Earlier this year I decided to become a vegetarian. It's not a typical choice for a 35 year old male - particularly a former 'lad' like me. But after learning about the journey our meat makes on the way to the dinner table, it was the only sensible choice. I expected a level of debate, but I didn't expect some of the gender stereotypes that came my way. Apparently, meat-eating is an essential part of being a man. Eating a rare steak, burning sausages on the barbecue and having a fondness for pork scratchings are all part of the criteria. Meat keeps you strong. If you don't eat it you won't be able to hold a drill, to till the field, or keep the door open for those poor weak women.
It's been an eye-opener noticing how central eating meat is to male identity. I have begun to understand how frustrating it must be for women when their gender gets in the way of their achievements. But fighting through the haze of stereotypes and misinformation, of course, is the irrefutable logic that becoming a vegetarian is a good thing, regardless of your gender. The truth will always win eventually, and here are a few of its ingredients:
1. The natural order: One of the biggest pro meat-eating arguments is that it is natural to do so. Yet, our biology suggests otherwise. Our closest relative in the animal kingdom - the chimpanzee - is an omnivore with a diet of less than 10% meat. Our digestive system is far more similar to herbivores than carnivores. We do not have nails or teeth that can tear apart raw meat, and our stomachs do not have the hydrochloric acid that carnivores' do to break meat down. Carnivores' intestines are short, to dispose of meat quickly - ours are long to absorb nutrients through water (better suited to fruit and vegetables).
2. Nutrition: Another common argument is that we need meat to enjoy a balanced diet. But the main things meat provides us with - protein, iron and vitamin B12 - are abundant in beans, leafy greens and eggs.
There is significant evidence that vegetarianism is healthier. Saturated fat found in meat is the biggest driver of high cholesterol and therefore high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. There have been many examples of people making a full recovery from heart problems when moving to a meat-free diet, compared to limited success when they don't.
3. Animal cruelty: Of course, for many, the main reason for becoming vegetarian is the animal cruelty in meat production. Chickens, cows, pigs and sheep typically live in horrendous, unnatural conditions to line corporation pockets and to give us cheap meat at dinner time. A recent investigation by Animal Aid showed that although required by law, stunning does not always take place at UK slaughterhouses. There are many other examples that show the same. And spare a thought for the centrepiece of our Christmas dinner (the Turkey) which in representing a feast of love, has been fattened to the extent that it can no longer fly, breed or in some cases, stand.
4. The environment: Finally, of course, there is the damage to the environment. Meat production is the second biggest contributor to environmental problems on all levels. It has a devastating impact on land degradation, water pollution and biodiversity of species. Livestock pollution alone is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. A study in the States showed that if every American swapped one meal of chicken a week for non-meat it would be the same as taking half a million cars off the road.
The above only scratches the surface. I would recommend John Robbins' The Food Revolution or Allen Carr's Lose Weight Now if you want a more complete picture.
So where does this leave the masculinity debate? Well as long as people think that chewing on a chicken's leg is an essential part of manhood, social pressure will probably come out on top. But perhaps we can create an alternative gender justification? The same people who say real men eat meat also think that men should look after and protect people who are close to them. So let's ensure we protect our loved ones by eating a healthier diet. Let's also protect them by helping to create an environment with reduced global warming. Real men, they say, should not use their physical strength to gain an advantage over others. So let's extend this protection to defenseless animals.
Of course, I don't really believe eating meat (or not) has anything to do with masculinity. Gender rules are as limiting for society as national and racial stereotypes. The long term goal is surely to remove attachment to masculinity altogether.