Three months ago, jacked, shirtless and bearded influencer Brian Johnson, who is better known as the Liver King, stunned his more than 6 million followers with a shocking admission. While he had spent years claiming that eating a pound of raw liver a day had given him his bodybuilder physique, he had actually been taking steroids. The reaction to this deep betrayal among the online “manosphere” was swift.
“I wasn’t surprised at all. It completely makes sense. That’s exactly what I expected. There’s no way you can look like that” without steroids, said Joe Rogan on his December 2022 podcast following the revelation. Joining him was a YouTube influencer known simply as Derek, whose YouTube channel “More Plates, More Dates” had been the first to reveal the Liver King’s steroid use in a one-hour exposé. In the podcast episode, Rogan and Derek watched the Liver King’s YouTube apology video and laughed at the idea of how oblivious people could be about the influencer’s “con game,” in the words of Rogan.
While they’re clearly not friends, Rogan and the Liver King are just two examples of a wide swath of influencers that have added a decidedly alpha-male aspect to the wellness world in recent years. Described on a highly politicized April 2022 Tucker Carlson episode as both “bromeopathy” and “bro science,” health beliefs and rituals by influencers in this genre can vary widely. Rogan disparages the fact that the Liver King loves “sunning his balls” and personally prefers other practices like sensory deprivation tanks. But one thing they all seem to have in common: they know how to sell supplements.
The Liver King, for example, shows off his shirtless physique to his 4.2 million TikTok and 1.8 million Instagram followers to promote his line of liver-based supplements called “Ancestral Supplements.” Rogan is the co-founder of supplements brand Onnit, which was acquired by Unilever in 2021. Derek also has his own supplements brand, Gorilla Mind.
The same goes for Paul Saladino, aka “Carnivore MD,” another muscular influencer who advocates eating raw liver as part of a diet of dairy, fruit, no vegetables and honey. He also is anti-sunscreen and stated that he opted not to get the Covid-19 vaccine because he already had Covid and was “metabolically healthy.”
Manosphere influencers have gained attention in recent years advocating for a wide range of wellness practices. Points of advice for the Liver King outside his diet include avoiding wifi and fragrance. Others promote practices like perineum sunning, red-light therapy on the testicles and withholding ejaculation, making spurious claims as to their health benefits. Some favored wellness activities have crossover in the female wellness sphere: Rogan prefers ice baths, a practice that has also been adopted by Goop wellness maven Gwyneth Paltrow.
The obsession with red meat-based diets — frequently with no seed oils — is a major dubious health claim made by this genre of influencers.
“One of the hotbeds of B.S. in this whole thing is diet and nutrition,” said UK-based cardiologist Rohin Francis, who uses social media to debunk men’s health claims that he says are not supported by evidence.
“The carnivore primal kind of mentality,” said Francis, is similar to the one that sparked the paleo diet years ago. “We keep having the same things coming back again and again in different guises. But they all center on returning to some kind of perfect way of living that existed before the awful modern world, with all its terrible processed foods and everything.”
The Liver King, for example, argues for eating raw liver as part of the “ancestral tenets” of living to “rediscover” one’s “primal self.” Alcohol consumption is OK, but he prefers Everclear.
“There is some truth that our diets have become terrible, but this fantasy past that they have drawn is nonsense,” said Francis. Part of the appeal might simply be that a carnivore diet is more appealing than the steamed vegetables and lean meat of mainstream fitness-oriented diets. “There are sensible health advice podcasts or YouTube channels, but they don’t really get any traffic, because nobody’s looking for that. They want someone to tell them that eating steaks three times a day is good for their health because they want to eat steak three times a day.”
Like the more feminine wellness space, health concerns beyond aesthetic physical fitness are prevalent. But these concerns are generally associated with fears of a decline in perceived masculinity: Wellness treatments promise to raise testosterone and sperm count, which Tucker Carlson’s “End of Men” special ominously warned were in decline.
“It is a legitimate observation that sperm levels are declining,” said Dr. Joseph Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. Schwarcz has written articles debunking claims, including that infrared treatment of testicles boosts sperm count. “Now, the testosterone decline is much more circumspect. It’s not so clear that really is declining or that whatever difference is being measured has a clinical significance,” he said. “Your sperm count is not what makes you a man or not. Neither is stripping off your shirt and shooting bottles with a machine gun or chopping down a tree. That’s not what constitutes manliness.”
These concerns about manliness frequently overlap with alt-right beliefs. This is not necessarily true for all–conspiracy-debunking podcast QAnon Anonymous’ “Manclan” podcast series on alpha male influencers described the Liver King as apolitical, and noted that he did not espouse any of the overt hostility toward women that others in the manosphere embrace.
But the far-right leanings of others were especially clear on Tucker Carlson’s “End of Men” special, where he specifically featured alt-right alpha male wellness influencers such as “Raw Egg Nationalist,” which publishes books via a neo-Nazi publishing house, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“For sure there is a big right-wing overlap, and a lot of that is a kind of anti-authority mentality,” said Francis. “The pole that has attracted a lot of that kind of bro science stuff is a reaction to the modern world. There’s a lot of anti-feminist, anti-woke kind of mentality in some of the people that believe these things, health-wise, as well.”
There appears to be, on the surface level, a conflict between the more “bromeopathy” aspects of this wellness world and “bro science,” or attempts to say wellness claims are supported with scientific evidence.
While Rogan mocks the Liver King’s more homeopathic ideas, Saladino, a former business partner of the Liver King, received a more sympathetic treatment. A former guest on Rogan’s podcast, Saladino, who was a “business partner” with the Liver King and has his own line of liver-based supplements under the “Heart and Soil” brand name, released his own apology video for what he claimed was his ignorance of the Liver King’s steroid use.
“He’s a legitimate medical doctor. He’s real,” said Rogan of Saladino, in his December podcast episode. He did, however, express skepticism about some of Saladino’s ideas, saying, “I don’t know if he’s accurate on whether or not vegetables are actually bad for you.”
Manosphere influencers’ wellness claims can often include quoting scientific papers in medical journals while ranting against the medical establishment in the next sentence. Saladino, for example, cites scientific studies that he claims show that green leafy vegetables are bad for you, while also expressing skepticism about the evidence for the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines.
“It’s bizarre because, on one side, they criticize science. And the other side, of course, they refer to science,” said Schwarcz. “They’re very good at cherry-picking data. There are roughly five scientific papers published every minute of every day. … You can find the scientific paper to back up almost any view that you have.”
“It’s confirmation bias,” said Francis. “If there is a scientific paper that supports their belief, then they will say, ‘This is fantastic work coming out of this research group.’”
Amid all these claims are a growing number of mainstream brands. Unilever benefits from Rogan’s promotion of his brand Onnit, which sells a nootropic supplement called “Alpha Brain” that he says “seems to fire up your brain at a higher RPM level.” The company’s Liquid IV hydration brand has also sponsored Rogan’s podcast.
Joe Rogan podcast sponsors are often in the wellness arena, with brands like NeuroGum, Four Sigmatic and Athletic Greens among those that have advertised on the show.
Athletic Greens most recently ran a promo code on Rogan’s podcast interview with Russell Brand, where the two railed against “Big Pharma” and Covid-19 vaccines. They also criticized commentators who had questioned Rogan’s use of ivermectin to treat Covid-19. A parasite treatment, clinical trials have not shown ivermectin to be effective for Covid-19. Athletic Greens declined to comment.
Stacey Andrade-Wells, vp of marketing for Liquid IV, said the brand’s marketing team has a “robust podcast program,” with two full-time staff members dedicated to podcast marketing. “Podcasts are a great channel for just omnichannel awareness,” she said. When asked about advertising on a podcast with claims like those made on Rogan’s, she said, “Liquid IV is a very science-backed company and brand, and the bar that we have for the quality of products that we put out for consumers … is very high.”
In addition to podcasts, social media in general is highly effective for spreading these ideas. Extreme antics and claims drive engagement and eyeballs. The Liver King, for example, shocks his audience by eating foods such as raw testicles and performs stunts such as blowing up a “toxic” bed or throwing spears while grunting.
“If you want to go viral, you have to make more extreme claims,” said Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a doctor focusing on obesity who founded the weight-loss program Sequence and frequently debunks claims in posts. “That’s how you catch attention, and that’s how you go viral and create a cult-like following. The money is not only in the followers, but then you’ve got to find something to sell the followers. A lot of that is supplements. … A lot of these guys make a lot of money from selling just absolutely worthless supplements to these people.”
Rogan talked up studies of vitamin supplements’ effect on Covid-19 symptoms after the discussion criticizing the vaccines as ineffective. Onnit sells a line of “immunity” supplements.
“There is a large anti-vax narrative in that space,” said Nadolsky. “It’s good to have a healthful lifestyle. And then, if certain vaccines for certain diseases show benefit, it’s OK to do both. It does not have to be one or the other.” He added, “There’s only a small handful of clinically efficacious or effective supplements, so anything beyond that doesn’t have very much data; a lot of it is just hype.”