Testosterone is an important anabolic hormone that controls a number of functions. It boosts your strength and athleticism, whilst at the same time maintaining muscle mass and improving body composition.
On top of that, it reduces your risk of long-term illness and works alongside other hormones to balance sex drive, libido and energy levels.
Testosterone really is the king of male hormones.
When T levels are optimal you’ll look and feel great – but if your levels are low you might experience a loss of muscle quality and performance as well as a gradual increase in belly fat.
Some of the most common and well known T-boosting foods come from animal products. But what if you follow a vegan diet? Does this mean that your hormone levels are doomed? Or is there a way to use this diet to your advantage and optimize your male characteristics?
In this article we’ll take a look.
What is a Vegan Diet?
In simple terms, a vegan diet includes only plants, grains fruits and nuts. Whilst vegetarians abstain from eating just meat, poultry and sometimes fish, a vegan does not eat any kind of animal product at all. This includes avoiding any by-product of the animal such as eggs, dairy foods or honey.
Veganism is often accompanied by an overall lifestyle approach of avoiding animal products too – so soaps and cosmetics, leather, fur or wool products are also often avoided.
Once followed only by extreme environmentalists, this way of eating is now a popular dietary approach with a host of celebrities, athletes and other public figures advocating its benefits for a variety of reasons. Some follow a vegan approach for ethical or environmental reasons and more and more people are now suggesting it has benefits from a health perspective too.
But is it healthier or is it just a case of dogmatism within the food industry? Let’s have a look.
Veganism and Health
Many vegans do not achieve dietary recommendations for macro and micronutrients which has obvious potential health consequences. These range from poor energy intake to nutrient deficiencies.
For example, a Danish study  found that vegan diets were typically low in overall daily calories in men, low in carbohydrate levels in women and all in all did not meet the health recommendations for either macro or micronutrients. This included vitamin D, iodine and selenium.
However, the same study found that the diet was more favourable for avoiding high sugar, sodium and fatty foods which is great as these foods are often suggested as causes for long-term illness.
Many vegan dieters – aware of potential pitfalls and nutrient deficiencies – decide to use supplements in order to make sure they hit their daily nutrient needs. For example, a large number of plant only eaters are deficient in vitamin B12 as it doesn’t occur naturally in plants . So by adding relevant supplements to the diet, these deficiencies can be corrected.
This means being aware of the different vitamins, minerals and nutrients that each food source provides – and eating a variety of nutritionally sound foods to meet daily needs.
Research suggests that vegan dieters are more likely to have lower body fat and normal body mass indexes . As a big risk factor in heart disease, diabetes and low testosterone, this is an important factor in vegan diet health benefits.
There are also studies that show lower risk of metabolic diseases, heart disease and mortality rates . One large scale study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition  for example found that vegans had 26% less chance of death from heart disease but no difference between them and meat eaters for other causes of death.
However, for every study saying vegan diets are better for long-term health is a study suggesting that meat eating does not affect heart disease, cancer or early death .
All in all it seems like there are many reasons why a vegan diet might be beneficial but by no means is it conclusive.
How Does a Vegan Diet Affect Testosterone?
Plant based diets provide only a limited amount of saturated fat, meaning vegans don’t necessarily get the right amount in their diet. Typically found in meats, butters and creams, there are only a small number of foods such as coconut and avocado that are not animal based that provide saturated fatty acids.
Whilst high amounts of saturated fat in the diet might not necessarily be ideal for heart health, low amounts can also be problematic too – particularly for testosterone production.
Saturated fat provides you with cholesterol which is a crucial steroidal nutrient that forms part of every cell membrane. Studies show that it is an important building block of testosterone production and that low levels are correlated to low T levels.
Testosterone is derived via a “sterane ring structure” where cholesterol is converted into a hormone called pregnenolone, then into either dihydroepiandosterone (DHEA) or progesterone, then into either androstenedione or androstenediol, and finally into testosterone.
Studies show that diets with less than 20% fats can inhibit testosterone  so the risk of vegans having low T is quite high. Unsurprisingly then there are a number of studies that show non-animal eaters have lower T levels than those who include all food groups in their diet.
For example, a study published in Journal of Steroid Biochemistry  found that a plant-based diet decreased testosterone levels and increased the level of SHBG – a potent hormone that reduces free T levels in the blood.
Likewise, a study by Raben et al  found that lacto-ovo-vegetarians – those that don’t eat meat but do consume animal products such as eggs and dairy – had much lower total fasting serum testosterone than meat eaters.
But it’s not all one sided though. A study in the British Journal of Cancer  recruited 696 men – 226 were meat eaters, 237 were vegetarian and 233 were vegan. They conducted blood tests on each group to see what differences there were in their hormone profiles.
The results showed that vegans had 13% higher testosterone levels than meat eaters. Now the thing here though is that some of the men in the study were overweight, and as we know, being overweight is one key factor in having low T levels.
When body mass was adjusted in the data (basically taking out anyone outside of healthy body weight), that 13% fell down to 6% – still higher than expected though.
Summary – Vegan Diets and Testosterone
A vegan diet is based around plant foods – grains, vegetables and fruits for example. This approach to eating does not allow any animal products to enter the diet and is often accompanied by an abstinence of animal products for cosmetics or clothing too.
The majority of research suggests that vegan diets cause low testosterone but not in all cases. It’s not a very clear subject and leaves much still to be researched.
A vegan diet per se won’t lower your testosterone levels. As long as all necessary nutrients are obtained and sufficient fats work their way into your body you can still maintain normal T levels.
One thing is for sure though, vegans are more likely to have a normal body mass index and lower body fat, meaning they are at a lower risk of obesity-related low testosterone.
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- Pawlak, R et al. How prevelant is vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians. Nutr Rev. 2013; 71(2): 110-117
- Tonstad, S et al. Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes.
- Rizzo, NS et al. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Metabolic Syndrome.
- Key, TJ et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999; 70(3): 516s-524s
- Lee, JE et al. Meat intake and cause-specific mortality: a pooled analysis of Asian prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013; , doi: 10.3945
- Hämäläinen, E et al. Diet and serum sex hormones in healthy men. J. Steroid Biochem. 1984; 20: 459-464
- Bélanger, A et al. Influence of diet on plasma steroids and sex hormone-binding globulin levels in adult men. J Steroid Biochem. 1989; 32(6): 829-33
- Raben, A et al. Serum sex hormones and endurance performance after a lacto-ovo vegetarian and a mixed diet. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992; 24(11): 1290-7
- Allen, NE et al. Hormones and diet: low insulin-like growth factor-I but normal bioavailable androgens in vegan men. British Journal of Cancer. 2000; 83(1): 95–97