At the plate

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(HOST)Commentator Rachel Johnson has been thinking a lot lately about what she calls “His & Hers Eating” – when men and women share a table and a fridge.

(JOHNSON) Restaurants are made for people-watching. I was engaged in a bit of this nosiness recently, and I observed a server bringing a middle-aged couple their dinners. He looked at the plates – not sure who had ordered what – then offered the woman the vegetarian entre and placed the beef dish in front of her male companion. What sort of gender profiling was going on here?

As it turned out, the waiter had it right: there are gender differences in food selection. Men eat more meat and bread; women consume more fruit, yogurt and diet soda. There are also gender differences in eating styles. Generally, women take smaller bites and take longer to eat than men.

Women, generally, have also been shown to eat less when they are with a desirable male partner than when they are with other women. I think I’ve moved past that. I would have spent three hungry decades if I tried to limit my intake when eating with my husband.

It’s no surprise that women are more likely than men to be on diets and are more dissatisfied with their body weight and shape. One survey found that, of those people who were a healthy weight, twenty-three percent of the women perceived themselves as overweight, while only nine percent of the men did. At the same time, of those who were actually overweight, forty-one percent of the men versus thirteen percent of the women thought their weight was just about right.

One biological fact is inescapable: most women have lower calorie needs than men, and that means we have fewer extra calories to play with. The new food pyramid labels the extra calories that are left over after our nutrient needs are met as “discretionary calories.” For my age, sex and activity level, I have 195 calories for the extras after I’ve gotten my recommended whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean meats. My 6’4″ husband has four hundred twenty-five. While I may have to choose between dessert and a glass of wine, he gets to have both. What’s fair about that? I think because most men grow up having this added flexibility, they are often more cavalier about what they eat.

As women we can be tough on ourselves, but it probably means we tend to be more attentive to our health. And with eighty-seven percent of American women saying they are the person most responsible for their household’s meals, we’re the primary gatekeepers for the food that comes into our family kitchen. I’ve been razzed over the years by my husband and sons about my plate-watching habits and my sometimes overzealous approach to good nutrition. But I know their health has benefited from my vigilance. On the other hand, by making family meals some of our happiest times together, the men in my life have helped me appreciate that great food, shared together, is so much more than just nutrients and calories.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to Eating Well magazine.

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