Vegan Diet and Testosterone: Make Plant-Based Work for You
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Mon 24 September 2018
Medical Review by Dr. Vlad Belghiru, MD
There’s this common notion related to plant-based diets that they would lower testosterone levels in men and make them less masculine.
In fact, one recent study examined the popular view about men who are vegans and vegetarians, and came to the conclusion that the general public does view meat eaters “more masculine”. Many men also report feeling more manly when eating meat, and some stick to meat-based meats in fear of not being labeled feminine by other people…
When it comes to actual evidence, many studies have shown that men who switch from meat-based to plant-based diets/foods do indeed see a drop in their serum T-levels. And several other studies have associated vegan men with having lower testosterone levels than meat-eaters have (study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study, study). However, it needs to be pointed out that few studies have shown vegan men to have nearly identical, and in some cases even higher (6%) testosterone levels than guys who eat “normal” Western diets that include plenty of meat.
The general consensus of the research, however, suggests that plant-based diets could lead to somewhat lower free and total testosterone levels and higher SHBG relative to omnivores.
BUT, this doesn’t mean that you could not thrive with plant-based diets while sporting high testosterone levels. In fact, I would make an argument for the fact that carefully crafted plant-based diet could easily be superior to the normal Western diet in terms of testosterone production, overall health, and masculinity.
(with that being said, I myself am not a vegan, and I do eat and often recommend my readers to consume some meat-products and dairy-products for health and hormone boosting reasons. So surely you can call me biased if you want, but I’m going to try to be as objective here as possible).
Let’s take a closer look at this topic:
The Good and The Bad of Vegan Diets for Testosterone
Generally speaking, plant-based diets have lots of good stuff going for them in terms of working favorably for testosterone production.
They are fairly high in antioxidants, they supply a good number of essential vitamins and minerals through the diet, they contain plenty of carbohydrates (which are very important for testosterone production), and people eating vegan diets are often far leaner than people who follow the typical Western diet.
However, with the good, there’s also some bad.
Vegan diets tend to be low in overall dietary fat content (which in itself is bad for testosterone), and the fact that’s in the vegan diet, most often comes from polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which have been studied for their testosterone and thyroid suppressing effects.
Vegan diets also tend to be high in many foods that may negatively alter sex hormones and thyroid hormone production, such as phytoestrogenic and goitrogenic compounds like soy, flaxseeds, and processed grains. Their overall fiber intake is also much higher than on a meat-based diet, and high-fiber diets have been for some extent blamed for their effect on increasing SHBG levels and making testosterone less available for the receptors.
And even though a vegan diet supplies a wide variety of important micronutrients, it also often falls short in some of the key nutrients for testosterone synthesis, such as the fat-soluble vitamins A (retinoid type), K2, and D. While also lacking some key compounds found in meats like creatine, carnitine, and taurine.
So really, one can’t say that vegan diets would be bad for testosterone production just because they are plant-based. The effect your nutrition has on testosterone production has everything to do with proper intake of the right types and ratios of macronutrients and getting all of the key micronutrients in, not so much about whether you do eat animals, or plants, or both.
With that being said, the typical plant-based diet with its high amount of PUFAs and fiber, low intake of calories, low intake of cholesterol, and too low amount of some key micronutrients and amino acids, can easily hurt your testosterone levels. It’s pretty easy to fix though…
…Below are four ways to turn the average piss-poor vegan diet into a testosterone powerhouse.
1. Simply Eat More
One of the main reasons why any kind of diet can reduce testosterone levels is if you don’t eat enough.
And this easily happens on a vegan diet, since plant-based foods tend to be much lower on calories than animal-based foods.
If you don’t supply your body with enough calories – in proper ratios of carbs, protein, and fat – the body will start conserving energy for the more vital bodily processes…
…Unfortunately, in times of famine, one of the first ones to slow down are the reproductive and endocrine systems, and with this, testosterone production often significantly declines.
One 7-year study compared men who restricted their calories (1350–2415 kcal/day) and ate very “clean” against sedentary subjects, who ate a normal Western diet with higher caloric intake (2145-3537 kcal/day). Due to their restrictive caloric intake, the group of men that ate lower amounts of calories had 31% lower testosterone levels, despite the fact that they maintained a “clean diet” and practiced running on a regular basis.
2. Stop Eating so Much PUFAs
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are often hailed as “healthy fats”.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
These types of fats contain long chains of unstable carbon-carbon bonds which are prone to damage when they get in contact with heat, light, or oxygen (two of these being plentiful in the body). When the fatty acids are oxidized, they become “rancid” and break down into harmful free radicals, which then start affecting your health. This process is called “lipid peroxidation“.
In studies of nutrient-hormone interactions, the strongest testosterone lowering type of macronutrients are in fact; PUFAs.
While saturated fats and monounsaturated kind constantly show promise as testosterone boosting agents, PUFAs have the opposite effect, and should, therefore, be minimized on a high testosterone diet.
Unfortunately, plant-based diets are loaded with PUFAs, and this is likely the primary reason why most studies see drops in testosterone when switching to vegan diets. This Finnish study, for example, saw that when men dropped their overall fat intake from 40% to 25%, while also increasing the relative amount of PUFA over saturated fat, their testosterone and DHT levels quickly dropped by a modest ~15%.
To counteract high PUFA, vitamin E and antioxidants will help to some extent in preventing the lipid peroxidation, as does eating more saturated fat to “dilute” the PUFA, but the best option is just to switch away from all sources of PUFAs (seed oils, vegetable oils, soy, and evetything made with those) and replace them with more stable saturated and monounsaturated fats (coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil).
3. Make Sure You Get Enough Fat-Soluble Vitamins
One reason why many people avoid vegan diets is that they believe this would make them deficient in essential nutrients.
To counter-effect this, many vegans will rush to the site claiming that you can get everything you ever need from plant-based foods and that in fact, plants are more dense in micronutrients than animal products would be.
They’re both somewhat wrong.
On a plant-based diet, you certainly will get plenty of micronutrients, especially if you eat leafy greens. BUT in most cases you will also be getting very little of the fat-soluble (active) forms of the vitamins A, K2, D, and E (and being deficient in these is horrible for testosterone production).
Whereas people who eat the basic Western diet, will likely get somewhat sufficient amounts of these, but lack on the other micronutrients more dense in plants.
The best solution would, of course, be to eat a balanced diet that incorporates foods from both worlds, but if you’re set on the fact that you will not eat any animal products, and thus skip the meat, eggs, liver, and milk (which are the primary sources for these fat-soluble vitamins)…
…Your best option would be to supplement daily with the following;
- An active retinoic form of vitamin A – 2000-5000IU
- Vitamin E in mixed tocopherols – 500-2000mg
- Vitamin K2/D3 liquid – 5-10 drops
You should be taking all of these with some dietary fat for absorption (coconut oil being the best option for vegans), or you can also apply them topically to the skin if you have them as liquid supplements and want to take them without any dietary fat/meal.
4. You Don’t Need so Many Grains and Fiber
Sure I don’t want to lower myself to the level of health-nut mommy-bloggers by claiming that grains and fiber would kill us…
…(You know, these people who have read the “Wheat Belly” book and are now converted to grain-o-phobia).
But I do think that an optimal testosterone boosting diet isn’t one completely filled with processed grain and fiber.
You see, there’s some evidence suggesting that higher intake of gluten-rich grains contributes to elevated prolactin levels (study, study) and increased prolactin leads to suppression in the production of dopamine and androgens. Whereas high fiber diets have been linked to lowered free-testosterone levels and increased binding protein (SHBG) which renders free-testosterone molecules “inactive”.
This goes for both plant-based and meat-based diets, but more so for the vegan crowd since the typical food choices on a plant-based diet are rich in grains and fiber.
I’m definitely not recommending neurotic avoidance of grains and fiber. Just don’t get the bulk of your carbohydrates from them and preferably don’t go much over the recommended ~30 grams of fiber per day.
Conclusion on Vegan Diets and Testosterone
As you can see, plant-based diets don’t necessarily have to be bad for testosterone production, although some people will gladly tell you so.
To keep testosterone levels soaring on a vegan diet, one just has to;
- Keep caloric intake at maintenance levels or slight surplus.
- Make sure to actually eat 25-40% calories from dietary fat.
- Consume less PUFA, more SFA and MUFA (get some coconut oil, will ya).
- Use some vitamin K2/D liquid (affiliate link) and vitamin A (affiliate link).
- Also consider supplementing with taurine, carnitine, and creatine.
- Avoid going too high in grain and fiber consumption.
- Get bulk of carbs from white rice, potatoes, and fruit.
- Limit goitrogenic and phytoestrogenic foods (soy and flaxseeds mainly).