Meat and Masculinity – a sustainability issue?


My first blog post is inspired by the food served at Robinson College whilst undertaking the first part of my Sustainability Leadership Masters programme (food never being far from my mind). The course organisers used a very cunning ‘Nudge economics’ ploy that would make even Richard Thaler proud – where you had to opt-in for meat at each of the meals, with the default being vegetarian. If you opted-in, this would trigger feelings of guilt and embarrassment at making such a hypocritical choice to consume highly unsustainable meat at a sustainability course.

So, I decided to choose the socially acceptable option and stick with the vegetarian food, I went five whole days without consuming meat (big deal I hear you say)! However, for me, this was a big change given I probably hadn’t gone more than 24 hours without some sort of animal protein since I was a baby. My main worry to be very honest; I would shrivel up and loose the already pitiful amount of muscle mass I have been building up through years of gyming’ and protein consumption – returning to London a skinny puny wreck. Not only is this probably biologically stupid, but it also made me think – why should I care? Is it sustainable for some men feel compelled to lift weights, eat meat, and get “shredded; hench; swole; ripped; jacked; buff…etc etc”

Tackling meat consumption, particularly in the developed world, could be a significant win in achieving our COP 21 aspiration to keep temperature rises within 1.5C of pre-industrial times. Putting aside the ethical issues of animal slaughter and the health impacts of over consumption, meat is a key contributor to climate change – accounting 13%[1] of global GHG emission. This is roughly the same as the global emissions generated from our transport system – which we are putting huge resources behind to fix with innovations such as electric vehicles. We should therefore be thinking hard about any issues that prevent the reduction of meat consumption.

I think our attitude and culture towards meat is a key issue in achieving the necessary reduction of our consumption. And the issue of meat and masculinity, which I touched on with my feeling of anxiety above, I think is central to this issue. Studies support my view, as Zoe Eisenberg pointed out in the Huffington post, with a University of Hawai study that the consumption of meat has a positive impact on perceived levels of masculinity[2].

The issue of men and meat is likely a deeply entrenched social issue, given the traditional masculine value of physical strength, but this is going to have to either adapt or change if we are going to cut our meat consumption. In this modern age, where physical strength is no longer key to survival, does society need to rethink what we expect of men?

[1] Environmental Protection Agency:

[2] Attila Pohlmann, University of Hawai:



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rob says:

    I see great potential in insects lowering our GHG emissions from meat production as well as provide the growing population with protein. I think in time peoples reactions will take time to change on eating insects but for sure its on its way. Here in Switzerland a major retailer has started selling insect burgers. But I see a future nearby where we will be eating more and more insect meat disguised in products we recognize today. Perhaps some clever marketing around eating insects making people as strong as ants (I believe they can lift something like 50 times their body weight) would help to make insect proteins popular.


  2. Sandra_G_U says:

    Interesting reflection, Martyn, on meat, masculinity and behavioral techniques! I’ve been a vegetarian for almost twenty years and the relationship between the perceived levels of masculinity and meat consumption had never crossed my mind before.

    As you pointed out, I think that setting the vegetarian meals as an opt-out default option encourages (nudges) people to stick to it. It’s a simple intervention but it interrupts habitual behavior and encourages consideration of green alternatives. I think this plays well with group consciousness (and self-identity) but also, in this case, helps people realize that there’s more to vegetarian food than we usually think. It isn’t just salads and fruit juices…

    On the other hand, I also found it helpful that this was accompanied by a short session on the environmental consequences of industrial/mass food animal production. In my opinion, this reinforces the message and it also increases the satisfaction of the participants as what it may have previously been considered as a “sacrifice” then turns into a “good deed”.

    Oh, and I hope you are no longer worried about your potential loss of muscles. I’m not sure if you are aware of this fact, but Carl Lewis was a vegetarian and, if I’m not mistaken (it is, if Google doesn’t lie), Venus Williams is also vegetarian (or was it vegan?). So, don’t worry! There are so many misunderstandings involved with vegetarianism… In part, because a big part of the discourse has been probably too radical and not willing to engage (maybe similar to sustainability). In case you liked the experience and wanted to repeat it again (besides Cambridge), you could check the Meat Free Mondays’ website, with ideas not to eat meat for one day a week. 🙂


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