It started with a suspicious green sludge at the bottom of our drinking glasses.
I kept finding evidence of this murky, grassy sediment when I was unloading the dishwasher, and I asked my husband if he knew where it came from. He said something like, “Oh, that’s Athletic Greens” — a supplement powder that includes dehydrated fruits, vegetables and grains that you mix with water.
Then he started talking about protein. Like, a lot. And I would also hear him mention “zone 2” exercising — which, as a runner, I honestly wanted to know more about.
I was far less taken, however, with the reported benefits of cold showers.
After seeing a TikTok from a woman who described her “Huberman husband,” it all came together for me: My husband was amassing bits of advice from Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford who hosts a popular health and science podcast called “Huberman Lab” and has over four million Instagram followers. He’s sort of everywhere: In a June article titled “The Dad Canon,” defining millennial fathers in 2023, my newsroom colleague Joseph Bernstein dubbed Huberman “Goop for him.” Huberman is becoming so influential that my husband said some of the health advice he’s gathered from other voices in the fitness space seemed to have come from “Huberman Lab.”
This isn’t going to be an in-depth analysis of Huberman’s oeuvre; he’s done about 150 episodes and many of them are over two hours long. From my week of listening to as much “Huberman Lab” as I could, my take is that he’s quite good at explaining complicated scientific concepts in lay terms, and most of his health and wellness advice is based in what strikes me as pretty sound evidence. I’m a bit skeptical about his supplement recommendations, and I think his coziness with advertisers is less than ideal: He’s a proponent of Athletic Greens, or AG1, for which he’s a scientific adviser and which sponsors his podcast. (You can peruse mixed reviews on greens powders’ benefits here and here.)
What I’m curious about is Huberman’s popularity, specifically among middle-aged dudes. Because it feels somewhat new that straight men feel not only comfortable talking about, but actually comfortable comparing notes on or even nerding out about diet and fitness, which has been a stereotypically more feminine pursuit. (But to be clear, he’s not just appealing to men. I’ve heard from several female friends who said, “I think I’m the Huberman husband.”)
My hunch was that middle-aged men are just an unsaturated market for diet information, because they haven’t been inundated with as much of it as women have been. Since I was 12, I’ve been reading in girls’ and women’s magazines about how all my meals should be lean meats and greens, so I’m already casting a more jaundiced eye than my husband at anyone telling me I must (or mustn’t) eat in a certain way.
Richard Godwin, a British journalist who wrote an article for Men’s Health UK early this year titled “Man vs. Food: The Rise of the Bro Diet,” agreed with my assessment: There’s nothing new about men being encouraged to have ripped abs, but their defenses against the pressures of diet culture “aren’t particularly well built up,” he told me. He hadn’t heard of Huberman, but Godwin did notice the diet and fitness optimization message coming out of Stanford country — Silicon Valley — where body tracking often seems to be about gaining a competitive advantage in work as well as in lifestyle. As he wrote in Men’s Health: “It’s all a curious mix of ideology and evangelism: My science is better than your science; my expert knows better than your expert.”
But I wanted to know if there was some history that explained how we got here. So I called Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, the author of “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession” and an associate professor of history at the New School. She told me that in the broadest sense, from the early 20th century through the 1960s and ’70s, there was “a real sense that to pay attention to your bodily health is unmasculine” and even narcissistic.
In “Fit Nation,” Petrzela describes the horrified reaction when Life magazine ran an article about weight lifters at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica in 1951. “Some LIFE readers were so repulsed by the country’s most mainstream magazine featuring a ‘vulgar display of brawn’ that they wrote letters to the editor recommending that this lifestyle should be ‘banned and censored,’ not glamorized.”
Women have long been the primary market for weight-loss advertising, whether through diet or exercise, or even the indirect messaging of the fashion industry. Though overexertion and muscularity were certainly considered unfeminine, being thin has been seen as an acceptable and worthy goal for generations. Because women were the main consumers of this kind of information, it’s not surprising that marketers would look for a different approach to attract men — and that appeal has often been couched in science and statistics, which is how Huberman frames his information.
Petrzela describes the various ways that some American political figures have attempted to nudge us toward a healthier culture. When Lyndon Johnson was in the Senate, she writes, Lady Bird Johnson “strove especially hard” to separate the idea of fitness from certain “effete associations”:
In The Baltimore Sun, she wrote in 1956 of the “tricks” she had to play to nurse her husband back to health after a heart attack caused by his lifestyle, one typical of accomplished, “on the go” men: long hours at work, three packs of cigarettes a day, and meals of coffee and cold hamburgers. Once Johnson convinced her husband that counting calories and fat grams wasn’t emasculating, but could be like “following World Series scores,” he “fought every pound as if it were a political opponent.”
Over time, this perspective gained traction, and charismatic fitness leaders like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and ’80s helped convince more men that there wasn’t anything “unmasculine” about exercise — or about what we might now call body consciousness. For decades, going to the gym has been culturally acceptable for straight men, but worrying about diet was still seen as feminine, and companies had to figure out how to market “healthy” products to men.
Emily Contois, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of “Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture,” explained to me that “the power of science — like, capital-S Science — has been deployed multiple times to masculinize ideas about health, the body and particularly food.” Whereas a fitness or diet product might be given a catchy name and described in lay terms when it’s being sold to women, when something is sold to men, the pitch will sometimes include depictions of molecules. (Even if they’re molecules that don’t exist and would be dangerous to consume if they did.)
All of this really came to a head during the pandemic, when, as Petrzela put it, “we saw a huge boom” in the personal health industry for everyone, regardless of gender, “both because of social media and isolation and the presence of a major health threat” that made our “normal ways of being healthy” seem insufficient. Which is to say: For a while, you couldn’t go to the gym, but you could listen to “Huberman Lab,” start getting sun on your face in the morning and wait 90 minutes to drink your morning coffee after waking up.
There’s a dark side to the male fitness internet — as explained by my friend Amanda Hess in 2018, when she took a dive into the dark recesses of body building memes and unpacked the way some men can go from message boards about the “quantified self” to expressing fringe political beliefs. And certainly diet and fitness extremes can be as psychologically damaging to men as they can be to women, as Virginia Sole-Smith has written.
Still, I think it’s mostly a positive that middle-aged men are becoming more deliberate about taking care of their health. As Contois notes, in the past, women and mothers have taken on the work and worry about the health of all members of their families. (Yet another of the normative ways that household management falls unevenly on women, particularly in different-sex partnerships.) So it’s to the good that men are “seeking out information and solutions” for themselves, Contois said, rather than leaving it to women like Lady Bird Johnson to trick their husbands into not having another heart attack.
As for my husband and me, he’s ended his dalliance with greens powders, and after listening to a large dose of “Huberman Lab,” I wouldn’t say I’ve been Huberman-pilled, but I’ve also tried implementing some of his advice: I stopped myself from getting an afternoon cold brew after listening to a short (for him) “Huberman Lab” episode about coffee consumption because I have trouble sleeping already and I don’t want to endlessly increase my caffeine tolerance. No matter where my husband gets his health advice going forward, though, I simply do not want to hear another word about protein.