrogen.
Our friends at Zen Habits have an excellent resource page on soy, the Vegetarian Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a handout on the safety of soy and I wrote a short piece specifically about soy myths here. You never want to completely rely on industry for information, but to balance the hysteria you can see this thorough compilation of research that supports soy consumption.
5. Good, science-based information from trusted resources exists
Ginny Messina is The Vegan RD and insists on using solid science to make her recommendations, eg this article on planning healthful vegan diets. Jack Norris, also a dietitian, runs the epic Vegan Health site where you can read the actual research. We also linked our friends at Vegetarian Resource Group and the Vegetarian Nutrition Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Use these links to stay informed and educated on nutrition.
CONCERNS WE HEAR ALL THE TIME
Aren’t animal products superior sources of nutrients? What about paleo?
Wholesome plant foods, such as wheat and potatoes, contain phytates, which may reduce the absorption of some minerals. Theoretically this could be a concern, but in practice does not lead to any vitamin or mineral deficiencies in a balanced, healthy diet that includes lots of plant foods. The calcium in soymilk, for example, is absorbed at about the same rate as that of cow’s milk. Ferritin, the type of iron found in high amounts in soy, is absorbed particularly well by individuals with low iron stores. Those who consume more plant foods are getting more nutrients- so hypothetical reduced absorption is not a concern.
Isn’t making the switch to a vegan diet is difficult and limiting?
Any new habit or behavior change takes time and effort- but eating vegan in this day and age is easier than ever before. Start with where you are- can you add you more of the vegan foods you already eat? Start with Meatless Monday. Then try one new vegan recipe a week. Involve your friends and family. Changing your habits is a big deal- don’t downplay the significance and prepare yourself for challenges. Print out this handy resource that I wrote and put it on your fridge. See my article in DIG BMX magazine or take the 7-Day Vegan Challenge!
Men have always hunted and consumed animals, why stop?
Humans use of animals has a very long history and today’s social and cultural norms make eating and wearing them these normalized actions. But as we evolve and our empathy expands many people are reconsidering how we treat other species who have the capacity to feel emotions and experience pain. Considering animals is not new- philosophers have argued for centuries that we must consider their well-being. Empathy and compassion are not adverse to masculinity.
Don’t doctors say we need meat, milk and animal products?
Most doctors receive very little nutritional training. They are medical experts, but may not be up to date on nutrition. This is slowly changing as doctors realize the impact that diet and lifestyle has on keeping people healthy. This is changing, as the president of the American College of Cardiology recommends vegan diets and a number of other doctors (Esselstyn, Greger, Shenkman, Ostfeld) are now promoting plant-based diets for health and longevity.
I’m vegan, but I’d never push it on my children. Don’t kids need animal food to grow up normal and healthy?
There are groups of people who severely restrict their diet for cultural, social, political or religious reasons. This goes far beyond veganism and into a domain where soy, wheat, cooked, ‘processed’ foods and even medicine may be shunned. This is not veganism- it is overly restrictive beyond what it safe. There’s an abundance of plant foods to eat to get the nutrients we need and to make tasty, healthy meals that are appropriate for vegan children. And the science shows veganism is healthy for all stages of the lifecycle.
But my religion/family/ethnic heritage/friends/coworkers all eat animal products.
How will I survive?
People today are starting to closely examine their relationship with animals. While millions have changed what they eat and wear- most have not. But cultural norms are constantly evolving as empathy expands and power structures that marginalize groups of people- and animals- are questioned.
As vegans and vegetarians in the early 2000’s we are setting the stage and changing what is deemed normal and acceptable. It’s never easy to go against the mainstream- but it is rewarding and makes a difference in the lives we save. Your peers and family may not come around and agree with you right away, so have patience and understand how threatening it is to challenge deeply held beliefs. And remember this: we have the choice to be passive while animals are killed or to take a stand and do something about it. Which do you think is more manly?
Matt Ruscigno is a Registered Dietitian – one of the only professional nutrition credentials available- and has been an ethical vegan for over 19 years. His personal site is TrueLoveHealth.com. Matt is the past-Chair of the Vegetarian Nutrition Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and co-author of Appetite for Reduction with Isa Moskowitz and No Meat Athlete with Matt Frazier.
He’s also obsessed with burritos and dead set on finding the positive in any situation. He’s an accomplished athlete who races ultra-marathons, iron-man triathlons and 200+ mile bike races. He thinks good health, fun, adventure and ethics go hand in hand. Matt has a masters degree from Loma Linda University, one of only a handful of accredited schools that promotes vegetarianism.