In my experience, there is a gendered distinction in the responses I receive from women and men when they find out that I am, oh-god-here-it-is: vegan. Women usually respond with something like, “Wow, I wish I could do that” or “good for you.” From men, I almost always hear “where do you get your protein?” or teasing comments about how I must be weak from having nothing to eat.

Could it be that men are socialized more than women to view meat as an essential part of their diet? To some extent: yes.

A new Netflix documentary by James Cameron, The Game Changers tackles the myth that men need meat to be strong and manly. In so doing, The Game Changers unpacks the origins of the male meat dependency fallacy as well as provides new scientific evidence that debunks the myth that meat makes men manly. As discussed in the documentary, the way we view food in the United States is a product of how we have been socialized. Our society tells men, through marketing, that they need meat to be strong, to be masculine, and even to be a man.

Meat marketers like McDonalds and Subway have used the celebrity, masculinity, and sex-appeal of high profile professional athletes to showcase their delicious, manly meals for generations. McDonald’s alone has sponsored top athletes like Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and Usain Bolt. And these sponsorships are not cheap; in 2017, Lebron James turned down a $15 million deal with McDonalds in favor of one for Blaze Pizza.

Why do meaty, fast-food chains pay these athletes so much?

Because it works. And when fast-food franchises don’t use athletes to convey the masculinity of their product, they just come right out and tell you: meat makes you a man. A Taco Bell commercial featuring a man eating one of their products is accompanied by a voice-over that reads in a deep, manly tone: “steak, that’s what a man eats.”

But, even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most renowned and successful male bodybuilder of all time, has made the switch from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based diet. In The Game Changers, Schwarzenegger says, “It’s great, great marketing by the meat industry. Selling that idea that real men eat meat! But you have got to understand that that is marketing. That's not based on reality.”

For generations, marketing has convinced men that meat is not just a product to be sold, but also a core element of what it means to be a man. The documentary cleverly flips this narrative on its head by presenting plant-based diets to its viewers through the lens of the world’s best athletes.

However, a lot of people still believe that men are biologically predisposed to eat, enjoy, and need meat because they are omnivores. If this was true, wouldn’t women and men be equally dependent on meat?

Additionally, scientific evidence presented in The Game Changers suggests that humans did not evolve to be true omnivores. While human canine teeth are often perceived as a symbol of our ancestors' evolutionary connection to eating meat, our mouths actually tell quite a different story. True carnivores, like lions, have very sharp canine teeth accompanied by jaws that move up and down, which together are designed to shred meat. Human mouths, however, have dull, flat teeth with jaws that move up, down, and side-to-side, all of which are designed for grinding fruits and vegetables, not shredding meat. Sharp teeth are often ornamental as evidenced in one of our closest biological relatives, the gorilla (herbivore). Male gorillas have two large, sharp canine teeth that are only used to intimidate other male gorillas.

Another common myth surrounding male dependency on meat is that soy increases estrogen, and therefore eating soy decreases manliness. The documentary explains that soy contains phytoestrogens, which are compounds that look like estrogen to the body. Therefore, phytoestrogen has the opposite effect of estrogen because it can block estrogen from binding to the receptor. Soy does not increase estrogen levels, but the estrogen found in animal proteins like chicken, eggs, and dairy can.

The popularly-held opinion that “meat makes you manly” actually has the opposite effect on a man’s “manhood.” The Game Changers quips that there is no better measure to grasp the manliness of men than erection frequency and hardness. According to an experimental demonstration in the documentary, plant-based diets result in thinner blood plasma which increases blood flow, ultimately resulting in increased frequency and hardness of erections in men. You heard that right. Plant-based diets can make the manliest part of a man operate even better than meat ever could.

So whether you are a male athlete trying to increase your game, or a single man trying to improve yours, there is one universal answer: decode the marketing and ditch the meat.

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