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Putting the MEN in Menu

New research suggests men opt for foods associated with a masculine identity — even if it means passing up something they prefer.
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We all know that real men don’t eat quiche. But their antipathy for the inoffensive egg dish has more to do with symbolism than taste or texture.

As a recent article on points out, many food items are associated with one gender or the other. While hormones may play a role in some choices, the fact these preferences differ from one culture to another suggests the phenomenon is mainly a matter of socialization.

Boys learn at an early age that certain foods (red meat, beer) are associated with masculinity, while others (fish, vegetables, yogurt) are considered feminine. Eating gender-appropriate grub becomes a way of affirming one’s manliness. As they grow into men, those choices gradually become habitual.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which suggests the association of certain foods with masculine norms drives men’s culinary choices well into adulthood. David Gal and James Wilkie of Northwestern University conclude that for certain consumer goods, including food, men “tend to forgo their intrinsic preferences to conform to a masculine gender identity.”

In contrast, women “appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices,” they add in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In one experiment, 163 undergraduates (51 males, 112 females) were asked to choose between 16 pairs of food items on a menu. Some had to make a choice within 10 seconds; others could take as long as they wanted.

Each pair of items featured a “masculine” and a “feminine” dish. They were differentiated by ingredients (heavy gravy or white wine sauce), name (“Western salad” vs. “nature salad”) or descriptions (“hearty” vs. “luscious”).

As expected, the “feminine” dishes were chosen more often by women, whether they had 10 seconds or all day to choose. But men who had more time to make up their minds were significantly more likely to choose “masculine” food than those who had to make an on-the-spot decision.

To Gal and Wilkie, this suggests that given sufficient time, men — consciously or otherwise — consider the gender-norm implications of their dining options and choose accordingly.

In another experiment, featuring 100 males and 287 females, participants performed an experiment designed to either affirm or undermine their gender identity. They then took part in a similar study pairing “masculine” and “feminine” drinks and desserts.

Men who had their gender identity threatened, and were given time to make a choice, were the most likely to choose the “masculine” foods and beverages. Again, this effect was not observed among men who had to make a quick decision, or among women in any category.

Why is this dynamic exclusive to men? Gal and Wilkie note that previous research has found boys are more likely than girls to be rewarded for gender-appropriate behavior, and punished for deviating from expected standards. In their view, such evidence suggests “the path of least resistance” for boys is to “choose options that best conform to gender norms.”

The pairs of food items offered to test participants were deliberately chosen to be similar in terms of perceived healthiness. But given that “masculine” foods such as steak and alcohol tend to be less nutritious than “feminine” ones such as fish and vegetables, it seems worthwhile to explore potential ways of altering these gender associations.

Diet is only one component of good health, of course. But it’s worth noting that, compared to those quiche-eating women, real men die sooner.