Eating meat has long been part of the American male identity, and the relationship is perhaps summed up best in humorous TV ads that glorify the bond between meat and masculinity.

But the realities of modern life -- the obesity epidemic, the exposure of factory farming practices and the environmental price of meat production among other forces -- are converging and may start breaking up the marriage between "the guy" and his monster burger.

And while the stereotypical male vegan for the past 40 years has been seen as the bearded, Birkenstock-wearing, anemic hippie, some high-profile alpha males have converted to a diet that eschews animal meat and even any animal byproducts such as milk, cheese and eggs.

The growing ranks of these "power vegans" include former President Bill Clinton, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, former Montreal

Canadiens star Georges Laraque and former Detroit Piston John Salley.

Last year, The Boston Globe even coined another term -- "hegan" -- to describe the trend of middle-age men who eat a plant-based diet, often to the exclusion of animals and animal byproducts, or veganism, but are disinclined to proselytize or join the ranks of veganism's often edgy ethos.

Many are doing it more for health reasons than for animal welfare or environmental reasons, though the latter two can be added incentives.

Converging events

Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the Farm Sanctuary, has been a vegan since 1985 in an era when he says "there was little thought about our food system."

Events in the ensuing quarter-century, however, have come together to make everyone, including some meat-eating males, more aware of the importance of eating a diet based on plants, not animals.

Besides those already mentioned, Baur cited popular movies and books such as "Food Inc," "Fast Food Nation" and "The China Study"; repeated news stories about E. coli bacteria outbreaks and mad cow disease; the awareness provided by the health and social media; and an increasing array of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cooking classes spreading across the nation.

"People are recognizing that the way we are eating is killing us," says Baur. "Eating plants is simply a more efficient and healthy way to feed our planet's growing population."

A local convert

Some of the most ardent vegetarians and vegans are former avid meat eaters, such as local chef Ken Immer.

"I came from a background of a carnivore, and my specialty was meat," says Immer. "When I was working at Slightly North of Broad, I was basically a butcher. I was making pate, introduced the charcuterie (plate of meat samples). ... I could debone a duck in two minutes flat."

Immer's change started when he approached his 30th birthday. He was overweight and overworked and turned to yoga for exercise and stress relief. He loved it so much that in 2003 he decided to train at Holy Cow Yoga to become a teacher, but the studio requested that he give up meat during training.

"That was really difficult for me," recalls Immer. "My whole persona -- Chef Ken -- was wrapped up in meat."

But he relented and discovered at the end of two weeks that his body was "functioning at a higher level."

He decided to become a vegetarian, and since then, he has become one of the more high-profile vegetarians in the Charleston area.

Helping people live without meat has become both a vocation and avocation for him.

Immer teaches vegetarian and vegan cooking classes at various locations around Charleston and created "GrawNola," a raw food granola bar that is sold in Whole Foods Market stores across the Southeast.

And while he is not an exclusive vegan, he describes his diet as being primarily vegan with an occasional, or accidental, taste of meat.

Spreading the word

Immer is not alone in providing locals access to vegetarian and vegan options.

When vegan cafe The Sprout opened in Mount Pleasant three years ago, many wondered if it would survive the first year.

The owners, Mickey and Caroline Brennan, not only are still around, but continue to open "kiosk" locations around the city and serve not only as business owners, but educators.

Like Immer, the Brennans said they didn't always live the most healthy lifestyle, eating meat and smoking cigarettes.

"Growing up outside of Cleveland in the early '70s, I didn't even know a vegetarian," he recalls.

Brennan is trained in French cuisine, which he describes as "stuffing little animals into big animals," and it was during this training that he started courting vegetarianism. It was solidified while working at Cafe Gratitude, a vegan and organic restaurant in San Francisco in 2004 and 2005.

Brennan, who is 6 feet 2 inches, has gone from 280 pounds as a meat eater to 205 as a vegan.

Now, the Brennans offer locals an opportunity not only to buy vegan food, but learn about it.

Besides The Sprout, other places are starting to offer vegetarian and vegan fare as well, including Dell'z Deli, Alluette's Cafe and even high-end restaurants with a reputation for their meat dishes.

And a relatively new Facebook site, Charleston Veggies & Vegans, has 300 friends and serves as a clearinghouse for vegetarian events including Earth Fare's Vegan Potluck dinners on the first Wednesday of each month, vegetarian and vegan cooking classes and special events, such as 17 North Roadside Kitchen's organic vegan dinner Sunday.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.