OK, let’s go there. Let’s have this conversation.

Is there any merit to the notion that eating a plant-based diet (or, to put it another way, avoiding animal foods such as meat and dairy) has benefits for male sexual health? To be blunt, does it lead to better erections or enhanced libido?

I sort of didn’t want to go there in connection with the vegan boyfriends post, because of the PETA connection. PETA has — I’m understating here — a passionate engagement with the ethics of eating animals, and thus they are not to be trusted in connection with questions about the relative nutritional merits of animals versus plants. Nutrition is not what engages them; they’d probably argue for a “rocks and stones” diet, or maybe breathatarianism, if they thought it would get people to stop eating animals. Admirable, perhaps, if they really are engaged (as some of them seem to think) in the greatest moral crusade of the 21st century — but utterly worthless if you’re actually interested in the question of what you ought to be eating from a health-and-nutrition standpoint. Anyway, that’s enough about PETA. (I mean it. Moderators are standing by.)

Let’s get back to the proposition before the house: Does eating a plant-based diet (or “plant strong” as some people put it) improve erectile function in men? It’s a heavily loaded question, because it’s essentially the converse of the proposition that eating meat and dairy wrecks your boner. And if that’s true, there’s obviously a lot more men who would want to know about it, than currently do know about it.

Every diet and health proposition you care to name, in this modern world, has a small constellation of doctors, dietitians, and self-help-book authors orbiting around it. Shining brightly in the plant-based/plant-strong constellation are several doctors including Dr. John McDougall and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and perhaps Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Plant-based eating is distinct from general vegetarianism or veganism in that those terms sometimes imply an ethical stance with respect to animals versus plants in the diet; and further distinct because many vegetarians tend to be sanguine about highly refined plant foods (white flour and plant oils) whereas most of the plant-strong people believe in eating whole plant foods to the general exclusion of pretty much everything else. Fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, potatoes — these are the building blocks of the plant-strong diet. Olive oil and tofu and fake grain-based meat substitutes — the frequent staples of traditional vegetarianism — are less favored.

There’s a movie in this dietary-theory orbit, too. It’s called Forks Over Knives — you may have seen it in the theater. If so, you saw a bit of Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn in it. You also saw a distinguished older Asian gentleman talk about how plant-based eating has an unexpected benefit: it “raises the flag” as he so delicately and humorously put it.

That clip, and some related footage from the movie, have made it onto YouTube in this short video (the “raise the flag” comment is at about the one-minute mark):

If that’s the proposition — eat plants, unrefined to the extent possible, don’t eat anything with a face or a mother, and your boner will rise better and stronger than before — then what’s the operating theory as to why?

(If you watched the YouTube clip you’re ahead of the class now. You can text somebody or something while everybody else catches up.)

Esselstyn’s book is probably the best place to get a detailed answer. I don’t have it in front of me, but I have read it. And in short (I’ll link to some more detailed expositions of this in a minute) the idea is that your vascular system is lined with cells that produce nitric oxide. Eating animal foods and refined oils — the theory goes — damages those cells, so they produce less. When you stop eating animal foods, those cells heal, and they go back to producing the nitric. What does nitric oxide do for you? It dilates your blood vessels and improves blood flow throughout your body. That’s excellent for your heart, which is why Esselstyn titles his book “How to Prevent And Reverse Heart Disease.” But dilated blood vessels and improved blood flow…in your penis? That, boys, is the firm heart of the matter.

I can hear you out there, thinking and saying it: “Cool story, bro.” Yup — it is a cool story. But is it true? Or is it just another dietary myth with a books-and-seminars industry attached, like Atkins or colon cleansing or those magic hormone diet drops that are all the rage right now despite being thoroughly debunked back in the 1950s?

Dr. McDougall says (with footnotes to sources) the following:

Meat-eaters are likely to become impotent because of damage caused to the artery system that supplies their penis with the blood that causes an erection. Erectile dysfunction is more often seen in men with elevated cholesterol levels and high levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol — both conditions related to habitual meat-eating.

Here’s a random forum post that offers a common-sense exposition on this. I’m offering it not as an authority (it isn’t, nor claims to be) but for its blunt logic:

The mechanism that causes an erection is increased blood flow to the penis. If you have clogged arteries, they don’t just clog in your heart or head – they clog everywhere (hence, “peripheral vascular disease”). This means that blood flow doesn’t get to the places that need it. So, if the blood vessels (arteries) in your penis are clogged because you ate too many manly steaks, that means when you need those arteries to be full to pleasure that wench (er, or whatever), they can’t get full – resulting in (at the very least) a “softy” or at the worst, complete impotence. I really think if more men knew this, they would put down that steak and pick up a portabello.

As for the rest of the anatomy down there – the bigger you are, the bigger your scrotum tends to be and the smaller the penis becomes in comparison – and then when you add in the scrotal edema that comes with the disease processes of the obese, you often end up with a negative number.

But now — finally — we’re coming to the fun part. Earlier in the week was Valentine’s Day, and over at the Engine 2 blog there appeared a Valentine’s Day post (by Dr. Esselstyn’s daughter Jane) on just this very question. Here is — you will maybe pardon the expression — the meat of that post:

One of the most amazing things that happened to our father’s male heart patients while on his Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease diet was not that their cholesterol numbers went down, or their blood pressure numbers plummeted, or their weight dropped effortlessly, or their type 2 diabetes went away – it was that another part of their body was doubling in size.

I could not believe this HUGE piece of evidence was not gaining more attention in the medical field. What a motivational kick in the pants. Seriously, some patients need the proverbial skillet to the head announcing, “Stop eating all that penile artery-clogging grease, meat and cheese, if you want to get it up past the age of 40!”

Our vascular system is everywhere in our bodies and is made up of an intricate network of blood vessels (also known as arteries and veins) that carry our blood throughout our body. The innermost lining of every artery is called the endothelium — a smooth, slippery surface that is spectacular for a number of reasons. We are going to focus on the endothelium’s ability to release nitric oxide, which when released dilates arteries.

Did you catch that? Nitric oxide can cause the small round tubes that carry our blood to expand — get bigger.

Nitric oxide is a gas.
Nitric oxide dilates arteries.
Nitric oxide is amazing.

So, in a healthy body when the brain sends the blood vessels a neurological message of, say …

“There is a tiger, run!
“Save that child who is heading into traffic!”
“What just went bump in the night?”

… this causes the arteries in the legs to release nitric oxide, which dilates arterial walls, provides an increase in blood flow and the power to sprint to safety.

The same goes for the penile arteries — the ones that provide blood flow to the penis. The brain sends a neurological message of … say …

“Oh, the mood is right.”
“Hey, the kids are all at sleepovers.”
“Hey, the kids are all at college.”
“Thanks, for doing the dishes, honey.”

This triggers the arteries of the penis to release nitric oxide, which dilates arterial walls and provides increased blood flow to the corpora cavernosa (engorge-able) tissue of the penis. The engorgement of this tissue does something essential — it presses up against, compromises, sort of cuts off the flow of blood in the penile vein. This blocks drainage of blood out of the penis creating a blood-filled erection, a boner, a stiffy, a hard-on, you name it.

The Standard American Diet (otherwise referred to as SAD) hardens and thickens the lining of the arteries. The fact that this plaque-y build-up within the arteries comes from eating a meaty, greasy, cheesy diet is widely known. Yet, lesser known, is the injury to the endothelium — that smooth, slippery innermost layer of blood vessels that releases nitric oxide. This is where we are focusing once again.

Day after day, meal after meal, bite after bite of highly processed, fatty foods injure the endothelium’s ability to function correctly. This sort of diet compromises the endothelium’s ability to release nitric oxide (gasp).

Dr. Vogel, Director of Clinical Vascular Biology from the University of Maryland, performed a brilliant experiment that showed how quickly the endothelium loses the ability to release nitric oxide after a fatty, processed meal. The insult is almost immediate.

Any male eating the standard American diet, pay heed if you enjoy your erections: No nitric oxide means no dilation — which means no increased blood flow — which means no squashing of the penile veins — which means no blood build up in the penis — which means no erection! Which means no …

The uplifting news is that a plant-strong diet filled with whole grains, greens, fruits, veggies, beans and berries literally cleans out the plaque coating the endothelium of the vascular system and repairs the endothelial cell’s ability to release nitric oxide.

There’s more — including testimonials from firefighters — but I’ve already quoted too liberally. You’ll have to read the rest over there.

So what do you think, peeps?