Last month, National Geographic declared, with the help of an exploitive picture of a pink-clad transgender child, that America is in the midst of a gender revolution. Everything, it seems, is now being looked at through the lens of gender, including our choices about what to eat.
According to a recent article in the Washington Post written by dietician Christy Brissette, men and women choose food based not on what they want or what tastes good, but because of “gendered beliefs” about food, “socially influenced eating patterns” and subtle “social messaging.” These gendered decisions, claims the Post writer, are killing men and making women eat “like birds.”
Brissette cites research from the University of Manitoba that—get ready for a shock—“women have healthier eating habits than men” (any wife could have told you that!) and that a man’s decision to choose a side of fries over a side salad is a “learned response,” not a matter of appetite.
“Based on the research of his group and others, Zhu says in an email, ‘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. . . .
‘Energy-dense, spicy and strongly flavored foods are perceived as masculine foods . . . while soft and sweet foods are perceived as feminine foods.”
That’s true enough, but what Brissette seems to miss is that there are some basic biological differences between men and women when it comes to daily intake of calories and needed nutrients. The rather less dramatic, though thoroughly gendered fact is, women need fewer calories than men (women need about 2,000 calories a day, men need around 2,800 calories per day). Menalso require higher total intake of certain macronutrients, whereas women need more vitamins and minerals. Because women give birth, they need to guard against osteoporosis by taking in more calcium. Post-menopausal woman also require more calcium than males and women also have a greater need for iron compared to men due to menstruation.
Brissette also ignores what feminists have been complaining about for years—that women deal with greater pressure to look a certain way and stay slim. Feminist writer and fat acceptance activist Lindy West acknowledged the pressures put on women when she talked about her own search for perfection, saying, “Chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman, and I would never know what it was like—this thing, this most important thing for girls.” Maybe this is the reason many women choose salad over fries?
Brissette also treats men as if they’ve been locked in a bunker for fifty years and have no idea how to cook or even know the basics about nutrition. She suggests men need to be encouraged, cajoled, even tricked into thinking that eating broccoli and cooking are fine, manly things to do. But that’s a message that men are already hearing quite frequently. Just take a look at the movies these day—men cook! Or turn on the Food Network and look at the number of men . . . cooking! In fact, cooking is a pretty common hobby for men. Even men’s magazines included cooking sections and recipes. Men’s magazines are also filled with another subject Brissette might think only interests women: how to lose weight.
Brissette’s clearly worried about the gender limits of foods and she makes some fair points in her article about how we make our food decisions. But before you ruin a dinner party spending too much time worrying if you’re making a gendered decision by ordering the steak instead of the quinoa bowl, take it easy when it comes to food. Eat smart, get your veggies, and get off the couch.
And leave the gender debates to the women’s studies departments.