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Nov. 11 2009 - 11:32 am | 6,619 views | 4 recommendations | 27 comments

Women and Salads: All for Show

Strawberry eating time.

Image by Ollie Crafoord via Flickr

Why do women eat salads on dates? A new study suggests it’s all for show.

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, observed 469 individuals in 266 groups at three cafeterias on campus. Sitting at a distance of at least 10 meters (damn Canadians and their metric system), the researchers watched these people in a natural setting and recorded how many people were sitting at each table, of what gender the people were, and estimated the caloric content of what each one was eating.

The findings were pretty clear:

1) Females chose foods with significantly fewer calories when eating with men rather than women. (Note to Jezebel: word “female” is in the study!)

2) Women’s food choices weren’t affected just by a man being present, but in proportion to how many men were present — more men equaled fewer calories. (More women being present had the opposite effect on women’s calorie consumption.)

3) Neither the size of the group nor the gender make-up seemed much to affect males’ food choices.

Here’s the researchers’ take on this finding:

Our results suggest that the role of conformity in food choice and consumption may be situationally specific; it is perhaps most relevant for relatively unacquainted persons engaged in impression management, and less so when eating with potential romantic partners. This conjecture jibes with evidence that women’s food consumption affects their feelings of femininity and their own andothers’ impressions of their attractiveness…

There is a large literature suggesting that women, in particular, adjust their eating to accord with consumption stereotypes, specifically that smaller eaters are viewed more favorably. The women we observed adjusted food selection not so as to match men, but perhaps in accordance with beliefs about what men find attractive.

This certainly isn’t the only potential explanation. The study notes that the food choices in this setting were made before people sat down at their tables, so it’s not 100% certain that people knew the exact groups they’d be sitting in (though, the patterns observed in the study suggest they had at least some knowledge). And the study design had no way of determining how the people involved knew each other.

Still, the results are suggestive of the women having used their food choices as a signaling mechanism to the men at their tables. I’m actually a little surprised that the men involved didn’t perhaps eat more with women present — as a way of signaling how healthy and manly they were.

Perhaps, though, the consumption stereotypes are wrong and men don’t actually prefer women who eat like birds (it could signal an unhealthy lack of appetite, or an aversion to sensory pleasures). Perhaps women should take Homer Simpson’s advice: You don’t win friends with salad.

Have any alternate theories? Leave them in the comments…

HT: Jena Pincott


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6 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 27 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    This is so interesting! I never thought about it before – about how much I choose to eat in front of men or women.

    It sounds similar to this RadioLab I heard last year about laughter – about women laugh higher and louder when men are there. Laughter is supposed to be a way of signaling friendliness and vulnerability, so women are more likely to laugh with men. Part of it may be a man’s natural size and strength – that a woman would want to show her friendliness as to not bring on his aggression.

    I wonder if this salad deal goes back to evolution somehow, or if it’s a new phenomenon with our more recent ideal of thinness.

    • collapse expand

      Exactly. The women’s eating behavior seems to be based on some unconscious stereotype of what men expect / find desirable. This stereotype may be wrong (this could probably be tested experimentally). Or, it’s right, and it’s relatively new.

      I can’t imagine bird-like eating was seen as reproductively advantageous across all times and cultures.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I find it interesting that the womens calorie intake decreased when the number of men in the group increased. Could this be because the chance was greater that one of the men in the group would be someone she personally, based on any number of factors, find sexually viable? Maybe it is not men in general, but something more specific.

  3. collapse expand

    Oh puh-leeze! Some of us just like rabbit food, and dislike chips with our burgers. Bring on the calorific 1000 island dressing.

  4. collapse expand

    Some men really like a woman who enjoys her food, and find lettuce-nibblers unable to stake their claim to a juicy steak a little…weak.

  5. collapse expand

    The only conscious difference in eating I would make on a date would be to choose something less messy/difficult to consume…I probably wouldn’t go with ribs, for instance, or lobster (also for those other perception reasons). But I agree with Caitlin; most men I know find a woman who orders and chows a burger more second-date worthy than one who gets a side salad and diet coke.

    • collapse expand

      Would love to see the follow-up study on this, i.e. are the salad-eaters more successful in attracting men as a result of this behavior?

      Another thought: could nervousness play into their food choices? I know I’m more apt to lack an appetite when I’m anxious, and situations that require someone to be “on” are somewhat stress producing.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    But, I think, like many things, it’s a matter of owning your choice and embracing it (whatever it is) with gusto.

  7. collapse expand

    Ryan, FYI…Canadians are not the only ones using the metric system…the rest of the world is. ;o)

  8. collapse expand

    that’s a fine example of invalid conclusions. Unless you observe the same individual females in different groups, leaving all other factors equal (time of day, meals consumed in the previous 24 h, physical exertion during that period etc. etc…) you can draw none of the conclusions described. One might as well phantasize (as opposed to conclude) that salad-eating women (sorry, females) prefer dining with a lot of men, äh, males. That would nicely fit the observation that people chose their food first before settling fo a table.

  9. collapse expand

    In the book by Dr. Leonard Shlain titled ‘Sex,Time,and Power’ he proposes that one reason human females are consistently anemic is from a lifetime of blood loss (potentially 15 gallons during a lifetime) Possibly the need for red meat among females drives their sexual selection of mates in a big way. In our good old hunter gatherer days it was a man who brought the delicacies of red meat that the girls would vie for, flirt for, give favors for…and the fellas would dole out to their advantage.

    How about this idea, by having a plate full of salad we females are unconsciously signally that we have no man to provide meat for use at that particular moment,or if we do we are not guarded by him right now, or he isn’t such a great meat provider and is therefore unseat-able in our affections.

    In a place down deep inside we all may still have the impulses of a Geico caveman lurking and making us act silly at meal time. Fun thoughts.

  10. collapse expand

    I remember many years ago in my college days, I went on a date with a guy to an Italian restaurant. Not only did I eat EVERYTHING on my plate as he watched with amazement, I finished what he didn’t want. A few weeks later, he asked me to his parents home for a barbeque. Apparently he forewarned his mother about my appetite because my plate was never empty! I no longer have the appetite I had back in my 20’s but I still enjoy good food. BTW, I don’t have a weight problem either. Must be blessed with a high metabolism.

  11. collapse expand

    The funny thing is that men look at it completely the opposite way that women think. Obviously 99% of men want a thin woman. But that’s not all. . . What you want is to be on a date with a think chick and she’s chowin’ down on a 12oz steak. It’s like a chubby chick on a treadmill at the gym. Whoa, lookout. . . You want to be going out with that think chick who never goes to the gym. A chick who’s 10 pounds overweight who’s nibbling on a salad is an explosion waiting to happen. This just means she’s shoveling crap down her throat all throughout the day in the office.

  12. collapse expand

    Arabian Bean Salad
    (Ful Madammas)

    1 cup dried ful, small-size bean, rinsed and drained
    8 cups water
    1 medium ripe tomato, chopped
    1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
    1/4 cup chopped parsley
    1 cup peeled and thinly sliced yellow onion


    1/2 cup olive oil
    juice of 1 lemon
    salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

    Place the beans (ful) in a medium pot and add 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, and let stand 1 hour, covered. Drain.

    Return the ful to the pot and add 4 cups of fresh water. Bring to a boil, covered, and reduce to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes or until the beans are tender. Drain.

    Mix the beans with the tomato, garlic, parsley, and onion. Prepare the dressing and toss with the vegetables. Chill before serving. Serves 4 as a salad.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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