By Aly Walansky
Updated June 29, 2017
Credit: © Con Poulos

Ever since the days of cavemen, manly men have been known to enjoy giant portions of meat. Take away that meat and a man’s masculinity is threated. Or at least that is what a team of researchers is trying to prove. Led by Dr. Attila Pohlmann (a vegetarian) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the team is looking at the biological and psychological predispositions that motivate the belief of men that eating meat will make them more manly, despite all of the health risks attached to excessive meat. This is even true after the World Health Organization linked eating processed meat to cancer.

In one component of the study, male subjects would have their masculinity threatened and then be offered meat pizza. Their anxiety was lowered to a greater degree than those who were offered vegetarian pizza. The study is trying to discover the psychology of why men historically value meat, what is going on biologically and physiologically that makes this happen, and the impact of eating said meat on male hormones.

“With topics like this, it can be hard to know where nutrition stops and culture begins,” says Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man's Search the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef and The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor. “Nutritionally speaking, there’s a lot to love about meat. Besides the protein, it’s a superb source of energy in its more delicious form (fat), and it’s also a better source of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, like vitamins B6, B12, magnesium and iron,” says Schatzker. “Also, we may be able to learn something from our closest living relatives—chimpanzees. When chimpanzees hunt, it’s the males who do the hunting. This makes sense, because hunting is dangerous. Males are more expendable than females. If a female dies, any baby she may have, or any future baby she may give birth to, dies with her. However, if a male dies, another male can step in to take his place to provide food and father any future generations. So the association between maleness and meat would seem to go pretty far back,” says Schatzker.

In addition to associations with the hunt and with red-bloodedness in general, men have historically demonstrated purchasing power by consuming meat, says Ted Merwin, author of the new book Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. “Meat has been a symbol of affluence, so being able to buy it shows one's economic success. Eating meat in public is perceived as especially impressive, which is why delis became so popular—oriented around the eating of pickled and smoked beef, they enabled the male children of immigrants (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) to show off that they had ‘arrived’ in America and were becoming successful at last."

But let’s not forget that a lot of women also love meat, and this may play into the prestige men place upon meat. “As I wrote in Steak, ‘In the jungle villages of Peru, Sharanahua women will refuse to have sex with the men if they don’t bring home meat. Instead, they taunt them by…cornering each man individually, tugging his shirt or belt and singing, 'We are sending you back to the forest, bring us back meat,’” says Schatzker.