Does gender make a difference when it comes to the way we eat?

Does gender make a difference when it comes to the way we eat?

Restaurants are made for people-watching-where anyone with an interest in contemporary eating trends can keep an eye on the plates arriving at nearby tables. Engaged in a bit of this professional nosiness, I recently observed a server bringing a middle-aged couple their dinners. Not sure who had ordered what, he looked at the plates, then offered the woman the vegetarian entrée and placed the beef dish in front of her male companion. What sort of gender profiling was going on here?

As it turned out, the waiter had it right: there are gender differences in food selection. Men eat more meat and bread, while women consume more fruit, yogurt and diet soda. There are also gender differences in eating styles. Women take smaller bites and take longer to eat than men. When psychologists asked male and female volunteers to read sample food diaries and then make judgments about the diary writers-sight unseen, women who reported eating smaller meals were considered (by both male and female readers) to be more feminine, more concerned about their appearance and better looking than women who recorded larger meals.

Women, generally, have also been shown to eat less when they are with a desirable male partner than when they are with other women. I think I've moved past that. I would have spent three hungry decades if I tried to limit my intake when eating with my husband.

It's no surprise that women are more likely than men to be on diets and are more dissatisfied with their body weight and shape. One large survey found that, of those people who were a healthy weight, 23 percent of the women perceived themselves as overweight, while only 9 percent of the men did. At the same time, of those who were actually overweight, 41 percent of the men versus 13 percent of the women thought their weight was about right. Men are obviously more accepting of their bodies and as a result seem to have a more relaxed approach about their food choices. To compound this, studies show that women think men favor much thinner women than the men in fact say they prefer.

One biological fact is inescapable: most women have lower calorie needs than men, and that means we have fewer extra calories to play with. The new USDA MyPyramid labels the extra calories that are leftover after our nutrient needs are met as "discretionary calories." For my age, gender and activity level, I have 195 calories for the extras after I've gotten my recommended whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean meats. My husband has 425. So while I may have to choose between dessert or a glass of wine, he gets to have both. What's fair about that? I think because men grow up having this added flexibility, they are often more cavalier about what they eat. Does that make a difference to their health overall? Perhaps-American women do outlive men by about five years, but women also outlive men in virtually every country in the world, suggesting the influence of many factors other than diet.

Still, I think we can learn from each other. While as women we can be tough on ourselves, it probably means we tend to be more attentive to our health. And with 87 percent of American women saying they are the person most responsible for their household's meals, we're the primary gatekeepers for the food that comes into our family kitchens. I think the men in our lives often benefit from our vigilance. But at the same time, women's diets can improve when they share meals with men. A friend goes the extra mile to serve healthy foods at home because her physician husband makes unhealthy choices when he's on the run at the hospital. Another friend eats fewer sweet treats than she might because of her husband's aversion to sugar.

My husband and sons, like a lot of men, put a high value on convenience when it comes to eating. I try to make it easier for them to make good food choices. I usually keep washed grapes on the counter, knowing they'll be gone in no time. (If I leave them packaged up in the fridge, they often sit there and rot.) I try to keep individually packaged string cheese, baby carrots, apples and yogurt in the front of the fridge where my guys can grab them.

Some of our happiest times as a family are spent over a great meal accompanied by lively conversation and lots of good-natured teasing. I've been razzed over the years about my plate-watching habits and my sometimes overzealous approach to good nutrition. The men in my life help me appreciate that great food is much more than just nutrients and calories.

Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D. is senior nutrition advisor to EatingWell Magazine and dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.

February/March 2006