Saturday, January 8, 2011

What is 'man food'?

Food is culture. Methods for growing, storing, distributing, choosing, preparing, eating and even thinking about foods are learned, shared and passed down from one generation to the next.

It's also cultural in the sense that we associate food with specific types of people. People with certain socio-economic status, region and ethnicity are assumed to favor specific foods. For example, suan cai, kimchi, sauerkraut and curtido are four methods for fermenting cabbage and other vegetables, associated respectively with Chinese, Korean, German and Salvadoran cultures. In the United States, fried chicken is Southern. Hot sauce is Western. Clam chowder is North-Eastern. Caviar is rich-people food. Red Bull is for young people. Sprouted barley is a "hippy" thing if eaten, but not if drunk (beer is made from sprouted barley, water, yeast, and flavored with hops).

The association of specific kinds of foods with specific kinds of people is harmless, unless people receive and accept the message that "people like you are supposed to eat junk food – healthy food is for those other people." And this is exactly what's happening. A culture of "man food" has arisen, aided and abetted by aggressive product marketing, which is contributing to the health crisis.

Differences in food preferences between American men and women were detailed in a 2008 population survey of the Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) that found, in general, a male preference for meat and a female preference for fruits and vegetables.

This study barely scratches the surface of the national gender divide over food. For example, while men are more likely to prefer meat than women, we have observed gender differences over the type of meat, with men more likely to prefer unhealthier meats like pork and beef, and women more likely to prefer “lighter” and “whiter” meats like fish and chicken. Women are more than men likely to advocate vegetarianism, veganism, organic foods and salads. Men are more likely than women to prefer fast food, barbequed meats and fried foods.

Like so many of these things, it’s not clear how much of all this is biological, and how much cultural. To be sure, food marketing is aware of them, and uses these gender differences to sell food products.

One example is a recent marketing campaign for the Nutrisystem diet plan, which has separate versions for women and men. Nutrisystem provides pre-cooked meals that dieters eat, so Nutrisystem is not just an approach to dieting but also a food distribution company. The lead-in on the Nutrisystem home page advertises the women’s plan like this: “Eat The Foods You Love. Yes! You can eat chocolate every day and still lose weight!” The plan for men, on the other hand, read like this: “Mmm…MAN FOOD! Eat burgers, pizza, pot roast -- and still lose weight!”

Nutrisystem’s marketing department is skillfully taping into cultural norms as they relate to food and gender. Women, for example, may not want to diet if it involves giving up chocolate. Men may not want to diet if it involves eating “effeminate” foods, like salads, light pastas and other standard “diet” fare.

The actual menus for men and women have more or less that same stuff. But the packaging and even the order they list things on the web site are designed to appeal to cultural associations between food and gender.

The absurd and largely unexamined foundation of, say, beef as a "man food" is that beef is high in protein, protein is associated with muscle strength, which is associated with masculinity. And beef is associated with Western cattle culture, the cattle drive, rodeo, the frontier and rugged individualism.

The problem is that the cultural association doesn't match reality.

Beef is high in protein, but it's a bad source of protein because of what else you get with it. Most beef in the supermarket comes from cows fed genetically modified grain mixed with chicken parts, feathers, feces and even beef fat. They're typically injected with antibiotics and steroids to maximize the amount of sellable flesh that each animal can produce.

Cows have been selectively bred over the centuries to be passive, docile, fatty and slow. Unlike wild game meats, which tend to have very high ratios of protein to fat, and don't come with a payload of toxic chemicals, beef is a "soft food" that if eaten to excess makes you fat, sick and weak.

Beef is associated with a long list of cancers, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, bladder cancer and prostate cancer. Beef has been linked to high blood pressure, cardio vascular disease, bone loss, type 2 diabetes and arthritis.

Beef, as well as the whole range of incredibly fatty "man foods," have been linked to infertility in men. One study found that women who ate a lot of beef during pregnancy were more likely to produce boys with lower sperm counts.

In general, "man foods" are laden with bad fats and toxic chemicals. These are the kinds of foods that contribute to diabetes, kidney disease, atherosclerosis, vascular disease, heart disease, which are diseases that cause erectile dysfunction. Many of the drugs prescribed to combat these diseases, including blood pressure medication, are also linked to erectile dysfunction. 

Even though a cultural association remains between beef and rugged outdoor living, the connection defies logic. The passively bred animals walk right up the ramp and into the factory, where a mechanized, assembly line process kills the animals for dismemberment.

To acquire this flesh, you go shopping. You acquire it in exactly the same way one buys toilet paper or laundry detergent. What a man!

So there's the paradox. The foods culturally assigned as "man foods" cause lower sperm counts, man breasts, erectile dysfunction, pot bellies, muscle weakness, disease and early death.

We believe it's time for a cultural re-set. We believe that real "man foods" are foods that lead to manly outcomes: virility, strength, athleticism, independence and health.