Meat! Can manhood stomach the punch of the vegetarian alternative?

San Jose, California
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/6050
Funded on 1/30/16
Successfully Funded
  • $3,124
  • 104%
  • Funded
    on 1/30/16

About This Project

Even ordinary threats to masculinity trigger anxiety. Since the incorporation of meat signals masculinity, it is used to psychologically defend the ego against omnipresent threats to coveted masculine status. By measuring biological masculinity (Testosterone) and stress response (Cortisol) in participants' saliva we intend to expand on the psychological component of our previous experiments with the physiological component, their interaction, and how negative health effects can be mitigated.

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What is the context of this research?

Since the Stone Age, the incorporation of meat has served both as a symbol and as a signal for masculinity. Today, meat still has the same meaning. (Fiddes 1991, Adams 2010, Rothgerber 2013). Many men would gladly embrace the health risks associated with red meat rather than taking the slightest risk of being associated with the feminine attributes of a vegetarian diet (Ruby and Heine 2011).

The strongly pronounced gender-food link (Sobal 2005, Rozin et al. 2012) presents a dilemma for traditionally masculine people when it comes to deciding what to eat. Consistently they choose the steak over the vegetarian alternative. Helping us to complete the picture of the psychological and physiological factors involved in this process will be beneficial for individuals as well as society.

What is the significance of this project?

It is well documented that many chronic and fatal diseases can be prevented by reducing the consumption of red meat and processed meats (e.g. Sinha et al. 2009, IARC 2015).

The experiment investigates

  • the psychology of why masculine persons highly value meat dishes and how findings could positively influence dietary marketing messages.
  • which biological and psychological processes motivate these preferences.
  • the effects of meat and vegetarian food options on consumers’ hormones.

The findings will have implications for marketers that are seeking to position meatless products to their consumers as well as for general public health.

What are the goals of the project?

Our team has already studied the psychological mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of defending masculinity by consuming meat (Pohlmann 2014). With additional funding, we seek to conduct saliva testing with the intention to expand on the psychological findings with hormonal biomarkers.

We intend to start the experiment in early 2016. We want to find out whether the stress triggered by a threat to masculinity during a meal persists, if not a meat dish, but a vegetarian alternative is served up instead (more about this in the methods section).

Taken together, the results will eventually allow us to tell a more complete story of the processes that motivate meat consumption and to develop interventions that enable highly masculine persons overcome the behavioral obstacles to healthy diets.


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All of our budget is intended for collecting and assaying hormones from saliva swabs. With our initial funding goal we will be able to obtain Testosterone and Cortisol assays in order to measure biological masculinity and stress response respectively. A single testosterone assay costs about $20. The collection, storage, and analysis of these samples at a dedicated lab is cost-intensive and quickly escalates with number of participants, treatment conditions, and sampling occurrences. Participant compensation will be covered by the research team.

Endorsed by

I have witnessed Attila’s academic career through his graduation and can confidently say that he has developed a strong research agenda. Further understanding the health threats that are associated with masculinity, especially in the domain of food consumption, will provide usable insight for researchers and practitioners alike.

Meet the Team

Attila Pohlmann
Attila Pohlmann


University of Hawaii at Mānoa
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Attila Pohlmann

Originally from Germany, I came to the U.S. in 2004 to complete my BA in Computer Science in Economics and Marketing. After a few years of work in the banking industry, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree at the Shidler College of Business, University of Hawaii at Mānoa and was awarded my PhD in 2014.

I stumbled into a meatless diet by complete accident without having pondered any moral reasons or health benefits beforehand. Perhaps because I was clueless, I was so intrigued by other people’s unexpectedly strong reactions to my dietary situation. I tried to make sense out of the complex social dynamics and conversations that would revolve around meals taken together with omnivorous friends or family. Given this fascination, my research interests during my PhD studies in consumer behavior focused on food marketing, social identities, and the cultural meanings of food. As an added benefit I acquired the diplomatic skills to negotiate Holiday dinners with friends and family. Only my cooking skills have not improved significantly.

Studying the social dynamics involved in food consumption has become my passion. I have devoted many years to learn as much about the topic from a variety of disciplinary angles. I keep striving to add to the big picture and use my knowledge to foster healthier consumption behaviors.

Additional Information

A few relevant citations with abstracts or reviews:

Adams, C. J. (2010). "The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory." New York: Continuum.

Writer/activist/university lecturer Adams's important and provocative work compares myths about meat-eating with myths about manliness; and explores the literary, scientific, and social connections between meat-eating, male dominance, and war. Drawing on such diverse sources as butchering texts, cookbooks, Victorian "hygiene" manuals, and Alice Walker, the author provides a compelling case for inextricably linking feminist and vegetarian theory. This book is likely to both inspire and enrage readers across the political spectrum: we learn, for example, that veal was served at Gloria Steinem's 50th birthday, as well as of the atrocities of the slaughterhouse. One wishes Adams had been more careful about documenting some of her claims--her contention, for instance, that early humans were entirely vegetarian, requires scholarly support. Nevertheless this is recommended for both public and academic collections.
- Beverly Miller, Boise State Univ. Lib., Id.

Fiddes, N. (1991). "Meat: A Natural Symbol." London: Routledge.

Though not a vegetarian himself, Fiddes (Social Anthropology/ Edinburgh Univ.) has wondered at the vehemence with which vegetarianism is often dismissed as a fad, attacked as a conspiracy, or worse. In this sound inquiry, he examines the unstated symbolic importance that meat has for all of us, determining why we do or do not eat it and how we think, feel, and behave regarding it. While discoursing along the way on such matters as our views on cannibalism; our exemption of pets, primates, and carnivores from the edible animal category; and our association of meat with different aspects of sex, the sexes, and relations between them, Fiddes sees meat chiefly as a symbol and element of human mastery over nature. (Thus the cruel and bloody aspect of meat is not a regrettable side effect but essential to its role.) Meat-eating, he notes, increased in practice and prestige during the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on mastering and transforming nature. Earlier, when people had more to fear from wild animals and natural forces, meat killing and eating was a comforting symbol of control. But now that we are recognizing the environmental destruction caused by the abuse of human power over nature, meat-eating is declining--a trend, Fiddes suggests, that could be the ``harbinger of the evolution of new values.'' Harbinger or no, Fiddes's discussion of all this is perceptive and sensible. As for the common dangers of this sort of undertaking--pedantic obscurity, belaboring the obvious, sounding far-fetched--he triumphantly avoids them all. (Illustrations--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Pachirat, T. (2011). "Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight." Yale agrarian studies series, Yale University Press.

"This is a masterful expose, written in crystalline prose. In tying the cruelty and dehumanization of industrialized slaughter to the politics of sight, the book adds to a growing canon of recent work . . . by extending people's understanding of and exacerbating human repugnance to one of the great moral failings of current times. Summing Up: Highly recommended."--CHOICE

Pohlmann, A. (2014). Threatened at the table: Meat consumption, maleness and men's gender identities (Doctoral dissertation, University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa).

Manhood is a precarious state (Vandello et al. 2008) for masculinity is bestowed upon men by others in society and needs to be continuously earned by following male gender role norms. Previous research has found that meat is associated with maleness in Western cultures and men use red meat incorporation as a signal to communicate masculinity. This association leads to heavier meat consumption among men and has been linked to negative physical health outcomes as well as increased mortality. In this dissertation, a set of 4 studies was conducted to demonstrate that men express higher preference for meat compared to women (Study 1); when facing threats to masculinity, men tend to perform defensive acts in the form of increased meat consumption in order to repair their threatened masculine self-representation (Study 2); compared to vegetables, only meat incorporation has the ability to symbolically restore threatened masculinity and alleviate the aversive emotional states triggered by threats to masculinity (Study 3); and finally, affirming men’s global sense of masculine identity by priming a masculine prototype complementary to their inherent masculine gender identification alleviates the aversive psychological state triggered by the threat; and leads to improved attitudes toward an otherwise eschewed vegetarian food item (Study 4). This dissertation offers practical guidance for marketers on how to influence men’s meat consumption in positive ways, eventually enabling healthier eating behaviors.

Rothgerber, H. (2013). "Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche: Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption." Psychology of Men and Masculinity 14(4): 363-375.

As arguments become more pronounced that meat consumption harms the environment, public health, and animals, meat eaters should experience increased pressure to justify their behavior. Results of a first study showed that male undergraduates used direct strategies to justify eating meat, including endorsing pro-meat attitudes, denying animal suffering, believing that animals are lower in a hierarchy than humans and that it is human fate to eat animals, and providing religious and health justifications for eating animals. Female undergraduates used the more indirect strategies of dissociating animals from food and avoiding thinking about the treatment of animals. A second study found that the use of these male strategies was related to masculinity. In the two studies, male justification strategies were correlated with greater meat consumption, whereas endorsement of female justification strategies was correlated with less meat and more vegetarian consumption. These findings are among the first to empirically verify Adams’s (1990) theory on the sexual politics of meat linking feminism and vegetarianism. They suggest that to simply make an informational appeal about the benefits of a vegetarian diet may ignore a primary reason why men eat meat: It makes them feel like real men.

Rozin, P., et al. (2012). "Is Meat Male? A Quantitative Multimethod Framework to Establish Metaphoric Relationships." Journal of Consumer Research 39(3).

Metaphors are increasingly recognized as influencing cognition and consumption. While these linkages typically have been qualitatively generated, this article pres- ents a framework of convergent quantitative methodologies that can further doc- ument the validity of a metaphor. To illustrate this multimethod framework, the authors explore whether there is a metaphoric link between meat and maleness in Western cultures. The authors address this in six quantifiable studies that involve (1) implicit associations, (2) free associations, (3) indirect-scenario-based infer- ences, (4) direct measurement profiling, (5) preference and choice, and (6) linguistic analysis and conclude that there is a metaphoric relationship between mammal muscle meat and maleness.

Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine. "Meat, morals, and masculinity." Appetite 56.2 (2011): 447-450.

Much research has demonstrated that people perceive consumers of “good,” low-fat foods as more moral, intelligent, and attractive, and perceive consumers of “bad,” high-fat foods as less intelligent, less moral, and less attractive. Little research has contrasted perceptions of omnivores and vegetarians, particularly with respect to morality and gender characteristics. In two between-subject studies, we investigated people's perceptions of others who follow omnivorous and vegetarian diets, controlling for the perceived healthiness of the diets in question. In both studies, omnivorous and vegetarian participants rated vegetarian targets as more virtuous and less masculine than omnivorous targets.

Sinha, R., et al. (2009). "Meat Intake and Mortality A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People." Archives of Internal Medicine 169(6): 562-571.

BACKGROUND: High intakes of red or processed meat may increase the risk of mortality. Our objective was to determine the relations of red, white, and processed meat intakes to risk for total and cause-specific mortality. METHODS: The study population included the National Institutes of Health-AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) Diet and Health Study cohort of half a million people aged 50 to 71 years at baseline. Meat intake was estimated from a food frequency questionnaire administered at baseline. Cox proportional hazards regression models estimated hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) within quintiles of meat intake. The covariates included in the models were age, education, marital status, family history of cancer (yes/no) (cancer mortality only), race, body mass index, 31-level smoking history, physical activity, energy intake, alcohol intake, vitamin supplement use, fruit consumption, vegetable consumption, and menopausal hormone therapy among women. Main outcome measures included total mortality and deaths due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, injuries and sudden deaths, and all other causes. RESULTS: There were 47 976 male deaths and 23 276 female deaths during 10 years of follow-up. Men and women in the highest vs lowest quintile of red (HR, 1.31 [95% CI, 1.27-1.35], and HR, 1.36 [95% CI, 1.30-1.43], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.16 [95% CI, 1.12-1.20], and HR, 1.25 [95% CI, 1.20-1.31], respectively) intakes had elevated risks for overall mortality. Regarding cause-specific mortality, men and women had elevated risks for cancer mortality for red (HR, 1.22 [95% CI, 1.16-1.29], and HR, 1.20 [95% CI, 1.12-1.30], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.12 [95% CI, 1.06-1.19], and HR, 1.11 [95% CI 1.04-1.19], respectively) intakes. Furthermore, cardiovascular disease risk was elevated for men and women in the highest quintile of red (HR, 1.27 [95% CI, 1.20-1.35], and HR, 1.50 [95% CI, 1.37-1.65], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.09 [95% CI, 1.03-1.15], and HR, 1.38 [95% CI, 1.26-1.51], respectively) intakes. When comparing the highest with the lowest quintile of white meat intake, there was an inverse association for total mortality and cancer mortality, as well as all other deaths for both men and women. CONCLUSION: Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.

Sobal, J. (2005). "Men, Meat, and Marriage: Models of Masculinity." Food and Foodways 13: 135-158.

Gender permeates all aspects of life, including foodlife, and can be examined using singular and multiple models of genderedness. Singular models of masculinity gender-type foods as masculine and feminine, suggesting that men and women “do gender" by consuming gender appropriate foods. Meat, especially red meat, is an archetypical masculine food. Men often emphasize meat, and women often minimize meat, in displaying gender as individuals. Dealing with gender in joint marital food choices requires negotiations about sharing masculine and feminine foods as partner foods in joint meals. Contemporary Western “proper meals” center around meat, creating masculine marital meals that reproduce wider patterns of male dominance. Meat is often a contested food in marriage, with food negotiations conflicting about whether, what types, when, and how much meat is consumed. Multiple models of masculinities suggest that marital meat consumption does not necessarily follow formulaic, hegemonic gender patterns. These plural masculinities offer various adjectival gender scripts that can be selectively invoked in negotiating meals shared between partners. Multiple cultural scripts for strong men, healthy men, wealthy men, sensitive men, and other conceptions of masculinities are employed in marital negotiations about “doing meat.” “Doing marriage” involves negotiating and managing masculinities and femininities in food choices that reflect, reproduce, and oppose a variety of gendered societal food scripts. Both singular and multiple models of masculinity offer insights about meat and marriage.

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