Gender tied to diet decisions of blacks

Girls thought to get more emotional support than boys at mealtime


RICHMOND, Va. - Emotional support may help African-American girls switch to healthier diets but could have a reverse effect on boys, according to a new study.

In an effort to find ways to help young African-Americans modify their diets and prevent hypertension later in life, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University enrolled 184 adolescents in a five-day, intensive, low-sodium diet and analyzed the role social support played in achieving dietary compliance.

Hypertension, especially prevalent among African-Americans, can lead to coronary disease and stroke but can be controlled through medication, lifestyle and dietary changes, including reduction of salt.

The study found girls who successfully followed the low-sodium diet reported having more emotional support from their family than did the boys. In contrast, boys who followed the diet reported lower levels of support than those who did not stick with it.

High blood pressure

"We are concerned about the epidemic proportions of high blood pressure in the African-American community and believe one way to stem the tide is to help young people develop good dietary habits," said lead author Dawn K. Wilson. "We found that positive emotional support had a greater effect on the girls, suggesting gender-specific interventions may need to be developed."

The researchers published their findings in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Participants in the study, all healthy African-Americans, included 83 boys and 101 girls, between the ages of 13 and 16. The scientists measured the youths' blood pressure and presented them with guidelines for a five-day, sodium-restricted diet, which eliminated fast foods and cured and processed meats. The participants were encouraged to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods.

Study's methods

Each child kept a food diary. They also filled out a questionnaire indicating what types of verbal support or negative comments were made by family and friends and how frequently these occurred. At the end of the five days, diet compliance was measured through a urine sample.

"It is possible the gender differences we found in dietary compliance and social support may be due to variations in coping styles of African-American boys and girls during stressful situations such as restricting sodium intake," Wilson said.

"Studies have demonstrated that girls are more likely than boys to engage in intimate talks with peers and adults while boys are socialized to receive more task-focused rather than emotional support, even perceiving such social support as negative," Wilson said.

More research is necessary, according to the scientists, to better understand the mechanisms of social support on dietary compliance.

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