June 4, 2012

Real Men Eat Kale

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD

Kale field | Hillsboro, Oregon, 1910

Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and the unofficial summer season has begun. I don’t know about you, but when I think about kicking off summer, I automatically think about firing up the grill. Well, I think about my dad or fiancé or another male firing up the grill. And then I picture them throwing down some big slab of barbequed meat and chowing down.

Memorial Day = summer = grilling = men = meat. Why do I automatically make those associations?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, I am not alone. Through a series of studies that tested metaphors associated with food, researchers found that people do, in fact, link meat with manliness.

Not only do people from Western cultures associate meat, especially muscle meat, like steak, with more masculine words and consider meat-eaters more manly than non-meat-eaters, but the authors also found that meat was associated with the male gender in 23 other languages.

According to the study’s authors, “To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American food. Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy.”

This study certainly isn’t the first to make a connection between meat and masculinity, an association that has been so deeply embedded in our history and culture as human beings. I’m sure many of you know at least one (or many) of these “macho, bicep-flexing, All-American” males that the authors describe. I am about to marry one of them, so I know the type very well.

But to echo a blogpost written on this topic two years ago by my colleague, Brent Kim, When are we, as a society, going to stop accepting this “meat as manly” gender stereotype and start considering the true nutritional and ethical values of our food choices? I think it’s about time, especially with growing concerns about American’s high meat diet and the long list of associated consequences, including long-term disease risks for consumers; health risks to works in the industry and to residents living near industrial food animal production (IFAP) facilities; food safety hazards; animal welfare harms; and environmental degradation that threatens both human and non-human ecosystems at local and global scales.

The question is how can we make it happen?

According to the authors of this study, the answer lies in changing men’s perceptions of a plant-based diet by reshaping soy burgers to make them resemble beef and giving them grill marks to make them more appealing. Really? Is this the best we can do, to put fake grill marks on processed soy burgers to make them look more masculine? At least this solution would mitigate some of the public health, animal welfare, and environmental harms associated with food animal production, but isn’t this still just accepting our cultural norms and stereotypes?

Instead, I believe we need to tap into the innate competitiveness of males and challenge them to break free from these barriers. As Brent articulates, “Though it may require an uncomfortable re-evaluation of long held beliefs, in the face of current knowledge, men are challenged to redefine their ideals of masculinity. The behavior of our primate ancestry and the drone of the marketing machine have no place in decisions that impact personal and global health.”

How about taking on “Kale is the new beef” as the next big public health campaign?! Surely this dark leafy green vegetable, with its superb nutrient-density, anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties, and ability to grow easily with minimal environmental impact, could give beef a good run for its money and become an important “superfood” in our transition to a greener world. If anything, the campaign sure grabs people’s attention and fuels some very interesting conversations. I even experimented last weekend by bringing raw kale salad to two different Memorial Day meat-heavy cookouts and telling people that kale is the new beef. Okay, so maybe kale is not exactly the new beef, but my kale salad sure was a hit, even among the most picky, anti-vegetable, meat-loving men.

Let’s get the record straight that I am not trying to turn all men and die-hard carnivores into full-blown vegetarians. However, as a dietitian, public health professional, and food enthusiast, I am a big advocate of enjoying a variety of foods in moderation, and taking time to learn and appreciate where our food comes from, how it was grown/raised, etc. For meat, this means not only scaling back on portions, but also choosing local, organic, pasture-raised and lean meat products whenever possible.

I also speak from experience of successfully transforming one of the most competitive, carnivorous jocks I know (aka my fiancé, Matt) and many of his fellow meat-loving friends into lovers of kale and all sorts of “girlie” vegetables, so I know that this transition to a healthier diet of less meat (and better quality meat) and more vegetables is, in fact, possible and realistic for anyone. Yes, Matt still eats meat (and craves a loaded cheeseburger from our favorite burger joint every now and again), but he’s learned to cut back, to savor a good quality piece of meat when he has it, and to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins into his diet everyday… all while still maintaining his man-status and competitive edge.

See guys, it can be done. And one easy way to get started with cutting back on meat is by participating in Meatless Monday, a growing movement championed by many celebrities, chefs, bloggers, communities, and institutions across the globe. You can read a recent interview here with Iron Chef and hardcore carnivore, Michael Symon, who has started advocating for Meatless Monday! Even professional male athletes, like triathlete Brendan Brazier, NFL player Tony Gonzalez, and ultimate fighter Mac Danzig are taking a stance and promoting a plant-based diet, proving that strength, muscles and veggies can indeed go hand in hand.

So boys, are you up for a challenge? When you’re getting your grill on this summer, instead of reaching for those burgers and hot dogs, man up and try some of these meatless grilling recipes instead!

Photo: The Field Museum Library Photo Archives


  1. I fit squarely in the camp of manliness = meat until a few years ago when I began dating my now-fiancé. He is a dedicated and unwavering vegetarian, and my diet is 95% vegetarian now as well.

    A few very public examples of attractive, athletic, and competitive men could go a long way in our culture. Everyone should know that beans and lentils are manly, too!

  2. Posted by Ron Righter

    Brava! Outstanding piece. I have never eaten kale…Now I want to try it.
    I will make a conscious effort to really cut back on certain foods.
    And we are staying on course with Meatless Mondays.
    Love your blog.

  3. Posted by Jack Byrd

    Nice Article Allison, I will admit to being one that really enjoyed your Kale Salad! I don’t think I’ll ever not eat red meat but we do eat a lot less than we use to, and a lot more veggies, fruits and grains.

  4. Posted by Steve Meier

    Great blog post. I think it is even more manly to be cooking a healthy meal and have your 13 year old daughter point out the size of your biceps as you hold the pan. Beat that with building a planter box, digging in a bunch of compost, planting seeds, growing the plant, harvesting and cooking into a meal. Now there’s a real manly man. Wish I could share all the great Kale we score at Sunnyvale Farmer’s Market and from High Ground Organics CSA Program.

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