Sweet vs. Salty: Your Food Cravings May Be Determined By Your Sex

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 4:33pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

We all have certain foods that we gravitate toward when we are feeling down. Whether these foods include mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese or bon bons and chocolate cake, we call them “comfort foods” because their consumption evokes a comfortable and pleasurable state of mind. But why do certain foods comfort one person and not another? Why do women make up 92% of self-reported chocolate addicts, while only 8% are men? Recent research has attempted to shed some light on this issue. Stereotypically, women crave sweets and men crave salty foods.

What women want

Although stereotypes do not tell the whole story, they are usually derived from some truth. One reason women typically crave sweets is that these foods often involve little to no preparation. Researchers at the University of Illinois report that “because adult females are not generally accustomed to having hot food prepared for them and as children saw the female as the primary food preparer, they tend to gain psychological comfort from less labor-intensive foods such as chocolate, candy, and ice cream. "1 Whether the foods are salty or sweet, many women find comfort in them simply because they don’t have to prepare them. Therefore, these women are just as likely to find comfort in salty foods like potato chips and popcorn as they do in chocolate.

Men and mom’s cooking

What is behind a man’s cravings? Do they really find comfort in salty foods? Again, this is only part of the equation. Research shows that most men find comfort in foods associated with meals prepared by their mothers rather than from snacks and sweets. Men’s comfort foods are often reasonably nutritious, though they still may be high in calories.

Food and mood

A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders gathered information about the food cravings and eating habits of 538 women and 506 men. Upon assessing this information, they found that a majority of female cravers experienced a negative mood such as annoyance, boredom, or depression before craving episodes. In contrast, men more commonly indulged in food craving when experiencing feelings of happiness. 2 In addition, further research indicates that while women may reach for comfort foods to improve a negative mood, they are often unsuccessful. They may feel better while eating, but afterwards most women report feeling unhealthy and guilty for giving in to the craving. This is not true for men, perhaps in part because they crave meal-type foods that are usually somewhat nutritious.

Restrictions increase cravings

Food craving is reported twice as much in women as it is in men. Research indicates that the gender difference could be due to a higher degree of weight concern in women. Social pressure for thinness, which is more pronounced in women, may cause them to more frequently restrict their diets. The simple act of depriving oneself of a food can increase cravings for that food.

Conclusion: more research is needed on whether cravings are sex related

Current research has only scratched the surface of understanding how cravings develop and why men and women find comfort in a variety of foods. As studies continue to delve into the many differences between men and women, we are likely find that this is a complex issue that involves a combination of biological, chemical, and social differences between genders.

1 Wansink B, Cheney MM, Chan N. “Exploring comfort food preferences across age and gender.” Physiology and Behavior 2003;70(4-5):739-47

2 Lafay L, Thomas, F, et al. “Gender differences in the relation between food cravings and mood in an adult community: Results from the fleurbaix laventie ville sante study.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 2001;29:195-204.