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Vegetarian Diet Won't Lower Testosterone, New Study Shows

Midsection of man cutting vegetables
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Key Takeaways

  • New research shows that adding plants to the diet does not significantly affect testosterone levels in men.
  • Certain foods may alter testosterone levels, but testosterone is a matter of general health, not just diet.
  • A plant-based diet provides numerous health benefits for men.

Contrary to long-held and potentially harmful stereotypes, a plant-based diet will not significantly reduce testosterone in men, according to new research.

Our culture has a history of creating associations between certain foods and masculinity. Traditionally, the “meat and potatoes” man has been viewed as more authentically male, while guys who eat a plant-based diet may be pegged as weaker or less virile. These stereotypes may stem from a belief that eating less meat and more plants can affect testosterone levels. If you’ve had concerns that dialing back your meat consumption might affect your hormone levels, here’s a look at what this new research means for you.

The Research

The May 2020 study, published in the World Journal of Urology, set out to evaluate whether eating more plants could cause changes to testosterone levels. Researchers compiled data on 191 men (average age 45) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

They then looked at the effects of age, body mass index (BMI), and score on a plant-based diet index on the men’s serum testosterone levels. While age and BMI did impact subjects’ testosterone levels, no significant testosterone changes occurred when men ate more plants.

Despite preconceived ideas about manliness and meat eating, this isn’t the first study to show that a plant-based diet may not have much impact on testosterone levels. As far back as 1990, research in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a vegan diet had little effect on free testosterone levels in men—though a substantial increase in sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a testosterone-transporting protein, was observed. Meanwhile in 2019, an analysis of the 1999–2002 NHANES that was published in the journal Andrology found no association between heathy dietary patterns and testosterone levels in the 550 men who were surveyed.

Optimizing Testosterone Levels

While eating more plants may not have much effect on testosterone, certain foods can contribute to hormone fluctuations. Dairy products with synthetic hormones have been known to interfere with estrogen levels in men, women, and children. Foods high in trans fat, such as fried foods and some baked goods are associated with decreased testosterone levels. Though chronic alcohol abuse has been associated with a drop in testosterone, moderate drinking has in fact been linked to higher serum testosterone levels.

And as for the rumor that soy products will shatter your “T,” the research is mixed. While some studies have indicated that foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame could alter testosterone levels, research has indicated a lack of evidence to support this claim. A large meta-analysis from 2009 showed no significant effects of soy protein or soy isoflavones on male sex hormones.

Aside from diet, general healthy behaviors contribute to healthy hormones. “Research has shown that a male's individual testosterone levels depend on our overall wellness,” says registered dietitian and personal trainer Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT. “Testosterone levels become blunted when we are not taking care of ourselves. In order to maximize your endogenous testosterone, manage your stress, get enough sleep, stay active, and achieve a healthy weight.”

Getting the Nutrients You Need on a Plant-Based Diet

Even with the evidence about a plant-based diet and testosterone, some men may still have concerns about checking all their nutritional boxes while reducing or eliminating meat. However, it’s certainly not impossible to maintain hormone levels, protein intake, and micronutrient needs on a diet with more plants.

Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT

Many male athletes and professionals with active jobs eat vegetarian diets. They are still able to perform optimally.

— Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT

If you’re considering a vegetarian diet, DiMarino advises making it an intentional, mindful switch. “Anyone, including males, considering transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet should do their due diligence in finding out about their personal nutritional needs.” This may include identifying sources of vegetarian proteins you enjoy, then tracking your protein intake until you get into a rhythm. “These can include low-fat dairy, eggs, soy products, beans, and lentils,” DiMarino suggests. 

As for micronutrients you might miss out on if you don’t eat meat, the right plants can fill in the gap. “Be sure to eat whole grains and enriched cereals to meet your vitamin B requirements,” says DiMarino. “Iron is a nutrient that tends to be low in vegetarian diets, so include servings of beans, spinach, lentils, and broccoli.” Finally, if you’re concerned about not meeting your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals, you can always supplement with a multivitamin for men.

Additional Benefits of Going Plant-Based

With concerns about testosterone and plants out of the way, there are plenty of excellent reasons to add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your daily diet—and to cut back on meat, especially the red and/or processed variety.

Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT

Research has consistently shown that a diet high in vegetables and lower in meat promotes disease prevention and overall wellness. All men would benefit from additional vegetables and less fatty or processed meat products in their daily diet.

— Anthony DiMarino, RD, CPT

A plant-based diet is associated with lower body mass index (BMI), an important indicator of healthy weight. In 2009, a large study in the journal Diabetes Care found that men on a vegan diet had an average BMI of 23.6—which falls within the “normal” range of 18.5 to 24.9. Men on a vegetarian diet that included dairy and eggs had an average BMI of 25.7, while non-vegetarians had an average BMI of 28.8 (in the “overweight” category).

It's worth noting that BMI does not necessarily account for muscle weight in men and does not always mean you are overweight. But having excess body fat can lead to a number of health problems, and obesity has also been linked to low testosterone.

In addition to the benefits for a healthy, normal weight, eating more plants has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, a 2019 study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that a diet higher in plants and lower in meat reduced risk of death from any cause.

What This Means For You

Despite popular opinion about masculinity and diet, there are no “masculine” or “un-masculine” foods. Not only will following a plant-based eating plan not cause your testosterone to dip; it also can’t determine your status as a member of a certain gender. “Our diet does not dictate how ‘manly’ we are.” says DiMarino. “How we behave and treat others determines our manliness. Nothing else.”

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