A new study suggests that women are more likely to consume less calories at mealtime if they're in the company of men.
At McMaster University in Hamilton, Researchers observed 469 people sitting down at tables either alone or with others during lunch and supper times for four weekdays during the course of one week at three large cafeterias.
Observers used a technique called scan sampling, looking around the room and gathering all the data that happens to be there in the moment. Researchers recorded the gender of individuals and all the food items in front of each person. Food items such as fries, fruit, hamburgers, pasta, pizza, and salad. Beverages were excluded.
Based on information they obtained from the management of each cafeteria, the food items were converted into caloric equivalents.
When women ate with other women they averaged about 670 calories. However, when eating with a male, the average dipped to 550 calories.
Lead author Meredith Young said the effect grows with group size. In mixed-gender groups, women averaged about 450 calories, far fewer than the average of 700 to 750 calories in the company of an all-female group.
"When women eat with women, there's little difference between how much they eat and how much men eat," she said Wednesday from Montreal.
"However, if there's a gentleman present at all in the group – so whether they're eating with a partner who's a male or whether there's a male in a larger social eating group – they start to reduce the caloric value of the food they're choosing to eat.""
Young said the study findings weren't surprising, and that there's research
demonstrating that women are seen as more attractive when eating smaller meals.
Researchers wrote that women who were observed "adjusted food selection not so as to match men, but perhaps in accordance with beliefs about what men find attractive."
"If you see the same woman eating a meatball sandwich and the same woman eating a salad, that same woman when she's eating a salad is not only seen as more attractive, but she's given more positive personality characteristics," Young said.
Young said intuitions of how women behave seem to fit with a proposed hypothesis in the study – that food is a way to signal to a potential mate.
"These are undergraduate students (and) ... very few of them are in long-term relationships, so it's possible that food is acting as a cue or a signal of attractiveness to other potential mates, which might be why we see this decrease in caloric intake with the increasing number of men around.
Gwen Chapman, associate professor in food, nutrition and health at the University of British Columbia said, Women can feel they're being judged by what they eat and don't want to be viewed as someone who eats too much – particularly in relation to men."
"I think there are a lot of messages that are still promoted in society about what women should look like, and that there's a very strong relationship that's perceived between what people eat and what they look like," she said from Vancouver.
"What their body looks like, particularly for women, is really crucial in terms of finding a mate potentially and the way that you're judged by potential partners, potential friends."
Chapman has conducted some research regarding gender and food and said people in Canada are somewhat resistant to the idea there are gender differences or societal expectations about how women might eat versus men.
"If you ask people directly they might say, 'No, it doesn't make a difference,' but what this study shows is that there are differences, whether people are aware of them or not.
Researchers did not record whether the food observed was consumed. And Young said there are other possible variables such as whether individuals finished their dishes, snacked from someone else's plate or even ate before they arrived, potentially curbing their appetite.
"Those other factors might be coming into play, but I don't think those other factors could fully explain the kinds of results that we found."
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