When I was younger, my idols were people like David Seaman and Fred Durst. Sportsmen or rock stars – the kind of guys who could only be understood via the odd quote about playing golf in Arsenal Magazine (RIP) or an interview in Kerrang, before the age of global internet dominance. These days, the most you get out of footballers is Jack Grealish posting sweaty pics with a caption like “Back to training! [water squirt emoji]” and PR-trained rock stars posting a generic crowd with the words “Thank you [insert city]!”.
It’s easy to see why some men are getting bored of more traditional role models and looking toward wilder, more extreme influences. You may have seen Jordan Peterson get rinsed recently for any number of things – eating a purely steak-based diet, deliberately putting himself in a drug-induced coma, or instructing Sunni and Shia Muslims to become “penpals” to fix the sectarian divide. You may have thought, ‘Well, at least that’s the end of alpha male, meat-based diet influencers.’
That’s what I thought too – until a friend put me on to another alpha male influencer and meat-based diet espouser: The Liver King (1.6 million Instagram followers and counting). Then there’s Paul Saladino (441,000 IG followers) who only eats meat and fruit – the so-called “carnivore diet”. And, of course, there’s Joe Rogan (15.3m IG followers), who has also talked about going on a purely meat and fruit diet.
Take the Liver King, AKA 44-year-old Brian Johnson. “Primals!” he chirps at the start of every video (that’s his way of addressing you, his follower on Instagram), before proceeding to do or say some of the most insane shit you’ve ever seen, like eating raw liver or slurping down cow testicles. So far, so deranged. Then some of my friends actually went carnivore, and I even started considering it. Maybe it’s the protein shakes talking, but somehow Johnson looks quite aspirational to me, an overweight 34-year-old man, mainly because he is so hench his abs are basically tattooed onto his stomach.
Paul Saladino, meanwhile, is even older than I am, and so ripped you can see the veins bulging out of his arms. The 45-year-old’s most viral clips mainly consists of him being in a supermarket, grabbing various items I previously thought were healthy – like broccoli and kale – and shouting about why they are “BULLSHIT!!”. And yes, this, to me, a 34-year-old overweight man, is also somehow quite aspirational. Isn’t this the reason I go on diets? To somehow look like this Paul Saladino, albeit with a bit more clothes on and without shouting at people in my local corner shop? Surely I can’t be the only one?
“These figureheads often come across as ordinary guys with extraordinary lives,” explains Max Cotton, ex-MMA fighter and founder of online PT business Another Round. “There’s an element of ‘I could have what they have with the right mindset’. I also think the values and behaviours these alphas expound are often really aligned with hustle and bro culture, and then politically as well; often these alpha influencers are very right-wing, outspoken, ‘anti-woke’, and that resonates with a lot of men.”
Before social media, to be subjected to diets or lifestyles as extreme as these, you’d need to look up some dusty book in some dusty library, by some dusty guy that for all intents and purposes was an outcast living on the fringes of society.
Now, the internet has made it possible to be pulverised by the worst cunts alive, with the worst opinions going, as soon as you wake up, roll over and check your phone. Except now these freaks front successful podcasts, sell online training regimes and eBooks, and make me personally think that maybe if I just lifted incredibly heavy weights and only ate fruit and meat, my life would somehow be radically better.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Check the comments sections of these guys’ posts and you’ll find scores of men saying stuff like, “Since I started eating raw liver I’ve been able to do 40 push ups a set instead of 30”; “You’re a massive inspiration man, the world is sick and this sickness is stemming from this weak-ass modern approach to existence”; and “I used to blame my gut issues on dairy, when in fact it was the copious seed oil laden sludge I was consuming. Now I eat like Paul and have zero gut issues. Thanks man.”
Sociological researcher Annie Kelly did her PhD in digital antifeminism and the far right, and is now doing a postdoc on the impact of the internet on conspiracy theories. “There is an effect on social media in which the most radical, hardline rhetoric rises to the top because it drives so much engagement,” she explains.
“I think the various meat-only diet plans are a bit like the nutritional equivalent of this social media effect on rhetoric: They're extreme, relatively uncomplicated, and a little subversive and outrageous in contrast to conventional wisdom about nutrition. People find that attractive, even if they have no intention of picking it up themselves, and so it drives engagement.”
Cotton is one of the guys who – like me – has a love-hate relationship with these ludicrous male influencers. “If by listening to these men it sets you on the path to achieving your goals in the gym or in business or anywhere else, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “I think what captivates me is when the schtick is overdone to the point of being completely inauthentic. With Liver King, I was almost certain it was a parody account ripping the bodybuilding community. I don’t get how anyone takes him seriously, but, then again, I can’t stop watching.”
Personally, I was always baffled at the popularity of people like Peterson – how is listening to a gaunt, nasal little freak in any way aspirational? He’s not even funny or hench. And to be fair to Saladino and the Liver King, they’ve never explicitly – to my knowledge – come out with anything politically gross or extremist, although Saladino is a big influence on Rogan and has appeared on his show.
But with guys like Saladino, Liver King and a whole raft of alpha male influencers – mainly ex-Special Forces guys, like ex-SAS hunk Ant Middleton (1.4m IG followers) or the ex-Navy Seal ultramarathon Yoda David Goggins (5m followers) – they seem to offer some kind of semi-empowering message for the modern, gym-going, secret diet-having man.
The problem is, their world view doesn’t exactly account for any of the deeper, structural reasons why men might be struggling with their personal well-being, self-esteem or any number of mental health issues they tend to secretly nurse. That’s before you even get into the fact that a solely meat-based diet is probably quite bad for the planet when the Earth is presently on fire.
And then there’s the actual nutritional value or health implications of the carnivore diet – although a 2021 Harvard study found those adhering to a carnivore diet “experienced few adverse effects and instead reported health benefits and high satisfaction”, they also warned that further research was needed.
“Lots of people feel very pessimistic about the future, their social and economic status, and gender relations in particular, and these influencers address those issues in an attractive self-help format, which promises a way out through individual lifestyle changes,” Kelly says. “You only have to read the comments on some of their channels to see they have genuinely made some of their followers feel more personally positive, confident and happy.”
She continues: “[But] these channels don't address the social conditions that have made them feel that way in the first place, and particularly in the case of gender relations, do seem to actively exacerbate the problem.”
With social media algorithms showing no sign of slowing down in pushing the most extreme content possible, and our political landscape just two shades of the same right-wing, it feels like more men will be turning away from bland, PR-managed role models and towards more extreme, charismatic alpha male influencers. But maybe us modern men can bench-press our way out of toxic masculinity? Pass the cow’s testicles please, Liver King.