Proof in the Performance: How Icons of Masculinity are Bringing Plant-Based Diets to Athletes


Image from the Netflix Documentary, Game Changers.

Firefighters, soldiers, and pinnacle athletes have a powerful message in Game Changers, a Netflix documentary. The mostly male cast seeks to change perceptions of meatless meals. Eating a plant-based diet, they say, can help men perform on the field, in crisis situations, and even in the bedroom.

Messengers include an Olympic weightlifter, NFL players, a champion race car driver, special forces trainers, and ultimate fighter titleholders. Their achievements are supported by visuals, led by lean muscular bodies. Fighting, winning, and guns reinforce the message that plant-based diets can facilitate manhood. While the film does not challenge - and in some ways reinforces - traditional conceptions of masculinity, it does offer alternative perceptions of how one can eat to be a man.

Amber Summers, a PhD in social and behavioral sciences and a registered dietitian, was struck by the focus on visuals conveying fitness and achievement. She smiles when the names of co-producers Novak Đjoković and Jackie Chan explode on the screen beside trophies, title belts, and defeated foes. 

Summers leads CCP efforts to support Meatless Monday Global. Meatless Monday Global is a collaboration between the Monday Campaigns, the founding organization of Meatless Monday, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs. The goal is to expand and strengthen global implementation of Meatless Monday to increase the number of people who consume less meat for better health and a healthier planet.  

“The film is about getting the messages of plant-based diets to different audiences using influential celebrities and familiar faces. It’s an attempt to create an association with people known from the entertainment world,” says Summers.

Summers suggests that in some cultures, vegetarianism and veganism are viewed negatively among some men when it comes to their own dietary choices. These stereotypes include the idea that delicious food, laden with animal-based protein, is being taken away. And that in order to be physically strong - a coveted characteristic of traditional masculinity - a man has to consume meat. To highlight this, the documentary includes a clip of mixed martial artist Connor McGregor taunting an opponent for eating only vegetables. 

“Plant-based diets”, used frequently in the trailer and the film, reframes the idea of cutting out meat to what’s possible to eat. The term also makes room for diets that are not entirely meatless every day. This can expose people to new ideas, leading them to contemplate their choices.

“The idea of maleness today drives the belief that men are big meat eaters, they don’t eat yogurt or salads. But this documentary, like Meatless Mondays, shifts perspectives about how we can eat differently for our health,” Summers says.

In the documentary Meatless Mondays is featured in a segment with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once the premier Hollywood action star and a dedicated meat eater, Schwarzenegger makes switching to a plant-based diet seem achievable by suggesting people start with small steps. This aligns with the concept of promoting small “doable” actions that have been a stalwart of social and behavior change communication.

Hearing routine health and diet messages from scientists, researchers, and health practitioners can sometimes get stale. But these messages can become more appetizing if echoed by people who have put the information into practice.

Game Changers offers models for others to follow by telling stories of strength gain, quick recovery from injury, and endurance building achieved on a foundation of plant-based proteins. The documentary even counters the idea that another facet of manliness, sexual prowess, can only be derived from animal proteins.  

For Summers, correcting myths about how we must get our protein is long overdue. She wants to add the icons of masculinity to the current Meatless Monday stakeholder group of public health professionals, climate activists, animal rights campaigners, and environmental scientists.

“Game Changers is another window of opportunity to expand Meatless Mondays messaging. We want to build on the momentum the film is having and leverage their success and reach,” Summers says. 

Article written by Jarret Cassaniti, Senior Program Officer, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. 

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