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NBC News
updated 11/21/2012 3:09:00 PM ET 2012-11-21T20:09:00

As red-blooded Americans dig into their Thanksgiving meals this week, it’s safe to say most are eating turkey. It’s also likely there will be some manly activities – watching football, maybe even playing some football.

The two aren’t unrelated, says Hank Rothgerber of Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. In fact, some research he’s done suggests that eating meat is deeply intertwined with American perceptions of masculinity.

“There is a group of manly men who swear off what they call chick food, and they seek a double whopper to declare their manhood,” Rothgerber told NBCNews.

“It makes them feel like real men,” he writes in a study published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

“Meat consumption is a symbol of patriarchy resulting from its long-held alliance with manhood, power, and virility.”

And Thanksgiving, with its celebration of deep-fried turkeys, Turduckens and other symbols of cooked-flesh overload, might just be the pinnacle of this manly display.

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“When men consume meat in this way, especially when it’s public and it’s celebrated, they are validating their manhood and feeling good about what they are,” Rothgerber says.

Rothberger, who teaches psychology, has been trying to understand why so many Americans cling so desperately to their meat-eating habits despite a growing body of research that eating a lot of meat is not only bad for our bodies, but for the environment.

“Meat-eating contributes more to global warming than even auto emissions,” says Rothgerber. He cites a 266 report by the United Nations and a 2008 report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production  that concluded that farmed animals contribute 40 percent more to global warming than all transport combined.

“A 2008 German study concluded that meat eaters contribute seven times as much greenhouse gas emissions as vegans,” he writes in his report.

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Heavy meat-eaters have a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and other ills than people who eat little or no meat.

“There’s a growing awareness that it’s not great to eat meat, but still, people are doing it,” Rothgerber said in a telephone interview.

So he conducted two studies to find out why. He surveyed 125 undergraduate psychology students for one study, and 89 for the second.

“Men expressed more favorable attitudes toward eating meat, denied animal suffering, believed that animals were lower in a hierarchy than humans, provided religious and health justifications for consuming animals, and believed that it was human destiny to eat meat,” he found. “These are direct, unapologetic strategies that embrace eating meat and justify the practice.”

The men said animals "just taste too good to not eat them,” he said. “Females -- they are more likely to take what I consider to be indirect and apologetic attitudes.”

Rothgerber is the first to admit his study is limited – the students he surveyed were mostly white and middle-class and they were in their late teens and early 20s. But he thinks if anything, this group would under-represent the effects of masculinity and meat-eating in our culture.

“It’s possible that in certain ethnic groups there could be even more pressure to prove manhood by eating more meat,” he said.

The idea that people think eating meat is manly is hardly revolutionary, but there have been very few studies done on it. Most have been done in Europe.

In the United States, where surveys suggest just over 3 percent of the population admits to being vegetarian or vegan, most research has been done by groups seeking to promote meat-eating, such as the National Pork Board, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last March, a team including Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania and Brian Wansink of Cornell University showed consumers link meat with masculinity. "To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, all-American food," they wrote in the Journal of Consumer Research.

So what does a vegetarian like Rothgerber do on Thanksgiving? 

"I do feel personally that my manhood is a little more under scrutiny, especially because Thanksgiving is all about the turkey,” he says. “I think I really don’t need to validate my manhood.”

Related stories:

Guys think meat is macho

Infections in the meat we eat

Another reason to skip the beef

This story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.

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