Back in the autumn of 2016, shortly after the Donald Trump election, I drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco to interview seven young men who had started a tech company. At least, it looked like a tech start-up – but the founders were more interested in their personal biological hardware than computers or phones. ‘We’re looking at the body as a system with a set of inputs,’ they explained to me. ‘You can modulate those inputs for a predictable set of outputs.’
What they were selling was nootropic pills – ‘apps for the mind’ – designed to make you smarter, fitter, more efficient, more focused and in control. But I found myself just as interested in their diets, which they had adopted with more or less the same objectives. One of them performed a 60-hour fast every week. Another consumed all his daily calories within a one-hour window each day. A few of the others communally fasted from Monday evening to Wednesday morning. All of this was tracked with a mix of spreadsheets, glucose monitors, fitness trackers, calorie counters, pulse oximeters, Slack groups and Subreddits. My photographer came back from his encounter with them shaking his head. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Those nootropics guys have some serious eating disorders.’
I’ve thought about those men – and that comment – a lot these past few years. What struck me then as a very niche, very techy, very – how to put this? – male approach to food has begun to permeate the mainstream. We’ve seen it in meal replacement solutions such as Soylent, the optimally engineered ‘anti-food’ developed by San Francisco software engineer Rob Rhinehart; or the slightly more palatable British equivalent, Huel, available in supermarkets and petrol stations up and down the country. We’ve seen it in the extreme protocols gaining large (and largely male) followings: the caveman diet, the carnivore diet, the keto diet. We’ve seen the emergence of outlandish male food personalities such as the Liver King (1.7 million Instagram followers), who thinks the crisis in modern masculinity would be solved if we all ate more raw offal – not to mention Bible influencer Jordan Peterson and his legendary all-beef diet. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the vegan diet repositioned as a macho protocol thanks to the Netflix documentary The Game Changers. Going plant-based will (it is claimed) do wonders for your erections. It’s all a curious mix of ideology and evangelism: my science is better than your science; my expert knows better than your expert.
In among this flurry of A/B testing and supplement pop-ups, good old-fashioned word of mouth has done its thing, too. Food, I find, frequently comes up in conversation. Like my mate Damian, 44, who allows no food to pass his lips before 7pm each day. He was inspired by a dad at his kid’s nursery who had exchanged a ‘tubby dad bod’ for a six-pack through a regimen of intermittent fasting and weight training. Damian went online and – how many 21st-century stories begin like this? – started his own research.
‘I was really taken with what he was telling me, about how your body doesn’t need about 40% of what we eat,’ Damian says. ‘He was describing this experience of becoming more alive, more awake to the world. We’re animals; we’re designed to be quick and light. Most people say, ‘I can’t miss breakfast, I’d be a mess!’ Actually? You can miss breakfast. You’re designed to miss breakfast.’
Damian skipped breakfast and lunch every day for a couple of years and says he’d recommend it (with the caveat that he could become a bit of a monster at 6pm). He lost a few excess kilos, but that wasn’t the point. ‘It made me appreciate the food I was eating,’ he says. ‘I liked the feeling of being in control. I liked not having that fogginess. I saved tons of time. And it was a life experience that taught me how much I need.’
The New Masculinity
What’s curious about all of this is that prior to 2016, I don’t think I had a single conversation about diet with any of my male friends. Ever. No doubt this has a lot to do with the fact that when you reach a certain age, your hangovers become crueller, your metabolism slows and you can’t burn through food like you did when you were 17. But it was also because, well, dieting was something women did. It conjured images of mums drinking SlimFast and influencers such as Ella Woodward posing with kale. Men were more likely to talk about how much they drank than how much – or how little – they ate.
That has now emphatically changed, says nutritionist Ian Marber – and not necessarily in a healthy way. He feels that male diet culture is displaying the worst excesses of female diet culture of the recent past. ‘There’s a kind of machismo, which feels really outdated to me, that is alive and well on Instagram and online marketing,’ he says. ‘It’s the equivalent of the marketing about beauty, weight and fitness directed to women in the 90s. It feels prehistoric. But somehow, it’s working.’
For Marber, influencer culture is one of the primary drivers. He describes a young male personal trainer who approached him recently, asking for advice on how to monetise his large Instagram following. ‘It was so glaringly obvious. If he posed with his shirt off, he’d get 3,000 likes. If he did the same pose with his shirt on, he’d get 300 likes. The advertisers obviously understand this. The algorithm understands it.’ He says it’s no surprise that there are ‘thousands’ of fitness influencers offering ‘bullshit’ diet advice or flogging protein shakes and zinc supplements of dubious merit. ‘They get thousands of likes for posing with their shirts off. But it’s not because of what they’re eating. It’s because they’re hot,’ Marber says. The truth of the matter is, we’re far more likely to take advice from someone we aspire to be than someone who’s qualified to offer it.
Marber points to a shift in the culture that’s often missed in contemporary media discussions about gender. To read the comment pages of our newspapers, you might imagine that every young person in Britain had dispensed with gender and was now living in some kind of non-binary unisex utopia. But this is far from the case. The female ideal has converged on something that the American writer Jia Tolentino termed Instagram Face: a ‘distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic’ composite of Kim Kardashian, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner, wearing a ‘sexy baby tiger look’. Social media algorithms, make-up tutorials, photo-editing software such as FaceTune and ever more accessible cosmetic surgery have all helped create this aesthetic. Dating apps have surely compounded it. Any woman who signs up to Hinge or Tinder effectively volunteers to have themselves judged on a fleeting glimpse of a 2D image.
There are precisely the same forces at work on men, too – only with different emphasis. It’s whey powder rather than lip fillers; muscle mass rather than (or as well as) weight loss; and rather than Instagram Face, it’s more like Instagram Body. Maybe you prefer your figurine with the extravagant facial hair and ponytail of the Liver King. Maybe he has the sculpted quiff and precision stubble of Love Island winner Davide Sanclimenti. But he certainly has the same musculature, prominent abs, pecs, biceps and inguinal creases. ‘Whenever I do talks in schools, almost without exception, the boys are into protein, muscles and abs,’ Marber says. ‘There’s no shame or hesitation. It’s just expected. They’re buying protein shakes in their teens. They’re doing keto and intermittent fasting in their twenties. We’re veering towards a Love Island aesthetic becoming the norm. All of those diets that you mentioned – paleo, keto, carnivore – tap into this idea that men are powerful, muscular Masters of the Universe who can control their own bodies. It’s the complete opposite of acceptance.’
The aesthetic pressures on women are arguably stronger. (I mean, we have semi-regular female prime ministers now, and yet: can you imagine a woman as overweight as Boris Johnson making it to the top job? I cannot.) However, women have lived with these pressures for far longer than men and have better developed defences. There is a lively literature critiquing female beauty standards, from Fat Is A Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach to Hunger by Roxane Gay. There is a wider recognition that obsessive calorie counting leads to joyless anxiety at best and life-threatening eating disorders at worst. Ad campaigns aimed at women now celebrate ‘body diversity’, while magazine articles celebrate the ‘anti-diet’ backlash. ‘The anti-diet movement is about not being a victim of diet culture any more,’ one dietitian told our sister publication, Women’s Health. ‘I think in many ways it’s a female fight because women are so often targeted by the diet industry. Women especially end up tying their self-worth to how they look, and the diet industry teaches us that that’s what matters most.’ Men, however, seem to be saying, ‘Bring it on!’
Gurus And Prophets
So how to attain this ideal physique? This is a matter of ideological debate. For it isn’t just the visual culture that has changed. Lee Amico, a personal trainer who offers nutrition coaching from his gym in Hertfordshire, says that his male clients now come in full of diet chat that they’ve picked up from podcasts such as The Joe Rogan Experience or The Tim Ferriss Show. ‘The general population are now being exposed to guests and “experts” talking about how they got into shape,’ he says. ‘They buy into that gospel and become their own prophet for that religion. They listen, they think, “That makes sense,” then they start telling people – and it spreads and spreads.’
The carnivore diet – in which you eat nothing but meat (ideally plenty of organ meat) – is the one they talk about most. Amico sees it as quintessentially male in its brute simplicity, its competitive element (‘how long did you last?’), its excess (eat as much meat as you can!), its pseudoscientific underpinnings and the way it harks back to an idealised past when men were men. It also has an element of clickbait to it. ‘It’s extreme enough to get people clicking. It’s extreme enough to keep people reading. And it’s extreme enough to get people trying. It appeals to that caveman in all of us.’
And here’s the thing – you’ll get near instant results, too. You’ll feel different almost instantly, and pretty soon you’ll look different, too. ‘You’re taking a whole food source out of your diet. You’re restricting your carbs, so that’s loads of calories. So you’ll see quick results and you’ll say: “Oh my god, this works!”’ Amico explains. And in a marketplace of ideas, quick results are more appealing than slow, laborious, incremental ones. But they don’t tend to be sustainable. ‘What you find is people bottom out after four weeks tops. And they go back to where they were.’
Still, Amico doesn’t necessarily think that invalidates the experiment. ‘If it does flip someone’s focus into nutrition, then that’s not all bad,’ he says. ‘They might realise their plate doesn’t need to be full of chips or potatoes – and then they might reduce their carbohydrate intake. They might start eating more lean meat rather than sausages and burgers. If you’re willing to open your mind up enough, you will pick up some gems on the way.’ Traditionally, he points out, men have approached the business of getting in shape via training rather than nutrition. But the thing is, nutrition is far more important. ‘It’s not only about aesthetic goals – getting slimmer or building muscle mass – it’s about health markers, too. Nutrition moves the markers much more than exercise alone. I see a lot of people start the gym and they get so far. But it’s when they start looking at their food that they make the big leaps.’
Hacking Our Biology
The aesthetic marketplace is not the only competition that we 21st-century men are engaged in, though. The men at the San Francisco-based nootropics company I visited didn’t seem too bothered about looking like Love Island contestants – but they were obsessed with establishing a competitive advantage over their fellow start-ups. They wanted to make better, smarter, faster decisions. Such are the pressures of the modern economy. For them, diet was a way of improving their minds as much as their bodies.
It didn’t entirely work, in that their company folded. A peer-reviewed study showed that its pills didn’t do what they claimed – and so they ceased production. Live by the science, die by the science. But I did look up one of the founders, Michael Brandt, and found his quest for self-control still ongoing. ‘A lot of times when we eat food, we’re not eating it as food,’ he tells me. ‘We eat when we’re anxious or depressed or stressed.’ When we’re bored, too, I’d add. ‘I completely agree. I think the intermittent fasting movement is a response to that. It’s not really about calories. I just want to be able to control my own monkey brain.’ These days, he’s selling a drink called Ketone-IQ, funded by the US Military and endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow, no less. Each serving contains 10g of ketones, which is the chemical that your liver produces as an alternative energy supply when you restrict carbohydrates, the body’s usual source of fuel. The idea is that drinking a shot of this every few hours provides all the purported benefits of the keto diet – increased mental clarity, faster fat- burning – without you actually having to follow the diet. Sounds great, right?
In the intervening years, Brandt tells me that he’s tried just about every diet imaginable. The carnivore diet was ‘interesting’, he tells me. ‘I actually felt quite good. Whatever else you can say about meat, humans have been living off it forever – and it is very nutrient-dense, especially if you’re eating nose-to-tail, liver, tongue and so on.’ Still, he only lasted a couple of weeks. He did better on keto, but his favourite was a week-long water fast, which he describes as ‘a very spiritual experience’. ‘At a low level of blood glucose, your brain can’t function that well, so your body starts converting fat to ketones,’ he says. ‘It was cool to see how I’d survive in a starvation context.’
This was all part of what I suppose we’d have to call Brandt’s nutritional journey. And it’s a journey that he says has helped him to find equilibrium. Nowadays, he simply (simply!) omits all carbohydrates at breakfast and lunch and eats what he wants at dinner time. ‘I wasn’t obese or anorexic before. I was just thoughtless,’ he says. ‘I knew that candy and alcohol were bad for me, but I still drank and ate it. Now I’m very mindful of how carbs and sugar make me feel. I’m sure I was feeling these swings before, I just didn’t have the perceptual awareness of them.’ The idea of all this self-experimentation, he stresses, is not to spend your entire life mapping your biomarkerson Google Sheets. The idea is to find out what exactly works for your body, so you can gain a measure of control over it. ‘There’s a way of doing it that’s obsessive and controlling and counterproductive,’ he says. ‘And there’s a way to underdo it, too, when you’re shoving whatever into your mouth. But there is a sweet spot.’
Finding What Works
My own experience bears that out – up to a point. I’ve tried a few outlandish diets in my time. I once did a week-long juice cleanse at the behest of Vogue and a ‘dopamine fast’ that required me to ingest absolutely nothing (no food, media or conversation) for 36 hours. I’ve also kept my wife company on an enigmatic lose-a-stone-in-a-week diet that she found on the internet just before she turned 40 (lots of grapefruit and eggs). I’ve invariably found these experiments interesting. I’ve found I don’t need carbs nearly as much as I think I do, and you can get back a lot of time and money if you swap a lunchtime trip to Pret for a cinnamon-swirl-flavoured Huel. Also: it’s actually quite a relief to cede control to some higher authority, even if it’s just some dude on the internet. Diets help you with that.
But still, up to a point. I was rather taken with Brandt’s Ketone drink and its promise to support mental clarity. Only, on my second morning of drinking it, I inexplicably fainted and lost a whole two days of work. So much for efficiency. I’ve also tried my friend Damien’s fast – only to find myself feeling distracted all day and binge-eating in the evening. The more you consciously think about it, the more you obsess, and the more out of control it feels. I can’t help thinking that I was intuitively eating much better when I wasn’t thinking about my inputs and outputs all the time. Overall, it’s basic things that make the difference – picking wholemeal bread, an apple instead of a Snickers, maybe not eating a Five Guys on the way home, etc. But no one wants me to talk about that on a podcast.
And is all this focus on nutrition even reaching the men who need it? Nutritionist Rob Hobson doesn’t think so. ‘The men most influenced by the keto diet and the paleo diet tend to be the “worried well”, those with an interest in improving their physique or athletic performance in some way,’ he says. ‘But it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on men who are already fit and looking to get healthier, leaner or improve their performance while having little weight to really lose.’ Here is a sobering fact: 68% of men are overweight or obese in the UK*. ‘This is the group that needs the most help,’ says Hobson. He points to studies that show a significant number of men perceive weight loss as a ‘feminised’ space and are reluctant to talk about it with friends. Some are in denial about weight problems, reflecting a broader social acceptance of overweight men than women. ‘These men often do nothing about their weight until they receive an alarming diagnosis from their doctor.’
As for the ‘worried well’ – well, true enlightenment comes from accepting certain things are beyond your control. But it might also be a question of being honest about why we do all this. As for my mate Damian? He’s into bodybuilding now. ‘[Intermittent fasting] was an ongoing experiment into how I felt, what I needed and what I wanted,’ he says. ‘But this?’ he says, referring to his new musculature. ‘This is cosmetic. I want my muscles to look like this.’
So the reason is… vanity? He laughs. ‘It makes you feel great, it gives you a routine and a process, and it makes you feel strong. I mean, there are practical advantages – but that’s not really why you do it,’ he laughs. ‘My body is now as close as I’ll ever get to Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
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