It might be bad for our health, but are men genetically programmed to choose protein-rich food?
It’s retrograde, atavistic, sexist and (according to this week’s news stories) potentially deadly, but whenever I wake up in a hotel or a bed and breakfast and am faced with the menu, the only thing I can say is “the full breakfast, please”.
This can be a full Welsh (with seaweed) or a full Scottish (with a mini haggis and white pudding) or some boutique construct like a full Salopian or a full Hull, but it’s always full, and it’s always got sausages, bacon and tomatoes, and beans too, please, and white bread, and it’s always about 1500 calories.
I’d love to say this was a purely gastronomic decision, an acknowledgement that the full breakfast is the only great British culinary invention. But that would be a lie. It’s something beyond mere cognition, but is it upbringing, marketing, physiology, psychology? Or is it gender?
What I know is that it’s not just me. Here’s Peter Sutton, a schools chaplain from Scotland: “I know I would enjoy the eggs benedict more, but sadly I usually go for the full breakfast!”
Here’s Mike Critchley, a logistics consultant from Burtonwood, Cheshire: “It all depends on the previous evening’s intake of toxins. The full monty is the cure for a shedload of beer. Having said that, when I’m with Dianne [his veggie girlfriend] I’ll go for the healthy option. But I’d never eat muesli – it’s vile!”
Here’s Robert Greig, a social media manager: “Full English, white toast, fried egg, tomatoes not beans. Anything less is not good value for money.”
So is it a man thing? Are males instinctively drawn to bacon and sausages in a way that females aren’t? According to Lucy Cooke, a senior research associate at London University’s Health Behaviour Research Centreand an expert on children’s food preferences, the differences may start very young.
“There do seem to be some differences in the preferences of children. We did a survey on over 1000 kids from 5-16 years and at all ages girls liked fruit and vegetables more than boys, and boys liked protein food more than girls. This might be partly the result of differing energy needs – boys are generally more active than girls and therefore need more energy from food – but also that girls tend to respond in what they perceive to be a more socially acceptable way, so they claim healthier food preferences.”
This early and rather subtle combination of bodily urges and mental messages accompanies us into adulthood. There may also be a physiological factor associated with the smell and taste of certain foods and drinks.
Cardiff University’s Tim Jacob, an expert on the psychophysiology of smell, says, “Women of reproductive age can dramatically sensitise to odour stimuli following repeated testing, while their male counterparts will not. This is thought to be due to the interplay of hormonal and cognitive factors – that is, they focus their attention.”
Additionally, more women than men are “supertasters”, says Jacob, meaning they possess a genetically inherited sensitivity to a bitter compound known as n-PROP. “People who have supertaster status perceive bitter substances are extremely intense, whereas normal tasters can detect the stimulus, but do not rank the intensity particularly high.
“Supertasters tend to avoid bitter substances because they are too intense. Food such as broccoli, soy, Brussels sprouts, and green tea are examples of food items that may be avoided or rejected by supertasters.”
So there may be something genuinely butch – physiologically speaking – about bitter food and strong curries, accounting for men’s enjoyment of the now sadly banned Bombay duck, some of the more sulphurous real ales and slabs of Stinking Bishop cheese. Women, meanwhile, get to smell nappies at long distances and drink Baileys and Malibu.
It may seem old-fashioned to parcel women off to a world of chocolate, yoghurt and cupcakes, while men carve up the meat and eat all the pies. But food is still not a very good feminist.
“Studies dating from the 1950s to the present day have shown reliable gender differences in food preferences,” says Dominic Dwyer, a lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology. “They are quite stunningly stereotypical, showing female preferences for salads and vegetables versus male preferences for red and processed meats. There is also a less reliably observed preference for spicy food in men.”
Talk to the real experts – the men and women who work on supermarket tills – and they’ll back this up. The origins of the dichotomy are less likely to be male hunter-female gatherer relations than the fact that our ancestors were farmhands and colliers.
As Professsor Brendan Gough of Leeds Metropolitan University’s School of Social, Psychological & Communication Sciences puts it, “Traditionally, men see food as ‘fuel’ and prefer large portions of meat-based product – a diet associated with bodily strength, physical labour, and masculinity.” That we might indulge in a full breakfast at weekends puts a fittingly ironic slant on this dish, since we are likely to be doing nothing more strenuous afterwards that taking a walk in the park or hosing the car.
“We live in an age where men can be vegetarians, refrain from alcohol consumption and avoid competitive sport without much if any threat to their masculine identity,” says Gough. “But at the same time, more men than women still opt for the full English breakfast, the burger-and-fries, and the barbeque experience. Although for increasing numbers of men these indulgences will be occasional treats in an otherwise fairly healthy, balanced diet.”