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The Problem With Equating Nachos With Macho

Our food choices are determined in part by gender stereotypes. But new research finds we can turn this to our advantage.
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(Photo: d8nn/Shutterstock)

(Photo: d8nn/Shutterstock)

Having trouble losing weight? Well, here's a method to inspire healthy eating I can guarantee you haven't tried: Before settling down to make, or order, your next major meal, turn on YouTube and watch a two-minute clip from Swan Lake.

Or if a pas de deux doesn't appeal to you, spend a minute or two on a retail site checking out new lines of lipstick or perfume. (Guys can think of this as researching potential presents for their partners.)

You can then return to your normal mealtime routine. But when clearing the dishes, note what you chose to consume. Chances are you picked something lighter, and better for you, than is your custom.

Based on deep-seated stereotypes, we tend to think of health-conscious eating as "feminine" behavior, and chowing down regardless of the consequences as "masculine." Newly published research suggests we can use this to our advantage by simply bringing to mind concepts associated with femininity—such as ballet—before sitting down to eat.

Could it be that our stereotypes about what "real men" eat solidified some 125 years ago, helping to propel us down our destructive dietary path?

"Subtly activated gender stereotypes do in fact influence food choices," a research team led by Luke Zhu of the University of Manitoba writes in the journal Social Psychology. What's more, its first-of-its-kind study found the effect works equally on men and women.

The results suggest anti-obesity campaigns could be made more effective by factoring in "the ways in which appealing to cultural beliefs can shape food choices."

The study featured 93 adults recruited at a public park in Connecticut, each of whom was randomly assigned to unscramble 10 short sentences. For one-third of the participants, these included such manly words as "football," "moustache" and "hunting." For another third, the sentences featured such feminine terms as "perfume," "lipstick" and, yes, "ballet." The final third unscrambled gender-neutral sentences.

All were then asked to rate (on a one-to-seven scale) the degree to which they preferred a specific healthy food item as opposed to a similar non-healthy one: baked vs. fried chicken, baked vs. fried fish, a baked potato vs. French fries, and regular vs. low-fat chips.

Participants were subsequently given a list of 10 foods (five healthy, such as spinach, and five unhealthy, such as donuts) and asked to rate their likelihood of eating each over the next month. Finally, they indicated their willingness to try to eat healthier in general.

The key result: Both men and women who unscrambled the masculine words, and therefore had male-related concepts in the front of their minds, "were significantly more likely to prefer unhealthy versions of the food" compared to those who were exposed to the feminine words.

They were also "significantly more likely to report a preference for unhealthy foods" than those who had unscrambled the female-oriented terms.

The apparent reason for this—our strong, if irrational, association of "normal" eating habits with one gender or the other—was confirmed in a second study. It found participants preferred products that are packaged to conform with gender stereotypes, such as an unhealthy pastry labeled a "mega muffin" and offered in a box illustrated with football players. Such items actually tasted better to the study participants than identical ones presented in gender-incongruent packaging.

These findings take on more urgency in the light of a separate paper published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. It finds the well-established fact that women tend to live longer lives than men is a relatively recent phenomenon, which emerged in people born after 1880. The authors attribute this to increased rates of heart disease among men, due in part to "changes in diet and other lifestyle factors."

Hmm. Could it be that our stereotypes about what "real men" eat solidified some 125 years ago, helping to propel us down our destructive dietary path? If so, it's clearly time for some reprogramming.

So before picking up your fork, take a moment to get in touch with your feminine side. That pizza may lose its appeal after you've watched a perfect pirouette.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.