Debbie Does Salad

Do vegetarians really have better sex?

On Tuesday, NBC declared a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals commercial—featuring, among other suggestive images, a woman preparing to pleasure herself with a broccoli stalk—too racy to be shown during the Super Bowl. The text in PETA’s advertisement reads: “Studies show vegetarians have better sex.” Do they?

Not necessarily. In a statement released in response to NBC’s decision, PETA noted that meat makes people “fat, sick, and boring in bed,” claiming that vegetarians are, “on average, fitter and slimmer than meat eaters” and that meat and dairy consumption is linked to impotence, heart disease, and obesity. It’s true that cardiovascular disease is associated with sexual dysfunction in both women and men and that obesity has been linked to low libido in both sexes. It’s also true that, in Westernized countries at least, vegetarians and vegans tend to weigh less and have lower body-mass indexes and lower cholesterol levels than omnivores. This may be due to the fact that vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber and lower in protein, but it also may have to do with the fact that vegetarians are, in general, more health-conscious. An avowed vegetarian who ate nothing but french fries, after all, would run a high risk of both obesity and heart disease. (A PETA spokesman cited research on vegetarian diet plans developed by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn as sources for the commercial’s claims—both regimens are also strictly low-fat and low-cholesterol.)

Vegetarianism also may have some negative effects on sexual desire. Vegetarian diets tend to correlate with higher rates of zinc deficiency, which is closely associated with lower testosterone levels and depressed sex drives. Vegetarian women are also more likely to develop amenorrhea (loss of periods), a condition that’s usually accompanied by low testosterone, vaginal dryness, and poor libido. Finally, the notion that overweight people are less sexually active isn’t entirely accurate (for women, at least): A recent analysis published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that overweight women might, in fact, be slightly more active.

Historically, vegetarianism has been linked more closely with chastity than with licentiousness. Sylvester Graham, the crusading 19th-century dietary reformer and inventor of the eponymous cracker, believed that meat—along with feather beds, coffee, tea, and richly seasoned foods—encouraged the “degenerating habits of luxury, indolence, voluptuousness and sensuality.” (He also believed that the paroxysms of orgasm were related to diarrhea.)

Around the same time, in Russia, Leo Tolstoy gave up meat because of his concerns about animal cruelty. In “The First Step,” his “essay on the morals of diet,” Tolstoy claims that meat-eating is “quite unnecessary, and only serves to develop animal feelings, to excite desire, to promote fornication and drunkenness.” Later, in the early 20th century, English schoolmasters recommended vegetarian diets to their students as a means of curbing their appetites for self-abuse.

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Explainer thanks Jacqueline Jacques, chief science officer of Catalina Lifesciences Inc., and Dan Shannon of PETA.

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