“Strength” brought to you by Meat & Co.

I once had a roommate who swore that every time she felt she was about to get sick (sore throat, slight fever, weak joints), got her period, or felt under-rested, that her weak disposition was due to a lack of both iron and protein, and therefore, not enough red meat in her diet. With a side-order of a coughing attack or bleary eyes from an all-nighter, she’d make a beeline for the nearest Chipotle.

Most people would take a nap, slip a throat lossage, pour a cup of herbal tea, or treat themselves to dark chocolate if they’re feeling under the weather or stuck with some pretty bitchin’ cramps. Low on iron? Maybe some spinach will help. But, alas, we tell ourselves what we want to hear and end up with a burrito in the end.

For the average westerner, meat equals protein. And the word “protein” has a predecessor: proteios, which is Greek for “of prime importance.” Following the initial equation (i.e., meat = protein), we equate protein with strength. But after that, there’s very little effort in the individual eater’s nutrition calculation. The only question most people care to ask vegetarians is undoubtedly, “Where will you get your protein?!” Suddenly the world takes a stake in this one person’s protein intake. Oh, you failed an exam? Your boyfriend just broke up with you? You lost 20 bucks? I hope you’re at least getting your protein! We like to keep it simple: Protein rules.

If you don't cut your steak into the shape of America today then you're doing it all wrong.

A post shared by Elliot Tebele (@fuckjerry) on

Dr. Campbell counteracts these false dietary cultural assumptions in The China Study. Scientific work that came before Campbell’s time unfortunately contributed to the “protein = strength” myths: “Physician McCay was stationed in the English colony of India in 1912 in order to identify good fighting men in the Indian tribes. Among other things, he said that people who consumed less protein were of a ‘poor physique, and a cringing effeminate disposition is all that can be expected.'” This one dude’s “researched” observations leave both a lasting affect on gender and diet and a sour taste in my mouth. He only contributed to the making of meat’s masculinity.

Now, we still have sized, gendered descriptions for eaters. Meat eaters are strong, beefy, athletic, healthy. Vegetarians are sickness-prone, and vegans are skinny, wimpy, breakable, and bound for a future of osteoporosis, which impacts women at much higher rates than men (although the condition escalates with diets high in animal proteins). Gluten-free? Probably just some white chick who thinks it’s the latest diet trend. Raw food movement? Now that’s just gross. The list of disapprovals goes on.

Meat’s masculinity translates to cultural expectations of women, too. In the rom com circuit, we have the football players who want to date a girl who orders a Big Mac rather than one who chooses the salad. Teen magazines reprint this same answer in “Ask a Guy” advice sections (trust me, I used to intern for one). Editors’ earnest attempts might be to suggest girls order a “real” dish rather than some slim-lady shit just to fake a pea-sized appetite on a date. But men’s supposed preference for meat when it comes to what-your-girlfriend-eats isn’t just a sign of control (like why would you care, anyway?), but also a prime cut of the Cool Girl Phenomenon. This excerpt from Gilligan Flynn’s Gone Girl captures the nonexistent woman of men’s dreams:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.

This Cool Girl is the leading lady of cheap meat advertising: a lanky swimsuit model posing with mouth agape, her eyes closed as she prepares to bite into an enormous double-stacked fast food burger, all the while, a man’s deep, booming voice dictating the new menu item while watching her every move. We serve burgers to the leading members of the cult of masculinity. And with a burger in hand, the Cool Girl herself is the supporting actress to man’s quest for manliness through eating food and dominating women. GO MEAT, says Hillshire Farm, among others.

In the same way that meat-eating can be equated with stocky bodies and plant-based dieters associated with slimness, these assumed and sexed images of body type come with more than a few nutritional notions. While indulging in high-protein diets are considered healthy for growing kids and athletes in the Western mindset, this practice increases chances for cancer, especially in the liver. According to research funded by the American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research, certain proteins strengthen cancer growth. Campbell worked on this research for twenty-seven years. “What protein consistently and strongly promoted cancer?” he writes in The China Study. “Casein, which makes up 87% of cow’s milk protein, promoted all stages of the cancer process. What type of protein did not promote cancer, even at high levels of intake? The safe proteins were from plants, including wheat and soy.”

***

We have this older member of my family who struggles with gout, an arthritis that causes the ankle to swell and makes walking almost intolerable. It comes and goes, and it’s not a sight you want to see, I promise. Gout is the result of uric acid build-up, which is caused by rich diets packed with meats, gravy sauces, and beer. Oh, beer. The manliest of man drinks, even manlier than Dr. Pepper 10. This particular person was an athlete his whole life, and still works as a university assistant track coach. Sports, beer, and meat: what a manly trio. Protein strikes again.

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