Does gender influence our diet?

Published April 22, 2013

| News Corp Australian Papers

Ask any man what his favorite food is and chances are he'll nominate a juicy steak or a gravy-smothered meat pie.

Put the same question to women and an answer including cupcakes and chocolate would not be out of place.

The question of whether our gender determines what we like to eat has long puzzled scientists and nutritionists. 

Are men and women programmed to want different foods? Do we have varying body requirements? Why are some foods "masculine" (steak, burgers, chips) and others "feminine" (cupcakes, yogurt, salads)?

Matter of taste 
Kim Terakes, author of The Great Aussie Bloke's Cookbook says: "Guys tend to think they haven't had a meal if they haven't had a big piece of protein, whereas women have a prawn risotto and think that's dinner. For men, that's an entree."

Terakes, like most people, thinks men need to eat more because they are physically bigger than women.

While nutritionists generally recommend a higher calorie intake for men, the amount of daily energy we need to consume depends on a variety of factors such as age, height and level of activity, says Sharon Natoli, director of Food & Nutrition Australia.

What we choose to eat comes down to our upbringing, cultural norms, social inputs and genetics, Natoli says. "It can be that the influence of gender is stronger than we know - there just hasn't been enough research into this area of nutrition."

However, there is a reason why women are more likely than men to reach for that cupcake.

"When you look at taste buds, men have a lower sensitivity to bitterness, which is why they are more likely to enjoy beer and savoury foods than women. Conversely, women have a greater sensitivity to bitter tastes so they prefer sweet treats," Natoli says.

It's a social thing 
Professor Lauren Williams, from the University of Newcastle's School of Health Sciences, says socialization is the main factor that determines what we like to eat.

"Our social inculcation is the dominant factor that affects why we choose the food we do," Williams says.

"Our roles in society are reproduced at the family table. Children watch as their dad gets the bigger steak and mum gets a smaller portion."

In Western societies, including Australia, eating meat has always been linked to strength and masculinity.

"Men disdain fruit and vegetables as being healthy foods women eat because they want to lose weight. Men want to build muscle so they eat meat because that's what meat is - muscle from other animals," Williams says.

Guilt trip
For women more than men, eating is complicated - and guilt can play a part.

"Women often question their food choices, so they are more likely to say, 'I should be having the salad but not the fish and chips.' Most men wouldn't think twice about the consequences of what they eat - with the exception of men who are overweight or athletes," says sport and health psychologist Tracey Veivers of Brisbane-based health consultancy Performance Perspectives.

"For the average man, there is less consequential thinking about their food choices. They don't necessarily think about what's on their plate. Women are bombarded with so many messages about what we should look like and what it takes to look like that, it's almost impossible not to be aware of some nutritional information," Veivers adds.

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