He Eats, She Eats

Studies show men often celebrate with steak and pasta while women tend to seek solace in ice cream and chocolate.


On a recent day at the food court of The Mall in Columbia, 17-year-old Farnoush Samadnejad left most of her orange chicken combo on her plate. "I'm really health-conscious," the Millersville teenager said, but for one near-daily indulgence: some kind of flavored drink from Starbucks.

Across the mall, Kin Poon, 20, had just made a good dent in a double-sized burrito - and wasn't thinking twice about it. Guys, he said, don't analyze their food. "We just eat, just to fill my stomach up," the Howard Community College student said. "I'll put anything in my mouth."

When it comes to food, men and women think - and eat - differently. And though girls and women may assume they're the healthier ones, their habits may put them behind when it comes to nutrition.

A study published recently in the medical journal Physiology & Behavior found that women are slightly more likely to identify high-fat, high-sugar treats like ice cream and chocolate as "comfort" foods - and to consume them when they're feeling down. Those foods worked to soothe negative emotions, the study found, but replaced them with a new one: guilt.

Men, on the other hand, were more likely to report consuming comfort foods when they were feeling positive, and to choose treats like steak or pasta.

The differences in food choices were not as significant as the reasons behind them, said Jordan LeBel, an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and an author of the study. "What's interesting is when you look at types of emotion these foods will produce," he said.

But there were some trends that broke down by gender. "There must be something with women and ice cream," LeBel said. "When you look at men, we had things like roasts, meat-based dishes and stews. People will often associate that with childhood memories."

The younger the respondents, the more the differences between men and women seem to apply, LeBel said.

The food-court customers at The Mall in Columbia last week seemed to bear out his findings. When 16-year-old Brittney Siprajim is feeling blue, she heads for Maggie Moo's for a cup of vanilla ice cream with candy mixed in. "It makes you feel better," said the Severna Park High School senior.

But Marcos Castillo, 20, a pharmacy technician in Columbia, doesn't console himself with food. "If I feel sad or something, I don't really eat," he said. "I would go play basketball instead." If he's feeling good, though, he'll celebrate at a nice Italian restaurant.

His friend, 19-year-old Walden Turcios of Elkridge, doesn't think much about what he's eating. "Most of the time, if I'm sad, I'll go to sleep," he said.

Social patterns may have something to do with the dietary split between the sexes, too. Part of the good feeling of her ice-cream ritual comes from friends joining in to commiserate, Siprajim said. "It's, like, traditional that girls eat chocolate when they feel sad," she said.

Another study, released this fall by the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows that adolescent girls in particular lag behind their male peers in getting key nutrients from food.

The survey, called "What We Eat in America," found that more girls than boys lag in consumption of calcium, protein, magnesium, copper and zinc during their teenage years.

Their nutritional deficits often persist into adulthood, with the potential for lifelong health problems. The study, published in September, was based on data from nearly 9,000 people, gathered in 2001 and 2002.

What makes girls less likely than boys to get the nutrition they need? "They're constantly trying to lose weight," said Dr. Richard Rivlin, a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. "If you pick a diet that's lower than 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day, it's nearly impossible to get the required amount of nutrients."

In particular, that leads girls to stop drinking milk, an important source of calcium, protein and magnesium, as well as other nutrients, said Connie Weaver, a professor who heads the department of foods and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"Girls eat fewer calories so they take in fewer nutrients than boys," she said. "Girls aspire to be thinner, on average, and boys aspire to be more `buff.'"

A Swedish study published this summer found that girls were more influenced by their mothers' eating patterns than boys - and that girls also were more likely to inherit eating "pathology."

Nutritional deficits in adolescence, particularly in calcium and iron, can have lifelong effects, Rivlin said.

"The pattern of high blood pressure and serum cholestrol is set in adolescence," he said. "Adolescence is a very critical time for the storage of calcium and the building of peak bone mass."

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