It was a Sunday afternoon in the late 1980s and the house was filled with the fatty scent of roast lamb. I absentmindedly enquired about the origins of lunch and my brother pointed at the mewing sheep in the field adjacent to our house. I was a five-year-old boy, and I decided on the spot to become the first vegetarian in my family.
My parents, while broadly supportive, were understandably bemused – and concerned. It was a less enlightened time, and my lack of dietary protein was a constant worry. They assuaged this by occasionally feeding me Chicken McNuggets under the not entirely misplaced logic that they weren’t really meat. After I’d cottoned on, I would sheepishly order a cheeseburger “without the burger” whenever we went to McDonald’s.
I became accustomed to teasing and shaming – from digs at the apparently tasteless gruel I was consuming to the ubiquitous use of “gay” as an insult, mostly from guys who seemed offended by my decision to not eat dead things. I didn’t know anyone else – male or female – who was veggie. I hated ordering food when out with groups of lads because I knew there would be titters and comments about my masculinity. From the years I was at school right into my 2os, rarely a day passed without some sort of jibe about my diet. As a result, for many years I hid the real reason – claiming it was simply “habit” rather than sensitivity to animal welfare.
Thankfully, non-animal diets are no longer a niche concern. McDonald’s even has a McPlant burger now, while vegan celebrities and Netflix documentaries are helping to normalise the concept of meat abstention or reduction. According to a 2019 survey commissioned by the Vegan Society, the number of UK vegans quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 and 2019. Britons have reduced their meat intake by almost 17% in a decade, according to a 2021 study in The Lancet’s Planetary Health journal.
Yet not everything has changed: the percentage of men taking part in Veganuary – which has grown from 168,000 to 580,000 participants since 2018 – dropped from 15% in 2018 to 13% in 2021. Research last year, published in the journal Plos One, also found that the diet of the average British male produces 40% more carbon emissions than that of females, largely due to increased meat consumption. Most men aren’t forgoing their bacon sarnies yet – and nor should we be surprised. They are still the target audience of the dirty burger and barbecue boom, as tattooed hipsters serve grilled meats from street food trucks.
But how did meat become synonymous with laddishness in the first place? And at a time when cutting back meat and dairy is widely hailed as the simplest way to reduce our carbon footprint, does the best hope of convincing men to put down their kebabs really rest with a new generation of hench vegan bros?
Carol J Adams is a Texas writer who, since the 90s, has explored the patriarchal connotations of meat consumption in books such as The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat, which was recently updated and reissued. “We live in a world that’s heavily invested in a gender binary – that defines things as male or female,” she says. “The things associated with men are more highly valued. Every time a man becomes a vegan, it challenges basic assumptions about masculinity and femininity.”
These outdated assumptions are rooted in the age-old gender roles of male as hunter and female as caregiver. Ed Winters, AKA Earthling Ed, is a British vegan activist and author with more than 400,000 YouTube subscribers. He says that online barbs about his supposedly compromised masculinity or sexuality are common. We speak over Skype: he’s in North America, visiting university campuses and talking one-to-one with students about veganism. “Almost all the people who debate me are men: they are certainly the ones most proud of eating meat,” he says. “Often they are proud of their lack of empathy for animals. I’ve never had that with a woman. I get called a ‘soy boy’ and there’s a lot of: ‘Ed must be gay, because he’s vegan.’”
Over the past five years, “soy boy” has become a favourite insult of the far right online, used to refer not only to vegans but to all liberals. (I noticed the rise of this slur with amusement, as when I met my first ever male vegetarian friend, Lee, at university, we proudly called ourselves “the soy boys”.)
These stereotypes endure in popular culture, whether it’s “steak and blowjob day” (which started as a satirical, meme-based idea that men deserve their “own” masculine equivalent of Valentine’s Day, on 14 March); Jeremy Clarkson declaring last summer that “normal people eat meat”; or Boris Johnson claiming in 2020 that veganism is “a crime against cheese lovers”. “Vegan men challenge what people traditionally perceive to be manly,” Winters says. “But what we perceive to be masculine is also a social construct, created by advertising, by media and by peer pressure.”
The demonisation of non-animal diets can be traced back to what is now widely seen as the protein myth. The idea that protein is the key to strength, with meat the primary source, arose in the early 20th century. The Lancet set out the counterargument in a paper called The Great Protein Fiasco, published in 1974, and research has continually debunked the notion that a non-animal diet cannot provide enough protein. Caroline Farrell is a nutritionist who worked with Watford and Fulham football clubs between 2012 and 2018. “Five years ago it was very rare to have a male with a vegan diet,” she says. “Now I would say about 40% of my male clients are. It is very easy for a vegan diet to meet the recommendations for protein.” Farrell adds that a plant-based diet can help protect against chronic diseases such as colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“Animal proteins are called complete proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids. Most plant proteins – except soya, quinoa and hemp – lack one or more of these. But vegans can easily obtain all the essential amino acids they need by eating a variety of plant proteins each day.” These could include soya products such as tofu or tempeh, dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, grains and nuts.
It helps that veganism’s image is shifting. Take Netflix’s 2018 documentary The Game Changers, which follows UFC fighter James Wilks as he investigates the benefits of a plant-based diet for professional athletes. It was executive produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears alongside endurance runners, American footballers, boxers and strongmen who have all forsaken meat and dairy. (The Austrian Oak himself is reportedly 99% vegan now.)
“The Game Changers powerfully illustrates that plant-based foods can deliver both strength and endurance in abundance,” says Richard McIlwain, CEO of the Vegetarian Society. “I’d argue that until very recently, the idea that meat provides protein, which equates to strength, was still a part of mainstream thinking.” McIlwain credits the influence of Lewis Hamilton, who co-produced The Game Changers and started following a plant-based diet in 2018. “Hamilton has blown the typically machismo, male, white Formula One environment open. He is a young Black man from a working-class background who is vegan and campaigns for animal welfare.”
McIlwain also cites the rise of meat substitutes in supermarkets. “Steaks can be plant-based, and the protein content is advertised on the front as a clear selling point,” he says. “Men can still identify with cultural male stereotypes – positive or otherwise – without the meat.”
Enter the “vegan bro” – the guy who has become plant-based as a device to accrue power and status; who isn’t afraid to show this to the world, especially on Instagram where shredded men come together under the #vegangains and #veganaf hashtags. The cult 2014 book Meat Is for Pussies: A How-to Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass, and Take Names conflates veganism with some grisly bro stereotypes in a bid to turn men away from what author John Joseph, seemingly without irony, calls the “chronic pussyism” of meat consumption.
There are plenty of vegan Instagram bodybuilders – including Patrik Baboumian (who starred in The Game Changers) and Jordan Dranes, AKA Conscious Muscle – whose feeds are full of muscle shots but don’t lean on such tub-thumping stereotypes. A far more inflammatory figure is Richard Burgess – the 30-year-old Canadian vegan YouTuber known as Vegan Gains. He has 325,000 subscribers to his channel, and has transitioned from a vegan bodybuilder into a shock video jock aggressively debating diet and shaming omnivores. Among his many controversies is a video linking the cancer diagnosis of bodybuilder and fellow YouTuber Furious Pete to his non-vegan diet, and a 2015 episode in which he briefly uploaded a video of his grandfather having the heart attack that killed him – a cautionary tale, apparently, about the dangers of eating meat.
Is this strand of veganism guilty of recycling the same old cliches about gender? A 2020 research paper analysed the behaviour of male vegan influencers and found that while vegan men often saw their dietary choices as evidence of a progressive outlook, they would do well to embrace “a feminist and intersectional veganism that is not dominated by … masculinist ideals”.
The irony of vegan men referring to meat-eaters as “pussies” is not lost on Adams: “It’s not undoing the association with women and negativity.” She points to the term “hegan”, a portmanteau of he and vegan, coined in a 2010 article about male vegans and defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a trendy male vegan”. “It’s this need to not be associated with women, who are perceived by society to be more compassionate and empathic,” Adams says. “But the world needs more compassion. Why is compassion feared? How do we undo this situation so that men are no longer afraid of being compassionate?”
For those seeking a middle path between the ethical vegan and the vegan bro, look no further than Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, founders of vegan food line and cookbook company Bosh!. The friends from Sheffield, both 37, adopted a plant-based diet in early 2015. Finding that everything in the vegan food sphere was “either old-fashioned and boring in design” (according to Firth) or skewed towards a yoga, beauty and wellness-focused audience, they started their YouTube channel BOSH.TV in 2016, posting snappy recipes for vegan burgers, pies, curries and pasta. They have put their names to six vegan cookbooks – their first is the UK’s bestselling – with their latest, Bosh! on a Budget, published last December. The branding is brash and unapologetic.
Appealing to men without alienating women is important to them, Firth says. “Six or seven years ago, veganism was not seen as very male-friendly: everything was all lads, meat, steak and burgers. We wanted to show you can be a normal guy and eat vegan food.”
They have noticed a transformation in their audience. “Following The Game Changers, it has become more acceptable for guys to admit to a plant-based diet,” Firth says. “Maybe the term plant-based is a way for people to say they’re not eating animals, but in a way they don’t feel is signing up to a certain ideology.”
Nevertheless, they aren’t immune to pushback: trolls, mostly men, regularly hit their inbox. “They’ll send us DMs with all capital letters, about how they’re really enjoying a steak,” says Theasby, who points out that they receive most opprobrium for “commandeering” terms such as sausage, burger or steak for their plant-based recipes. Most notable was Piers Morgan, with whom they cheerily debated on Good Morning Britain in 2019. “Piers’s vibe was: ‘It’s fine to have your vegan food. Do as you wish. But stop stealing our words,’” Theasby says.
Bosh! is just one of a number of male-friendly businesses now selling vegan products or lifestyles. The burgers, faux bacon and chicken pieces of THIS™ – whose single syllable name and blocky, black-and-white design aesthetic are thematically similar to Bosh! – are now found in Tesco, Sainsbury’s and chains such as Caffè Nero and Pho. The Happy Pear’s aspirationally handsome vegan twins, David and Stephen Flynn, have sold more than a quarter of a million cookbooks, building a million-strong social media reach with a mission to improve health, happiness and community.
Meat and dairy consumption has become an issue of planetary urgency. A 2013 UN report found that 14.5% of our global greenhouse gas emissions were caused by the livestock industry, while a 2018 study in the journal Science stated that if we stopped consuming meat and dairy, farmland could be reduced by 75% while still feeding the planet’s population – effectively enabling us to rewild the world. “We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters,” said David Attenborough in his 2020 biographical documentary A Life on Our Planet.
Confronting gendered stereotypes about meat-eating will certainly help. A US study released last November in the journal Appetite found that conformity (or otherwise) to traditional gender roles was still a good predictor of people’s meat consumption and openness to vegetarianism for environmental reasons.
Among my male peers, the environmental arguments for meat reduction do seem to be gaining traction. At restaurants, I find my fellow diners to be sweetly, sometimes proudly, curious – happily commenting that my food looks tasty, and that they had a decent vegan burger only last week. Recently, I had a lively conversation about tofu preparation methods on an all-male WhatsApp group. This exchange would not have occurred until now – partly because I would have avoided having it.
Meeting another vegetarian or vegan – especially a male one – used to be like finding a lone stranger in a foreign bar who loves your favourite band. Nowadays, it’s like everyone in the bar knows your band, likes the singles and is curious for the next album to arrive.
Here come the hegans
The influencer: Gaz Oakley
This Welsh chef, author and self-styled “avant garde” vegan’s aspirational, high-energy Insta feed is a mouthwatering gallery of man-sized vegan dishes. He publishes recipes and tutorials on his website, avantgardevegan.com
The activist: Ed Winters
Bearded and fond of a man bun, the British educator and author of This is Vegan Propaganda debates the merits of veganism with everyone from university students to TV hosts, and the rest of us via his TEDx talks and wildy popular YouTube channel.
The showman: Matt Pritchard
This tattooed former stuntman and TV prankster morphed into an unlikely vegan influencer with his eye-catching, heavy metal-style Dirty Vegan books, claiming to offer “proper banging vegan food”. In 2019, he presented the BBC’s first vegan cookery show.
The chefs: David & Stephen Flynn
The Happy Pear began with a small veg shop in County Wicklow, Ireland, 18 years ago; today, these smiley, stubbly, jumper-loving twins are a bona fide vegan brand, with cookbooks, courses and products to their name. Decidedly non-bro, but they do sometimes take their tops off.
The celebrity: Lewis Hamilton
Seven times Formula One winner, knighted last December – and one of Peta’s “20 most beautiful vegan celebrities” in 2021 – Hamilton ranks among Britain’s most influential vegans. He shares his plant-based philosophy with his nearly 27m followers on Instagram – even his dog is vegan.