Gen­der pres­sures may af­fect di­etary choices

Re­search sug­gests in­flu­ence of ‘mas­cu­line’ and ‘fem­i­nine’ foods

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - YOU - CHRISTY BRISSETTE

In ev­ery coun­try on the planet, men don’t live as long as women do. We’ve all come to ac­cept this as a fact. Af­ter all, as my dad used to say, “It isn’t manly to go to the doc­tor.” This and many other gen­dered be­liefs af­fect men and women’s health habits, in­clud­ing the types of foods they choose to eat.

For ex­am­ple, we’re con­stantly bom­barded with ad­ver­tis­ing and so­cial mes­sag­ing telling us that eat­ing like a bird and din­ing on salad is fem­i­nine, while eat­ing large por­tions and plenty of red meat is manly. These over­sim­pli­fied rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fe­male and male eat­ing habits may seem out­dated, but re­search shows they per­sist for many of us.

These so­cially in­flu­enced eat­ing pat­terns could in part help ex­plain why men are at a higher risk of heart dis­ease and some can­cers. Are our ideas about mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity neg­a­tively af­fect­ing our health?

This may not come as a sur­prise, but over­all, women have health­ier eat­ing habits than men. Re­search sug­gests this is mostly a learned re­sponse.

Luke Zhu, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba, re­searches so­ci­etal as­pects that af­fect food de­ci­sions.

Based on the re­search of his group and oth­ers, Zhu says that, “Un­healthy eat­ing habits and foods (e.g. fries, na­chos) are psy­cho­log­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with mas­culin­ity while ‘healthy’ eat­ing habits and foods (e.g. salad, or­ganic food) are psy­cho­log­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with fem­i­nin­ity.”

Joop de Boer is a re­tired so­cial psy­chol­o­gist and guest re­searcher at VU Univer­sity in Am­s­ter­dam. “En­ergy-dense, spicy and strongly flavoured foods are per­ceived as mas­cu­line foods,” de Boer says, “while soft and sweet foods are per­ceived as fem­i­nine foods.”

Do you like to have wine or beer with din­ner? Do you have fruit or french fries with your lunch? Chances are, your an­swers could re­veal your gen­der iden­tity.

Ac­cord­ing to de Boer, mark­ers of mas­culin­ity in­clude eat­ing a burger with fries for lunch, or hav­ing pizza and beer for din­ner. Mark­ers of fem­i­nin­ity in­clude eat­ing pasta salad and fruit for lunch, or rice and veg­eta­bles with wine for din­ner.

The health im­pli­ca­tions of these choices are ob­vi­ous: Over­all, women are choos­ing foods with more fi­bre and an­tiox­i­dants, while men tend to overdo it on sat­u­rated fat and empty calo­ries. This may be be­cause women are more likely to seek out health in­for­ma­tion and, as de Boer says, buy in to in­for­ma­tion on the health as­pects of spe­cific foods — for in­stance, “su­per foods.”

De Boer sug­gests that men and women who see mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity as less sep­a­rate and strictly de­fined aren’t as dif­fer­ent in their meat pref­er­ences, while those with more tra­di­tional gen­der be­liefs are more likely to eat more meat if they’re men or to choose more sug­ar­laden desserts if they’re women.

“Our work shows that tra­di­tional fram­ings of mas­culin­ity, em­pha­siz­ing that ‘real men’ eat (red) meat, are as­so­ci­ated with the men’s pref­er­ences for large meat por­tions and al­most no will­ing­ness to re­duce,” de Boer says. For these men, “eat­ing large meat por­tions is a marker of mas­culin­ity, which re­flects tra­di­tional, pa­tri­ar­chal no­tions of power and per­for­mance.”

This deep-set be­lief could pose a se­ri­ous threat to men’s health, as re­search sug­gests that in­cor­po­rat­ing more plant-based pro­teins can im­prove health and lengthen one’s life.

Zhu’s re­search has found that re­gard­less of gen­der, peo­ple make dif­fer­ent food choices when the con­cept of mas­culin­ity or fem­i­nin­ity is brought up: “When we made the idea of mas­culin­ity salient, peo­ple pre­ferred less-healthy food. When we did so with fem­i­nin­ity, peo­ple chose health­ier food.”

As a re­sult, women tend to be more com­fort­able mak­ing the health­ier choice.

Cul­ture also af­fects gen­der roles and there­fore food choices. In re­cent re­search pub­lished in Ap­petite, de Boer and col­leagues ex­am­ined be­liefs about meat among young adults in the Nether­lands who were ei­ther sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Dutch, Chi­nese or Turk­ish. The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Turk­ish adults ex­pressed a stronger as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween meat and mas­culin­ity, while the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Dutch group held the weak­est link be­tween ideas of meat as mas­cu­line.

De Boer notes that peo­ple may try to man­age their gen­der iden­tity via food choices that could be positive or neg­a­tive. For ex­am­ple, an in­di­vid­ual might make un­healthy eat­ing choices in an at­tempt to be more mas­cu­line — a change in be­hav­iour that could have se­ri­ous health im­pli­ca­tions.

The goal of learn­ing about the af­fect of gen­der on eat­ing habits and health is to make it eas­ier to make healthy food choices. Gen­der can be a strate­gic fac­tor for both sexes.


Psy­chol­o­gist Joop de Boer sug­gests those who see mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity as less strictly de­fined have sim­i­lar meat pref­er­ences, while oth­ers are more likely to fall into stereo­typ­i­cal choices.

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